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One year into his five-year tenure as AVP of University Services, Jim Nicell oversees virtually all the university's infrastructure services, from the big-picture concerns of the Master Plan to the daily details of parking and grounds-keeping. While the award-winning professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics has taken a hiatus from the classroom during his administrative stint, he continues his groundbreaking green chemistry research—most recently garnering national media attention for his ongoing work on non-toxic plasticizers. Despite the heavy workload and sleep deprivation that comes with the nocturnal life of a father of three kids under the age of eight, Nicell is a paragon of progressive thinking.
What is University Services?
It's big. It is comprised of Facilities Operations—the people responsible for operating our infrastructure on a daily basis. Facility Development—the people who renovate and construct our facilities. Building, Grounds and Special Events deals with the cleaning and maintenance of all our buildings and grounds as well as the basic support services required for special events. Ancillary Services, which is a huge collection of very diverse activities ranging from the bookstore to food services to printing to mail to parking. And there's Physical Planning and University Safety.
How important is infrastructure to McGill's mission?
It's as fundamental as food. A lot of people may take food for granted, but you won't last very long without it. The same thing with our basic services here at the university. On the infrastructure side of things, the buildings, the power, the heat, the water, all the ventilation systems are essential to everything that happens at McGill. We have a couple of hundred buildings at McGill that are dispersed over two campuses, we have labs, we have animal facilities—a host of specific needs for a very diverse group of people. If these basic systems fall apart we're in big trouble.
Our primary mission as a university is knowledge transmission, knowledge creation—these are our fundamental core missions. I want these to be University Services' core missions as well. We're not basking in other people's limelight, we're never going to get the glory—that's fine. But I think we can take some credit and feel proud of the university's accomplishments because we contribute to the well-being of everyone here.
Sounds like it requires an astronomical amount of coordination?
It does, but it's a return to my roots. I mean, I am an engineer, right? Now I'm working with more practicing engineers than I ever have in the past. In a sense I have to put my money where my mouth is because instead of preaching to a classroom of students I'm being challenged to put it into practice—and challenged to put it into practice under huge constraints. We are a huge university. On any given day, we probably have 42,000 people walking through our gates—so this is a mini-city. But we're an under-funded mini-city that doesn't have the means to generate its own revenue. It's not like we can go out and tax a whole bunch of people to generate funds.
That means we are operating under incredible constraints. We've got the oldest university in Quebec and certainly one of the oldest in Canada. The combination of being old, research-intensive and under-resourced means we have to put a huge effort into making sure everything is running properly.
As an academic, what was it like moving to administration?
It was an incredible surprise for me. I had no idea how the university really worked from this side. One thing I really felt when I moved to this position was how little contact I had had with the 450 people in University Services. After16 years at McGill, I could only put names and faces to a handful of people. That's awful.
But it's a root issue. As an academic I didn't understand the real limitations that the people here are working under. It was very easy for me to say "My office is too hot. I've got leaks in my building. The pavement is broken outside. It costs too much to eat here." And they are legitimate issues. But on the other side, the people who are trying to deliver all these services are working under enormous constraints and pressures.
Tell about your involvement with McGill's Master Plan?
In simple terms, the Master Plan is where we want to land 20 to 30 years from now. We don't have a formal Master Plan yet, but we've just gone through a consultation process last year during which I've made numerous presentations across the university to look at the plan's principles. Of course, the whole process started back in 2004, long before I was anywhere near this seat.
Why the extensive consultation?
The best way to get people to work together isn't to draw up a plan and ask people if they agree. We have to start by agreeing on the basic principles as a community. Once we've come to an agreement on what it is we value collectively, that becomes the starting point for where we want to go.
Some people probably look at that principle and say "Aw that's mushy, soft stuff." Yeah, it's mushy, soft stuff but if we stick to those principles, we will arrive in a very positive place. Although we may have an idea of what McGill will look like in 30 years, the reality is opportunities will change over that time, the government context will change over that time. We might not necessarily achieve exactly what we put down up front in the Master Plan. But these basic principles will allow us to adapt to the changing environment around us and to make sure we get to a very positive place in the end.
What do you miss most about teaching?
The students. Doing this job, I don't get a chance to talk enough to students any more. Last May, I was so busy here somehow I missed the end of classes and the end of exams. I really miss those transitions that I always saw when I was a professor or associate dean. It's very weird because I feel somewhat disconnected from one of my great passions—teaching. But I'm also aggressively making sure I stay connected, so I am volunteering to give various lectures.
How important are students to your current position?
I am making very sure that students are welcome here. As you may have noticed, this floor looks like a bunker. It is totally wrong. We will be renovating the front door [currently locked] so that it is an open door. I want to hear students walking down the hall because they are the reason why we're here. We need to know the people we serve, so we need to get the students in here.
From a sustainability standpoint, the students have been pushing in that direction for a long time. They are willing to step up to the plate. They are very creative people and are doing a lot of work on a volunteer basis and as part of their courses. We're encouraging them to link up their volunteer activities and their academic activities.
This year, we had a number of student projects undertaken in which students worked with people here. We gave them data about operations at McGill and asked them to assess how we were doing and to come up with ideas on how we could do better. I want more and more of that.
How would you describe your management style?
I think we've made significant headway in creating a very open culture in which people are free to exert their creativity and free to exert their authority. I firmly believe that if you hand people responsibility, they will take responsibility. I'm not into micromanaging or becoming the funnel through which all decisions should be made. I am there to back up the people making the decisions.
Sustainability is a big issue but it doesn't just mean creating a sustainable environment, it also means creating a sustainable organization. I've seen too many organizations where everything is concentrated on the characteristics or leadership style of a single person. But when that person leaves the entire organization is in crisis. You want to create an autonomous organization that responds to the needs of the university in a versatile, adaptable way. The day I walk out the door, I hope nobody notices I'm gone.
What are some of the impediments to developing a sustainable organization?
One of the fears I've seen both at McGill and elsewhere is that you've got outstanding people in a smaller unit who can expand their horizons only so much before they hit the ceiling. Often the units are afraid to let these people go. But the school will benefit a lot more if we value our people and let them go elsewhere in the university. It's with this cross-pollination of ideas that people can rise to their true potential. If you value your people, give them the resources to do the best they can, leverage their creativity by professionally developing them and, all of a sudden, you will have a group of the next great leaders of the university.
I don't want it to sound like I'm the one shaping this organization. The potential has always been here to do it. It's just a question of tapping into that potential and letting people loose to do what they think and knew they should do. It translates into amazing things.