On Shovelling and Other Duties


Recently I was shovelling our car out of a pile of snow. This was, as usual, a neighbourhood bonding exercise: middle-aged men and women like to take breaks from shovelling, and like to catch up on family events. One neighbour asked me about my family’s holidays, and I asked about her family, and so on. Then she asked me about my job as Dean, how long was it for, how long had I done it and so forth.

I told her I have been doing my job for five years now and had agreed to do another five-year term. With a puzzled expression, my neighbour then asked me the same question many of my family and friends, and indeed my University colleagues ask me: What does a Dean do?

Unlike my answer to the question of whether the CERN collider would create a black hole which would end all life as we know it (No, by the way), this question remains difficult for me.

I answered, after some hesitation, that I was responsible for the Faculty of Science.

This was and is a little unsatisfactory; it is like saying the person responsible for the Faculty is responsible for running the Faculty. In any event, this appeared to only puzzle my neighbour further. Although we returned to our shovelling duties, I continued to ponder my role in the Faculty of Science.

As Dean, the authority I have in my sphere of influence allows me to do things, with my community and for my community. A University is different from other political communities. McGill’s Science Faculty includes, without exaggeration—and particularly in light of our recent massive faculty renewal—the world’s brightest and most committed students, staff and scientists.

As is common with bright, committed people, they are independent, and have their own ideas. This is the strength of McGill’s Faculty of Science. My job, my political role —to finally answer my neighbour’s question—is to harness and focus that strength, to facilitate the success of my colleagues. And, later, my job is to recognize that success.

Over the last five years, we have made great progress—as much and often more through the leadership of the Chairs, Associate Deans, Directors, individual professors, support staff, and students as from my own work—which is part of what I meant about harnessing and focusing. Let me briefly summarize some of these things.

The Faculty’s accomplishments include making undergraduate research a hallmark of our Faculty, recognizing and retaining great staff, seeding successful research priorities; and, to support and build on our achievements, we have received donations from our friends and alumni at a level never before seen. I am proud to be the Dean of Science.

Going forward in the Faculty, we have things to do and I feel a sense of urgency to get them done. Our success has given rise to further opportunities. To advance our international mission, besides involvement with Asia, Europe, and the United States, we will build upon our successful programs in Africa, central and South America. We will advance from engagement with the public by outreach, to a full eye-to-eye engagement with public policy in the world. We will strengthen our ties to other Faculties, as Science is done in practically all Faculties at McGill. We will use the strength of commitment philanthropy gives us. And we will use our academic influence and leadership in partnership with other Universities, particularly those in our province. We will advance our research agenda, utilizing the strength obtained from our recent renewal.

In a nutshell: we will make a difference. Time is short, but five years is enough time to make that difference.

As I finished my shovelling and got into my car, my neighbour may have caught me smiling. In fact, I had forgotten all about the snow and was contemplating the achievements of the students, staff and scientists—my colleagues—in the Faculty of Science.

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