The art of being Dean

The art of being Dean McGill University

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McGill Reporter
May 22, 2003 - Volume 35 Number 16
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 35: 2002-2003 > May 22, 2003 > The art of being Dean

The art of being Dean

On June 1, while the rest of the university will embark on an easy pace for the summer, Sociology professor John Hall will be starting a five-year term in his new job -- Dean of the Faculty of Arts.

Provost and Vice-Principal (academic) Luc Vinet says that Hall's a superlative scholar who will bring great stature to the faculty. With the upcoming fundraising campaign he will be very convincing because of who he is and because of his international contacts.

"He's a brilliant lecturer, so we have a combination of research at the highest international standards and somebody who really cares about teaching. He will be a great leader for a faculty that is very important to the university," Vinet says.

A self-described generalist, Hall feels his experience in different departments will serve his new position well.

"The Arts Faculty is crucial to the identity of McGill," Hall says. "The history of Quebec and Montreal has, in part, been written with developments that have taken place in the Faculty of Arts at McGill.

"Montreal is equivalent to what many cities in Europe were before the Second World War. It's a multinational, multicultural city. McGill has a fabulous opportunity to contribute to the world, and it's important that people realize that large parts of the rest of the world are extremely interested in our political and social experience."

His first priority is to make sure the faculty continues its renewal and is at the leading edge of current issues of the age. "It's important for a dean to recognize new intellectual crystallizations taking place inside his faculty and encourage those," Hall says. "Administration's very important, it has to be done, and I'll make sure it's done properly. But it's the intellectual part that matters to me." He adds, "We're scholars, not bureaucrats."

The Arts Renaissance agenda, under the current Dean of Arts Carman Miller, has ensured the hiring of 50 additional positions to bring the student-to-staff ratio down to a reasonable level. Miller says that last year the ratio was 27:1. Once the 50 positions are filled, the ratio will go down to 20:1, close to the levels of 1994, when they were 17:1.

Hall wants to ensure that the new hires can fulfill their research potential. "It's a fundamental change in the age structure, research agenda of the faculty. And what's necessary is to make sure those younger people have a chance to do their research because they are the future of the faculty."

The last century's intellectual concerns were about the nation-state and the power of their sovereignty, Hall says, but now, "there's a great deal of discussion as to whether human rights trumps national sovereignty. What are the rights of the international community to intervene?" One of the next important areas for scholarship, Hall predicts, will include "questions of nationalism, ethnic conflict, preservation of human rights."

Hall's also excited about further developing links and positions between faculties, like those of Arts and Medicine. "Health care, not just in the physical scientific sense, but the design of welfare, is one of the immediate issues in Canadian life."

Academic pursuits aside, the amount and condition of physical space is important to the intellectual life of a faculty. Hall mentions one challenge will be to accommodate those who want to study at McGill. "We're having to turn people down, who have marvellous qualifications, because of lack of space. We're at the stage now where I'm not sure there's space for some of these new professors. And new students -- graduate students and undergraduates -- are losing common spaces. Students learn a great deal from talking to each other, not always from listening to old professors."

Hall also wants to pull the faculty together by introducing team-taught core curriculum courses, much like the ones he was part of when he taught at Harvard. "I have felt the experience of undergraduates at McGill can be a little bit amorphous, there's not much of a shared agenda." He hopes to persuade his colleagues to use their best and senior professors to teach large undergraduate courses.

Hall is also concerned about the graduate student experience, which could be helped with fundraising. "We face terrible difficulty. Financially, at the moment, we're not able to compete with offers made by, for example, University of Toronto or American universities." He also sees room for improvement in internal reorganization, "which is necessary to improve completion rates and to make sure students don't get lost, and that supervision is good."

Dean Miller feels the faculty's accomplishments over the past eight years have been due to a group effort on the part of many minds and many imaginations, he says. "The Faculty of Arts is on the edge of greatness."

He's particularly pleased with the recent curriculum reform, a matter he was told was the graveyard of all deans and that he shouldn't touch it. But now the highly concentrated studies in one discipline have been replaced with a system in which students declare a 36-credit major and an 18-credit minor, so students are more broadly formed.

Other advancements Miller's delighted with include the new multimedia language facility, funded with a half-million dollars from the university. "It's now a benchmark for other universities in Canada. It underlined the importance of human sciences and humanities -- if you understand a person's language, it's decoding their values and ideas," he says.

The McGill School of Environment was created with Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. There's a conceptual design for the new Arts buildings, as well as the invigoration of the Shakespeare and Performance Research Team with the appointment of the first Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies, Paul Yachnin. And the faculty has made an effort to boost resources for research by hiring a Research Officer, Jo Ann Lévesque (see the Kaleidoscope profile).

"Carman was a marvellous dean in that he took the faculty through a period of considerable cuts and kept the morale high," Hall says. Now Hall will have his own hands full juggling the rich and varied needs of one of McGill's most central faculties.

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