Toppermost of the poppermost

Student Holding Successful Exam PaperMcGill aspires to be one of the world’s Grande Ecoles.  How do we get there, from where we are now?  When I started as Dean of Science several years ago, this is something to which I gave a lot of thought, and I still think about it a lot. A meeting I had with a Dean at another University from Europe when I started snapped this into focus for me.

At the time, both of us were young (in Dean years) newly-minted academic administrators – or more precisely, and with the benefit of hindsight, both of us were know-nothing, overly-aggressive academic administrators, who thought we had all the solutions to all issues.  Both our institutions were highly ranked on respected international scales.   And both of us were committed to moving our Faculties up in those rankings.

My European colleague had a plan that she shared with me.  Her plan was to break the conventional model of how universities work, and how they have worked since the Enlightenment.  She was going to bring in professional researchers to do research, professional teachers to teach, and professional managers to manage.  She would keep all these operations separate.

My reaction – as an academic administrator whose previous management experience had involved a fair bit of fiddling with stochastic differential equations and standing in front of students holding a piece of chalk – was instinctive and immediate:  great, now there is one school less between where McGill is now and where we are going.  My colleague was, in my view, completely wrong-headed.

Universities have been here for a long time.  The most successful of them are not those that separate teaching, research, and administration.  The most successful ones are those where, in particular, the top researchers are the top teachers, and the top teachers are the top researchers.  This is the standard to which we aspire in the Faculty of Science at McGill.

Sometimes our faculty hits this goal astoundingly well.  While I have been Dean, the winners of our Leo Yaffe award for teaching have been Professors Chris Barrett from Chemistry, Mathieu Blanchette from Computer Science, Hanadi Sleiman from Chemistry, Laurie Hendren from Computer Science, and Paul Wiseman from Chemistry and Physics.  Great and inspiring teachers all of them.  But take a look at their research web pages:

These are great and inspiring researchers as well – and I leave it as a task for you to find the academic administrator amongst them!

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