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The Faculty of Arts inspires superlatives. With some 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students and 270 tenured or tenure-track professors, it is McGill's largest faculty as well as one of its oldest. Finally, its 18 academic departments, 20 interdisciplinary programs and the School of Social Work make it McGill's most diverse. Do all the numbers point to a plethora of riches or do they just add up to a multi-headed dragon? The McGill Reporter sat down with new dean Christopher Manfredi and to find out what it's like to take the helm of a flagship faculty.
Q: Your five-year term as dean began this past June. Is it safe to assume that, by necessity, your learning curve has been accelerated?
(Laughing) I like to tell people that, because of the faculty's size and incredible diversity, I have both McGill's most challenging and most rewarding job.
I've been teaching here since 1988, so I have a very strong attachment to the faculty and a pretty good idea of what we need to do to make us stronger. Of course, these first few months as dean have also made me realize that there are always parts of the faculty that I need to learn more about.
What are some of your priorities for the faculty?
I want to promote innovation, both in the classroom and among our researchers. A key component of that innovation lies in interdisciplinary endeavours. Not only should we encourage collaboration within the Faculty of Arts, we should push it between faculties as well. It only makes sense, as the humanities and social sciences are interwoven with just about everything — medicine, engineering, economics and law.
For example, we have some shining examples of new interdisciplinary initiatives in the field of health and society including Jody Heymann and the Institute for Health and Social Policy and Nico Trocmé's Centre for Research on Children and Families. We have to build on these existing collaborations and establish exciting new ones.
Where does academic renewal fit into this added emphasis on innovation?
The two go hand-in-hand. Our new faculty come from all around the world, either as recent graduates from top universities or as well-established scholars. We've already got a very vibrant faculty, but these new professors bring an incredible amount of energy and dynamism to the mix.
The Faculty of Arts, like the university as a whole, has gone through an unprecedented period of renewal. In our faculty alone, some 40 percent of our professors have been hired within the last four years. That's 115 new people bringing their creativity and new ideas to McGill.
Of course, it works both ways. People from around the world want to work here because they recognize that at McGill, they have the opportunity to work with truly outstanding students and colleagues. I think we're so successful at bringing in some of the best and brightest professors because we provide them with such a stimulating intellectual space to work in.
What is the area that needs the most shoring up?
Physical space is always a concern, not just for our faculty but for the university as a whole. Currently, we're engaged in a strategic planning process that addresses this very issue and it's clear that it is a real priority.
In terms of the Faculty of Arts, classrooms are somewhat overcrowded and we need to provide better places for our graduate students and research assistants to work.
Recently, the university purchased a building off campus to which we will transfer some of our back-office operations. We hope to start moving early in the new year and to have most of it done over the course of the summer of 2007.
On top of looking to acquire new space, I think we still have to try and become more efficient with the space we already have. One way we're looking at reducing classroom overcrowding is to encourage professors to teach outside core hours.
How have you found the transition from professor to dean?
The biggest change is that I'm not in the classroom any more and I very much miss the contact with students and the intellectual stimulation that comes with teaching. Also, there is a tremendous reduction in the amount of time I have for my personal research and scholarly endeavors — although I am finishing a book with an American colleague that looks at comparative Canadian and American jurisprudence on campaign spending and election law.
On the positive side, I now have the ability to really make a difference and to help the faculty achieve its potential. These are exciting times at McGill. Our program of academic renewal is one of the most significant things to happen in Canadian universities in a long time and I'm glad to be a part of it.
On a personal note, you were born in Toronto but grew up in Calgary. Who do you cheer for, the Leafs or the Flames?
Actually, when I was a kid, my mother was a rabid Canadiens fan, and so I became one, too. But when the Flames moved from Atlanta to Calgary in 1980, I switched allegiances. My very first spring in Montreal, back in 1989, the Flames won the Stanley Cup here at the old Forum. I think I was one of the few Calgary fans in the city.
My very first job was delivering the Calgary Herald. Apart from that, one summer I worked on a roofing crew on a Canadian Forces base in Calgary. It's extremely hard work and I wasn't very good at it. I had already decided to go the academic route, but this certainly made it much more obvious to me that I had made the right decision.