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Life after Pennycook
Anthony Masi keeps being asked to take on new jobs. But before he can start one, it seems as if something even more tempting always comes along. "It's been a strange summer," he concedes.
First it was Dean of Arts Carman Miller wanting Masi, a sociology professor and former associate dean (academic), to take on the job of associate dean (resources and technology). Before he could settle into that job, however, Vice-Principal (Academic) Luc Vinet began courting Masi, a specialist in labour market flexibility, to take on another newly created position: associate vice-principal (academic staff and planning). In other words, Vinet was looking for help with the massive mandate of academic renewal he'll have to deal with in the years ahead: hiring 100 new academics per year for the next 10 years.
Masi leapt at the opportunity and was happy to be a representative of the Faculty of Arts in the senior administration. He worked for the month of June on the job, writing six drafts of the renewal plan, then took his vacation.
While away, he received a call from Principal Bernard Shapiro: Bruce Pennycook was leaving his position as vice-principal (information systems and technology) to become CEO of the Montreal-based HBE Software Inc., a tech firm started by a former music student of Pennycook's. Did Masi want the VP's job?
The offer was tempting. What to do? Both jobs were "important," says Masi. One was for a three-year term, the other was only in an "acting" capacity. But the uncertainty regarding the term of the latter didn't perturb him.
"I've been active with computers in my own faculty and I've been critical of some decisions made in the James Building. It's a job that needs to be done and it's a nice opportunity," says Masi, conceding that both jobs had their attractions: one, to Masi the labour specialist and two, to Masi the long-time computer user, former director of the Faculty of Arts Computer Services and tireless advocate of the appropriate use of computers in the academic environment.
"I was drawn to IST (information systems and technology) and I thrive on challenges," notes Masi, who says he sees the portfolio as a continuation of the 10 years he has spent developing computing services in his faculty -- the largest at McGill -- for both academic staff and students.
One of the things that reassures members of the University's IST infrastructure about Masi is the fact that he knows what it means to determine the needs of a particular community and to provide support services to its members.
"He started as the stockboy and worked his way up," says Grant Philp, arts computer network coordinator. "First he was a user, then he established the labs, then was associate dean. He remembers his roots and is in touch with users' concerns and has concern for their support level."
Masi, who began using computers in his undergraduate days when punch cards ruled, believes the Faculty of Arts is "a microcosm of what's happening on campus.
"I think we anticipated some of the trends which are now followed at the university level," he says. "We have general purpose labs, instructional labs, local area networks (LANs) for professors, and our own web server.We have almost everything except the sort of high-performance computing you find in engineering."
Masi also anticipated that the fact that more and more students now have their own computers means that the University needs more, not fewer, computers in libraries, labs, hallways, etc. "Students need to be able to read their email, to send their work back and forth. Not everyone has a laptop."
Still, Arts is but one faculty and the University is a far bigger, far more complex community of computer users. How is Masi going about making the transition?
According to Doug Jackson, director of Information Systems Resources, he's doing a lot of listening. "So far, he's wide open, listening and collecting information. The first thing he wants to do is wipe away his preconceptions as to what's gone on."
Jackson is particularly concerned that the lines of communication between the VP's office and the various components and user groups under IST stay open "both ways.
"We're a very diverse and disparate community of users doing an incredible variety of things; the VP has to be sure to listen to all, not just the squeaky wheels. There are a lot of quiet people out there with good ideas and they've got to be included in the process."
In Jackson's experience, what has gone on in the past two and a half years under Pennycook's supervision has been very positive. "The nice thing about working with Bruce was that he didn't come with all sorts of administration baggage, just lots of enthusiasm. He was almost naïve in believing that anything could be done.
"He did get a lot done and we'll sorely miss him," says Jackson.
Some of those changes involved reorganizing the responsibilities of the five components of IST (McGill Telecom, Computing Centre, Information Systems Resources, McGill University Libraries and the Instructional Communications Centre). The Computing Centre, for instance, ceded training and academic support to ICC. While losing territory can be a bone of contention, CC director Gary Bernstein welcomed having a stronger focus to his division. He also appreciated Pennycook's democratic style.
"I was particularly happy that the voices of the directors were always heard. We didn't always agree but decisions were made and we continued on."
Given the quantity of projects that have been initiated under Pennycook's tenure, Bernstein warns computer users "to be patient with the changing of the guard. It's going to take Tony some time to get acquainted with all the initiatives."
John Roston, director of ICC, recommends new footwear for Masi. "Bruce is someone who has been extremely energetic. We've had a lot of new and excellent initiatives so I'd advise Tony: 'Get yourself a new set of track shoes.'"
Masi knows well that "there is no treading water in this area; you either swim or sink," and his "shadowing" of Pennycook for the past month has given him a good idea of what's already in the works.
Sitting at the round table in Pennycook's office, Masi outlines his priorities: Banner: "We will need outreach to the community if the system is to work"; libraries: "The issue is how to help libraries make the transition from what they were to where they have to go"; rebuilding the campus network, made possible through a Canada Foundation for Innovation grant; working with the faculties and the vice-principal (administration and finance) on funding for the new network; and fine-tuning the University's high-performance computing capacity to meet the needs of research.
Masi is also interested in making further progress in the instructional use of computers: Power Point, WebCT and the like.
While much progress has been made in the past five years in making use of computers --"Five years ago, the dean [of arts] wasn't communicating by email," he notes -- "there is still no serious web presence in the classroom.
"Where we haven't made much progress is in the instructional use of computers," he continues, noting that Roston, at ICC, is pushing for classroom design that accommodates the screen necessary for WebCT integration into lectures.
In fact, ICC will be overseeing a whole new learning technology division, whose purpose is to help professors and students get acquainted with the use of and benefits of using the web in teaching.
While Pennycook regrets that he didn't get to see this new division take off nor organize the IST needed by the libraries, he's content that he's leaving the University with "sound infrastructure," and has nothing but praise for the people who helped him with that task. "They did a great job."
Anyway, he says, he may play an advisory role where the libraries are concerned. "I won't be far away. In this day and age, there is no 'far away.'"
And he doesn't feel that leaving academia is such a leap. "Going to run this company doesn't feel very different from what I've been doing here all along. It will be like working with a big group of graduate students."
Any chance that Masi might be lured away by a dot.com opportunity?" I don't thinks so. I'm too much of an academic," he says.
"I told Bernard Shapiro that I wouldn't give up my research agenda." Which means that twice a year, Masi will be found in Rome conducting research using the Italian labour force survey.
But most of the time, starting next Monday, Masi will be wrestling with the lion. "It's an organizational challenge: how to make the best use of this technology."