June 30th marks the end of Prof. Jim Nicell’s decade-long tenure as Dean of the Faculty of Engineering. Described as the “People’s Dean,” Prof. Nicell not only led initiatives that leveraged the Faculty’s academic programs and research excellence, but also worked hard on cultivating an inclusive learning and work environment where innovation, collaboration, sustainability, and creativity thrived, and where students, faculty, and staff felt part of a supportive community. This includes the development of the 4-E Initiatives in promotion of entrepreneurship (the McGill Engine Centre), equity, inclusion, and diversity (E-IDEA), teaching and learning enhancement (ELATE), and experiential learning (EMPOWER); the launching of 9 academic programs including the renowned B.Eng. in Bioengineering and the upcoming Global Engineering program in partnership with CentraleSupélec; the advancement of sustainability and interdisciplinary research through the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design (TISED); and the creation of numerous scholarships, fellowships, and programs to help support students, to name of a few.
In this Q&A, Prof. Nicell reflects on the highlights of the role, the changes he’s witnessed over the course of ten years, and his hopes for the future of engineering, architecture, and urban planning.
What was the most unexpected thing you learned over your tenure?
Of course, the pandemic was certainly the most unexpected thing that happened over my tenure, but the most unexpected thing that I learned was that our community had the capacity to adapt in a phenomenally rapid and effective way. Despite the challenges, we proved that we – all of us, students, staff, and professors – have the resilience to take on unprecedented challenges and stay true to our mission. And while the impact of the pandemic has had lasting negative effects, I think that we have also developed new capacity to improve our approaches towards education and assessment and to mobilize to address massive challenges.
What projects/initiatives are you most proud of?
There are so many things to be proud of, so it’s difficult to choose only one. But one of the most important initiatives that I take pride in is the culture change that has taken place in the Faculty around the imperatives of equity, diversity, and inclusion. This is a result of our E-IDEA initiative. Importantly, it’s not just about the growth in awareness that has taken place, but we have also shown our ability to take concrete steps to advance EDI. This will be a lasting legacy that will benefit us all and our respective professions for years to come.
What are some of your most memorable moments?
The single most memorable moment is the day when we received the notification that McGill was going to shut down for 2 weeks to deal with the growing pandemic. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that this would last for 2 years!
On a more positive side, I still vividly remember the phone call when Les and Judy Vadasz informed me that they would add $15 million to their already substantial endowment of $10 million to support our MEDA program. They understood that this would not only provide much needed financial support for our graduate students, but it would also be pivotally important in supporting our research programs which rely on attracting and training high quality students, who make a difference in the world through their research. It was such an important moment for me.
What have you seen change in the course of your ten years as Dean?
I think that I have seen a growing appreciation of the value of collaboration. So much of what is important in the world today – whether it be global health, climate action, the disruptive nature of technologies, to cite just a few examples – requires that we mobilize across disciplines to deal with these challenges through education and research. I have seen that we are more open than ever to crossing divides, not just between disciplines, but also between institutions, locally, nationally, and internationally. I am particularly excited by our Global Engineering program with CentraleSupélec and the important changes that are being explored in the engineering accreditation system, both of which could not be realized without collaboration between trusting partners.
What do you hope for the future of the field?I think that the professions of engineering, architecture, and urban planning are pivotally important because of their responsibilities for technologies and the built world. They influence so much in the day-to-day lives of human beings. My hope is that there is a growing appreciation on the part of the public of the importance of our professional and, just as importantly, a growing sense of responsibility on the part of our graduates as caretakers of our world. In a nutshell, my hope is that our fields can move into the future with a higher sense of purpose and with the motivation and ability to work on the problems that matter.
Are there hobbies you look forward to taking up (or going back to) post Deanship? You’re known for your love of reading – anything pending on the bookshelf?
Yes, I do love to read and have far too many books on my bookshelf that I will have the pleasure of reading in the upcoming years. For me, this is more of a way of life than a hobby. But my hope is to get back into some things that I miss most, including immersing myself in nature. Nothing makes me feel as calm and focused as paddling a canoe down a river on a long trip. I’m also thinking about getting back into archery. I was very active in this area for years, but with my kids growing up and my schedule being too busy, I left this sport behind about 5 or 6 years ago. Perhaps I’ll be a contender for the Olympics someday! I can dream, can’t I? And, I am also going to get my drone pilot license in the coming year and focus on improving my aerial photography.
What would you tell yourself if you could go back to 2013? Do you have any advice for incoming Dean, Viviane Yargeau?
If I could go back to 2013, I would tell myself not to worry as much about the day-to-day pressures of the job of being Dean. We have great people around us who can do incredible things and who pull together to deal with very complicated situations, no matter what. I would advise myself to not lose sleep over things I can’t control, and to just focus on what matters and always to try to do what is right and with integrity. I don’t think I could advise Prof. Yargeau any differently. She should never hesitate to reach out to others to help her through challenges. This includes me as well. She can count on me to help, as she sees fit.