Soup and science and the demographics of academic hiring

Auditorium view of Soup and Science

Full house at Soup and Science.

It was an idea copied from the Departments, arising indirectly from the great demographic changes of the twentieth century.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was a massive wave of retirements at McGill. The retiring professors had been hired thirty to forty years earlier to teach the similarly massive influx of students in the 1960s who were born shortly after the second-world war, the baby-boomers. But after these students moved through our system, Universities found they had more professors than they needed. Exacerbating this in Québec was the establishment of CEGEPs at the end of the 1960s, our junior college system. CEGEPs teach the equivalent of grade 12 and first-year University – after the CEGEPS were established, McGill taught a three-year program to Québec students, rather than a four-year program. Hence, going into the 1970s, McGill had way more professors than necessary. In my Department, Physics, as a characteristic example, no professor was hired between 1970 and 1985.

Those hired through 1970 retired in the early part of this century, and a hiring boom hit McGill, unlike any seen since the 1960s. The boom was worldwide, but more intense here because the CEGEP system had suppressed hiring earlier, and more intense in Canada compared to our main friends and competitors in the United States, as they struggled, simultaneously looking inwards and striking outwards with foreign wars, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, followed by a deep recession.

So all that history, from 1945 to the beginning of this century – bracketed by wars, and defined by families wanting their children to have a better life through education – had the prosaic result at McGill of, literally, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of new academic hires, year by year, in a climate where we were looking and other Universities were not. We did very well, and now have a cadre of renewed professors second to none. This is what has changed at McGill. What has not changed is the main defining strength of our institution, the quality of our students, particularly our undergraduate students. They are second to none, and have been second to none for almost two centuries.

When I started as Dean in 2005, all of this was and has remained my preoccupation: How do we leverage these gains from happenstance with our historical strengths?

We did many things, some successful, some not. The prettiest thing we did, and the one that was an immediate success, was our undergraduate research program, set up in 2005/2006. When we set this up, it felt exactly like hitting a baseball out of the park, the perfect crack of an authoritative and correct idea. Now, most graduating BSc students have a mark from a research course on their academic transcript and all tenure candidates in Science devote part of their tenure submission files to undergraduate research activities.

In January of 2006, we put into place the last element of this undergraduate research program: Soup and science, which now takes place over lunchtime for a week at the beginning of each term. Each day, Monday through Friday, four or five professors make three-minute presentations to students. After the presentations, students can talk to the professors about their research over soup and sandwiches. Every day the professors are different. The event advertises to students and professors the opportunities and the value the University places in undergraduates becoming involved in research.

It was an idea copied from the Departments. We hired so many high-quality young people, so quickly, that we lost track of who were students and who were professors. Departments had mixers for faculty to meet their new colleagues over coffee and cookies. As ice-breakers, all profs would give a one or two-minute presentation on their research, so people would have something to talk to each other about.

Professor Debra Titone

Professor Debra Titone speaks with students over lunch at Soup and Science.

Soup and Science is different from the Departmental events in interesting ways. First, when the professors – especially young professors – begin to talk, the auditorium is completely quiet. An intense identification takes place in the room between the professors and students, not that different from the intense identification that takes place between big sisters or big brothers and their younger siblings. After the talks, the students almost literally mob the professors. Second, the professors are distracted by the students, and by the constraint of speaking for only three minutes, they are completely unselfconscious – and hence give some of the best talks I have ever heard: they talk about why they do things, not what they are doing.

Finally, there is one last thing. I asked that people be invited randomly to the event, in unrelated fields. But on many occasions I have been surprised to hear a mathematician, then a biologist, then a geographer, and then a young computer science professor all give three-minute talks on the same pressing scientific issue. It turns out there are five or six grand-challenge problems in science today, such as sustainability, biodiversity, how the brain works, and other topics – only five or six in total – and whatever one’s nominal background, our young scientists are taking a run at those grand challenges. And, in consequence, McGill has skin in the game of these world-changing grand challenges with, as I said, young professors and students who are second to none. Working together.

Looking to the past shows that unexpected world-shaking events can give rise to unexpected consequences, and unexpected opportunities. Are we ready for the uncertain future at McGill, are we prepared for success, whatever may come? As I’ve written elsewhere, yes we are. If we prepare for less, we will surely achieve that. If we prepare for success, and we are steadfast, we will achieve that instead. For we are renewed, we are strong, we will succeed.

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