Questions that people ask the Dean, and the answers that I give

Question marks

I was interviewed for the job of Dean of Science some years ago in December of 2004, shortly before Christmas.  I was asked a number of questions, which I admit now to having largely forgotten.  Even at the time, I remember being preoccupied by the coming Holiday season.  But, with hindsight, I see this was a turning point.  Since then, many of the questions I have been asked are asked because I’m the Dean.  A lot of these are paperwork things like, can a dossier be a day late, or can the Faculty contribute to some project, or something like that.  A surprising number are not though.

The first blog post I wrote in 2009 concerned my answer to this question: “Will the CERN collider create a black hole which will end all life as we know it?”  (The answer is still no, by the way.)  I still get this question, although the CERN collider has been running for years and has now found evidence for the Higgs boson, or some other new particle pretty darn similar to the Higgs (the discovery team includes McGill scientists from the Department of Physics).  In any case, you will have noticed that a black hole has not been created, and the universe has not been destroyed.

The other questions I get are a little more personal, my answers are only somewhat evasive.  I think the questions are more interesting than my answers.

Here is a common question I get from undergraduates and professors: “Do you do any teaching, do you still do research?”  I reply that I don’t do any classroom lecturing, but I still do research with my graduate students.  My administrative work makes it hard to keep up with research, but I am doing my best.  Regarding classroom lecturing, it is not that I don’t have time – obviously I have time to write these silly blog posts – but my schedule changes on a daily basis, and I cannot commit to regular slots.  I realize the real question is, “Are you a professional administrator?”  The answer is no, I am sort-of an accidental administrator, whose previous relevant experience involved a lot of standing in front of students at a blackboard, and fiddling with stochastic equations with my graduate students.   I am a strong believer in the value of accidental administrators in Universities.

Alumni, family, friends, and people outside the University, ask this: “What does a Dean do?”  As I have written before, the Dean is the political actor for the Faculty of Science, and hence is responsible for bringing the community to decisions – one way or another.  Perhaps an anecdote will make this clear.  Years ago, just as I started as Dean, a colleague – let’s call him Chuck – made some good-humored fun at my expense at a Departmental party; I walked over, put my arm around his shoulder and said to him and to the room, “Chuck, you will love me.  And you will fear me.”  The laughter increased.

Finally, here is the most common question I get: “Do you like being Dean?”  Whenever I am asked I say yes, of course, although my questioners seem vaguely unsatisfied with this answer and, again, I think this is not their real question.  Indeed, I find this question the most curious of all.  And with that, I will sign off.

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