CIRM’s new bi-faculty leadership: Interview with Pascal Brissette and Nik Luka

Pascal Brissette and Nik Luka
Published: 26 January 2022

The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montréal (CIRM) is now under bi-faculty leadership! In addition to its original affiliation with the Faculty of Arts, CIRM is now attached to the Faculty of Engineering at McGill University. Nik Luka, CIRM Interim Director from 2020 to 2021, joins Pascal Brissette at the head of the centre. This change was made possible with the collaboration of Deans Mary Hunter and Jim Nicell.

“CIRM is an exceptional centre that has long excelled in interdisciplinary research and collaborations. We are thrilled that the Faculty of Engineering with be partnering with the Faculty of Arts, and look forward to working together through CIRM’s dynamic studies and discussions on Montreal.” — Mary Hunter, Interim Dean of the Faculty of Arts

“The work that CIRM is undertaking is critically important, but I think its impact can be amplified through collaboration with engineers, architects, and planners. Cities, buildings, and supporting infrastructure are central to the day-to-day human experience, so it only makes sense that those responsible for the built environment be informed by the perspectives of the humanities and vice-versa. So much important work can come from partnerships between these disciplines.” — Jim Nicell, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering

To better understand what this new type of governance entails, the Communications team met with both directors for a discussion.

It is not very common for a research centre to be part of two university faculties. Do you think this reflects a better understanding of the importance of interdisciplinary research nowadays? How does this encourage dialogue between departments?

Pascal Brissette (P.B.) : “I think there have been models of similar centres straddling two faculties in the past. What you see most often, though, is researchers from several faculties coming together in a single centre, which is itself anchored in a single faculty. Bi-faculty research centres are a bit rarer but, in any case, it is not quite the situation of CIRM at the moment. At McGill there is a regulation that requires a research centre to be affiliated with one main faculty—in our case, it is the Faculty of Arts.

“That being said, I believe that we are truly at a point where such acknowledgement and valuation will increase. Why? Because, as a civilization, we are facing extremely complex issues: climate change, pandemics, etc. These complex issues cannot be solved by a single specialist in a single discipline. These complex issues cannot be solved by a single specialist in a single discipline. They cannot. It is absolutely necessary to bring together multidisciplinary teams that will exchange and cross-reference data, thus working in a truly interdisciplinary manner, by crossing knowledge and data in order to, in the end, make recommendations. Take the example of he IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] recommendations, or the recommendations made by regional public health agencies to the national public health agency. These examples show that we are in a world that is becoming increasingly aware of the limits of sectorization and the division of knowledge: everyone working in their own sphere, in their own faculty, in their own department, and so on. Researchers no longer have the choice, in order to have an impact, to put their knowledge together and to agree on findings so that action follows. Interdisciplinarity is not enough, however. For science to provide questions, hypotheses, models, and sometimes answers, it is necessary that the authorities and the citizens take over. Even if we put several scientists from all sorts of disciplines together in the same room, nothing will happen outside of it if there is no communication and no links. Major issues such as climate change require not only better interdisciplinary work, but also better consultation and understanding of common issues faced by politics and science. This is why a natural and very important partner of CIRM is the City of Montréal, as well as the Government of Québec. What is happening here, what we are trying to change, is somewhat in the culture. Since the 18th century, there has been an ever-increasing division of disciplines, a strengthening of academic boundaries; I believe that we have reached the limit of this phenomenon, and that there is a kind of return of the pendulum that leads us, because of major civilizational issues, to return to a more global perspective.”

Nik Luka (N.L.) : “The answer is yes. It bears witness to something very important that I would have liked to see when I was still pursuing my master’s degree, but better late than never. It demonstrates something that goes beyond the will to collaborate [between faculties], that is, a recognition that structures are required to promote these kinds of collaborations. We cannot just tell ourselves, ‘Yes, it is interesting that these people are collaborating...’ because there needs to be an institutional infrastructure to support and “force,” in some way, these collaborations. The need to communicate between faculties, for example, truly creates opportunities for short discussions and questions such as, ‘Do you know anyone who works on images in civil engineering?’ I am convinced of this because my official position at McGill is split between two schools [the Peter Guo-Hua Fu School of Architecture and the School of Urban Planning]. Since I am obligated to run between both schools, there is a better communication between them. I do not want to fall into some sort of environmental determinism trap but it is certain that our bi-faculty affiliation bears witness to an institutional support for interdisciplinary and interfaculty collaborations. It is a recognition of the fact that we need to create opportunities for that. It is very encouraging.

“It is because of Deans Mary Hunter and Jim Nicell, who were very enthousiastic and supportive, that we can be part of two faculties. There are many factors at McGill that discourage interfaculty collaborations and sharing. Among other things, there is no budget system that permits tax returns for a student in the Faculty of Arts who takes a course in the Faculty of Engineering, for example. A student’s tuition fees will not follow them for this course, unlike in other universities. It is a very administrative consideration, but it discourages departments and faculties to open up to one another. It remains possible and the will is always there, but it is not easy. In the Faculty of Engineering, I teach a course that is open to students in the Faculty of Arts, and it is important to do so. However, it is even more important to have centres like ours that become starting points for interdisciplinary collaborations and projects that link people from different fields.”

Prof. Brissette, when did this idea come about to build an alliance between both faculties? As the founder and director of CIRM since 2013, did you ever consider the possibility of working with the Faculty of Engineering?

P.B. : “This idea came up very quickly. As early as 2012–2013, when Stéphan Gervais [now Scientific Coordinator at CIRM] and I went around the faculties, we met with administrators, deans, and professors from several faculties at McGill and elsewhere to find out how McGill could contribute to Québec studies. We started with the Québec Studies Program (QSP), which lacked leverage and funding. We were convinced that McGill could play a more important role in increasing knowledge about Québec society. All the other universities have research chairs and major research centres in Québec studies. It seemed to us that the QSP, as it was in 2010, was not the ideal vehicle and did not have the means to accomplish this important mission. We told ourselves that we had to change things, to consult and bring together the active forces, the researchers of all backgrounds who were interested in Québec. We looked carefully at what was being offered in other universities and how McGill could best contribute in a way that would add value to what was being done elsewhere. That’s when the idea of a research centre on Montréal emerged. A centre that would bring together research work on cities and Montréal and that would be an original McGill contribution to Québec studies.

“To answer your question more specifically, it was during the consultation process that we got out of the Faculty of Arts. It is quite interesting and atypical that a research centre focused on a city is not born within a Faculty of Engineering where the urban planners are, but within a Faculty of Arts. This is perhaps a particularity of Montréal, where the cultural, linguistic, and historical dimensions are so important. I have the feeling that there is something of that. In the Faculty of Engineering, we had consulted with Raphaël Fishler, who was Director of the School of Urban Planning and Vice-Principal for Research at the time [now Associate Member at CIRM]. Raphaël was interested and very intrigued by this idea of a centre focused on Montréal, and of course he was willing to contribute. That being said, it was obvious that just about every other specialist in the School could contribute to the research centre, at least those who were working on Montréal. So we worked at the time with Nik Luka, Lisa Bornstein, Ahmed El-Geneidy, Raphaël Fischler, Richard Sheamur, and so on.

Prof. Luka, could you tell us more about the importance of having a research centre on Montréal within the Faculty of Engineering? What does this specific affiliation represent for the faculty?

N.L. : “I can say with conviction that the School of Architecture and the School of Urban Planning will always try to be involved with their environments, in the sense that their educational activities will always push people to explore the city in order to discuss future possibilities as well as failures of the past. In other departments in the Faculty of Engineering, I think there are many relationships that are being built between the “industry” and departments, between researchers and students. One of the most important things for the Faculty of Engineering is the accreditation and the validation of people in their practice via universities. Engineers need to have a good understanding of the social impact of their activities. This is one of the reasons why CIRM is of interest for this faculty. It is very easy in a field that is rather technical and instrumentalist—whether it be in civil engineering, mechanical engineering, bioresource engineering, urban planning, etc.—to focus on technical and infrastructure-related questions, therefore forgetting politics and potential impacts on humans and non-humans. I think that CIRM represents an opportunity to deepen the engagement and the will to correctly train Engineering students. This is one of the interesting aspects of our bi-faculty leadership.

“Our dean is currently working on an initiative called Engineering for Humanity. Its aim is to train the next generation of engineers to solve complex problems using a combination of technical and social knowledge. CIRM, even if it is an interdisciplinary centre, remains focused on human, cultural, and social issues, which are very important to move away from abstraction. I think that the effervescence that we are developing with CIRM is exactly what the Faculty of Engineering needs.”

What are the advantages for you to co-lead a centre that is affiliated with the Faculty of Arts?

N.L. : “There are numerous advantages. First, even if I am a part of the School of Architecture and the School of Urban Planning, I consider myself to be a landscapes ethnographer, so I work with hybrid tools, methods, and epistemologies. Many of my colleagues work like that too, because architecture and urban planning are like metadisciplines. They do not have their own ways of doing things. We use tools and ways of thinking or framing problems that are borrowed from sociology, art history, and anthropology. This affiliation is therefore super interesting to me from an epistemological perspective.

“The second advantage is more ‘practical.’ In Canada, as a professor, you need to do everything. You need to be a teacher and to excel in pedagogy. You need to be a researcher and to excel in your contribution to society with fundamental, applied, or creative research activities. You also need to offer a lot of services and fulfill administrative obligations, which is very important at McGill. In this perspective, it is very interesting to have a leading role in a research centre or an institute. However, this represents a colossal workload. The fact that Pascal and I can share responsibilities makes everything much easier. We form an executive direction team with Audray Fontaine, Knowledge Mobilization Coordinator, and Stéphan Gervais, Scientific Coordinator. In my opinion, it is much more interesting to work this way than to be the main conductor who decides everything.

“Third of all, I find it truly amazing to be able to work collaboratively and to have it recognized. This is important because there is a lot of interest in principle for coproduction and interdisciplinarity; however, when the time comes to obtain official recognition—for a tenure record, for example—we get asked what we have done individually that falls within the norms of the field. The fact that there is a co-leadership between two faculties, then, represents a transformation for a university that aims to recognize non-traditional or non-conventional contributions to the scientific community. This also demonstrates that the university is focusing less on the idea of the researcher as an individual hero with their laboratory and their team, and more and more on junctions and collaborations.

“I would also like to add that I am very lucky and that I was very impressed by how welcoming CIRM’s ecosystem was towards me. I think that CIRM represents something very important for universities, given that it is a space where paths cross in a substantial way and facilitate deep interactions. CIRM is a good institution and a great team, so I am happy. It is a great pleasure to work with all of these people.”

What does this new bi-faculty alliance concretely imply for CIRM?

P.B. : “In the short term, we will benefit from the support and ideas of another dean—Jim Nicell. In the university structure, deans are very important. Between senior administrators and researchers, deans decide everything. There is a great deal of respect in the university structure for the decisions they make in terms of guiding principles and strategies. This change implies quite practical and administrative things related to our annual report, etc.

“What is more interesting is that this new bi-faculty anchoring will help us develop research projects between both faculties and have CIRM recognized as a federating centre, the object of which—Montréal—is ‘transversal’ in a way, a complex object that must benefit from multiple perspectives. We would like to go even further and broaden the centre’s scope in the future so that it can act as a platform for exchange between faculties on the one hand, and between faculties and local stakeholders on the other hand.

“Nik Luka’s addition to the leadership team will also help us better understand what is happening and being planned in the Faculty of Engineering. When you don’t know what the major issues of a faculty are, it’s difficult to coordinate with it and to submit projects that will be beneficial to its development. The fact that there is this official recognition and, above all, a genuine enthusiasm on the part of the Faculty of Engineering towards what we do, means that CIRM will be able to better take into account what is being done on that side.”

N.L. : “It is interesting because it is not a big structural change. CIRM officially remains in the Faculty of Arts but the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering now sits on our board. This means that there is a recognition and an embodiment of the desire to support collaborations between these faculties. CIRM works a lot on issues of urban/suburban spaces, being a research centre that is interested in Montréal. In the Faculty of Engineering, these are often applied issues and there are a lot of research projects and pedagogical activities about the city. There is a growing interest within the Faculty of Engineering—especially in architecture and urban planning—to be infused in the knowledge, ways of thinking, and issues that are found in the social sciences.

“CIRM’s bi-faculty alliance implies collaborative activities in courses, programs, and research projects, but especially in the events we organize, such as seminars, conferences, workshops, conferences, etc. The idea is to have both closed-door activities [for CIRM members and the concerned faculties] and activities that are open to everyone. There are also so many things that are happening in Montréal and in universities like McGill, which makes it impossible for people to attend all of the events that interest them. CIRM is therefore in the process of creating collaborations that can attract a wider public and carry out strategic crossovers between experts in terms of content. For example, someone who works on hard infrastructure and who is interested in the political debates that surround these projects could reach out to colleagues in anthropology, history, or literary studies—and reciprocally.

“Our bi-faculty alliance is also important because there is always a pressure, especially at the moment, to make universities more productive, to focus on practice, to boost the economy, etc. Bi-faculty collaboration can help the Faculty of Arts position itself as a faculty that informs debates without having to change. It reinforces the importance of a thinking process that cannot be instrumentalized. We hope to create and nourish spaces where we can discuss the consequences of critical thought on a decision that was made in urban planning, in environmental design, or in architecture, all the while recognizing the need to take a step back and for critical, philosophical perspectives, etc. This is what I hope.”

What are the future prospects of CIRM? Do you have wishes for centre in the short term?

P.B. : “If I had to talk about a dream for me, it would be that McGill University would really become aware of the tremendous potential of CIRM as a platform for transdisciplinary and intersectoral collaboration. I hope that the City of Montréal will also become aware of this potential, and that it will make use of us! CIRM wants to be a permanent bridge where links are strengthened and nurtured through various projects. Of course, there are obstacles. For example, electoral cycles and the need for elected officials to demonstrate concrete results before the elections do not bond well with scholarly research and the time it requires, its obligations, and sometimes its slowness.

“This bond is problematic but not impossible, as long as there are discussions and relationships of trust that are established and developed over time. This is where the CIRM interface becomes crucial: an isolated researcher does not have the time and the capacity to establish a relationship of trust, to nurture it, and to make it permanent. They have one research project, or two, or three, they looks for partners on a piecemeal basis and, once their project(s) are completed, very often the relationship with the partners withers away. A centre like CIRM is here to help researchers and administrators find each other and establish a fruitful discussion, and then it sticks around after the one-time research project is over in order to keep nurturing the relationship with the partner and reignite it through other projects."

N.L. : “First of all, I think it is in our interest to go further with our engagements and our activities to conjugate the university with the city and communities, in addition to creating and supporting instances of collaboration, engaging, sharing, and making sure that we in academia understand the strength that exist in civil society and in the knowledge of the average citizen. The most strategic initiative to open up the university towards the city really is experiential learning for students as well as researchers and professors. How can the city nourish the university? And how can the university give back to Montréalers and Québec taxpayers who keep it running? The university must open up and welcome people, it must take advantage of the fact that it evolves in the extraordinary environment that is Montréal. Why not push that further?

“Second, there are many questions being raised nowadays on how to rethink pedagogy. Globally, the pandemic, the upheaval of the last five years, the issues around Black Lives Matter, and Truth and Reconciliation require fundamental changes in the functioning of universities. This is a priority for us at CIRM and forms a part of the rationale and discourse of legitimacy behind our bi-faculty affiliation.

“Finally, the goal is not to have a research centre that is based in two faculties and does not care about the others. We hope to explore how to create infrastructures that can support collaborations between faculties, which does not mean that we want to have a centre that is supported by each and every faculty at McGill.”

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