Deep Saini begins his mandate as McGill’s 18th Principal and Vice-Chancellor on April 1, 2023. He’s looking forward to getting to know all the new faces that will fill those first weeks. And he takes comfort in knowing there will be a familiar face looking upon him from his office wall.
“I have a portrait of my dad in my office as a mark of gratitude for what he did for me,” he says. “But more importantly, it reminds me of the transformative power of education.”
Education is the grand throughline of a life and career that has taken Deep Saini around the world. He grew up in India, where he completed his honours BSc and MSc from Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana. He then moved to Australia to earn a PhD in Plant Physiology from the University of Adelaide.
He came to Canada in 1982 on a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Alberta. Save for a three-year return to Australia – where he served as Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra – Canada has been his home ever since. Saini was a professor at the Université de Montréal for 18 years before he took on a series of leadership roles at the Universities of Waterloo and Toronto. Since 2020, he has served as President and Vice-Chancellor of Dalhousie University.
But Deep Saini’s extraordinary journey really started with that of a little boy – his father – a hundred years ago.
As a six-year-old in Punjab, India, in the 1920s, Chanan Singh Saini’s future was decided. The youngest son in a family of subsistence farmers, he worked the fields beside his brothers to put food on the table. The family couldn’t afford to hire hands; there was absolutely no chance of anybody going to school. Like so many before him, Chanan would spend his life on the farm.
The family grew sugarcane. One day, Chanan’s father sent him to the village to fetch oil for the little mill that crushed sugarcane to make sugar. As the youngest, Chanan was the most dispensable on the farm.
On the outskirts of the village, the boy passed the one-room elementary school that had just opened. Had he passed a few minutes earlier or later, he might have missed the teacher handing out candy and little alphabet books. A real recruitment drive.
The lure of candy and a book proved too much for Chanan. Forgetting all about the mill oil, he sat down and spent the whole day in the classroom. It was his first-ever day of school.
Deep Saini sees the world in terms of opportunities and possibilities. He recently spoke with the McGill Reporter from his office at Dalhousie. Literally minutes before the interview, he and his wife, Rani, finalized the purchase of their new home in Pierrefonds-Roxboro on Montreal’s West Island. They’re excited to return to Montreal, where they raised their family, and to be close to their grandchildren. (Both their daughters now live with their own families in Ottawa.)
His mind is also racing with opportunities for McGill.
He’s been following the progress on Montreal’s soon-to-be-completed light rail line to the West Island. How might the REM enhance the student experience at Macdonald Campus, he wonders? Saini was thrilled to see McGill recently open its new medical campus in Outaouais. What about other satellite campuses, or partnerships with other universities, or “sharing” distinguished professors, such as Nobel laureates, using remote learning technology?
“Montreal is Canada’s university town,” says Saini. “I’m so pleased to see how well McGill and Université de Montréal are collaborating, and how well McGill and École Polytechnique de Montréal and others are collaborating. I think a whole new world is emerging in Montreal, and we’re an essential player in it.”
“There are so many opportunities out there for McGill,” he says. “We need to be bold.”
Deep Saini says this portrait of his father, Chanan Singh Saini, reminds him of “the transformative power of education.”
Saini started his presidency at Dalhousie mere weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. Barely settled in his new position, he led Dal through the same challenges that McGill faced, including the sudden shutdown of university activities in March 2020; the quick pivot to remote learning and work arrangements; revised logistics for students living in residences; mental health support for people living in isolation; the coordination of on-campus testing; hybrid learning and the eventual return to campus.
Now, as the world lurches forward in the wake of two-plus years of pandemic, Saini sees an occasion “for some serious creative destruction.”
Again: where some see uncertainty, Saini sees opportunity.
“We have to rebuild cohesion within organizations while taking advantage of the new technologies that allow us to work remotely,” he says. “How do we create a more family-friendly work environment that retains the collaborative energy found in traditional, in-person workspaces?”
Saini admits to knowing very little about Teams or Zoom prior to the pandemic. “Now I feel like I live on Teams,” he chuckles. “And I will never give it up.”
He believes platforms like Zoom and Teams offer some advantages over traditional classrooms or conference rooms.
“We can be in a meeting with 1,000 people, yet you and I, looking at each other on-screen, can feel that we are talking one-on-one,” Saini says. “I’ve had virtual town halls where I’ve had this kind of an experience with a person asking a question. Whereas in a physical town hall, that person could be sitting in the 70th row in the back of a room, where you can barely see them.”
However, Saini also understands that as brave as this new world may be, it still requires good old-fashioned human contact.
“You can’t shake hands with somebody on a screen. You can’t enjoy the same experience of sitting down over lunch with a colleague,” says the man who drinks very little coffee and yet would occasionally line up at the Tim Hortons on campus just so he could chat with students. “Striking a deal is very different on Zoom than in real life.”
“If we went back to where we were pre-pandemic, it would be a big opportunity lost. We have to be ready to merge the old ways of working with some of the incredible lessons we learned during that time,” Saini says. “How do we bring to bear all the knowledge and learning and experiences we had through this pandemic to create a better academy, a better society? This a very exciting opportunity to rethink who we are.”
Chanan was excited when he came home from that first day of school, but his brothers punished him for shirking his farm duties. He feared further repercussions. It was safer to stay on the farm.
But a few days later, the teacher, he of the candy and alphabet books, knocked on the family door. The teacher implored Chanan’s father to allow the boy to return to class.
Chanan’s father resisted. He didn’t know much about education, and he failed to see how it was going to improve the family’s situation. He needed his children working on the farm and, quite literally, bringing home the bread.
But the teacher felt a responsibility to the students in his class. More importantly, he felt a responsibility to those who weren’t in his class. Yet. He refused to take no for an answer. He argued his point, even offering to pay the boy’s nominal tuition. Eventually, he wore down Chanan’s father.
The next day, the boy was back in school.
Saini sees research universities – especially publicly funded ones like McGill and Dalhousie – as having twin responsibilities to students and society.
Students, he says, “are why we are here.”
He’s an advocate for connecting with students in myriad ways. “Student unions are an important interface, of course, but I don’t think that should be our only point of contact,” says Saini. “We need to be out in the corridors and on the grounds of the University and listen to the students through multiple channels. What are they telling you?”
Students have told Saini many things, especially about their hunger for experiential learning, interdisciplinary education, and a global experience. Even the universities that deliver on those fronts can always find room to improve.
As for serving society, Saini believes that research universities play a vital role in the world moving out of an “unprecedented confluence of wicked problems and challenges”—but it will take an unprecedented coordination and collaboration.
“Who is going to lead the way?” he asks. “It’s not just oceanographers or geographers or engineers or economists or managers or petroleum experts or battery designers or humanists or social scientists. It’s none of them alone, but all of them together.”
“Working in a silo is increasingly a thing of the past. Researchers need to join forces because the big problems of today reside at the intersections – and so do the solutions.”
He feels that the wide-ranging breadth of McGill expertise makes the University particularly well-positioned to create those solutions.
“McGill consistently ranks among the world’s top universities – out of some 30,000 plus institutions. It speaks volumes about the quality of the University and its people,” says Saini. “There are not many universities in the world that have the bench strength and intellectual firepower that McGill does. But with that, comes enormous responsibility. If we are not going to take on these challenges, who will?
“Those who come up with solutions will be remembered in history as those who have taken humanity forward.”
Chanan proved a brilliant student. He earned small scholarships that helped put him through elementary school, then middle school, then high school. After serving in the military, Chanan joined the forestry service at the lowest entry position. He kept pursuing his education through short courses and earned roughly the equivalent of a forestry degree. Moving up the ranks, Chanan retired in a middle management position, a remarkable achievement for someone coming from his background.
Throughout his life, Chanan valued education above all else. The father of four boys, he wanted to know more about his sons’ grades and test scores than medals in field hockey or track and field. If one of the boys earned 98 per cent on an exam, Chanan was the kind of father who would ask “What happened to the other two percent?”
Chanan brought other members of the extended family into his home and helped them forge new futures that, a short time before, would have seemed impossible. The actions of that one village schoolteacher rippled through generations.
Between them, the four sons enjoyed successful careers in the fields of financial audit, engineering, forestry, and advanced education.
Deep Saini wholeheartedly believes in the power of education to transform lives and the world – but only if Universities are themselves able to adapt.
He comes to McGill as the University’s first Principal of colour. It is a significance that is not lost upon him. Early in his career in Canada, he suffered racial slurs, even from coworkers. Again, he saw opportunity. Saini became a champion of equality, diversity, and inclusion issues.
Under his leadership, the University of Canberra launched its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategic Plan, which saw a dramatic rise in the percentage of Indigenous students, as well as Indigenous faculty cluster hires. During Saini’s tenure at Dalhousie, the university appointed several professionals to expand and oversee engagement, employment equity, and inclusion, with particular emphasis on African Nova Scotian and Indigenous Communities. The university also launched a Black Studies Research Institute and the Truro start program, giving students from underserved communities the opportunity to start their studies on Dal’s Agricultural Campus, in small cohorts with dedicated resources, before transferring to the larger Halifax campuses.
“I am always aware that I have a leadership shadow that people watch,” Saini says.
“The way I conduct myself opens doors for others. If I have been successful and I’ve conducted myself in an honorable way, others see that people from minority communities can be very effective. And that, in a very subtle way, changes the culture.”
“Most universities today have very good EDI policies,” he says. “Of course, if I see a policy gap, I will step in to address it. But policies and legislations alone don’t change culture. I’ve always felt that my strength is helping move that cultural needle.”
Chanan Singh Saini never forgot the family farm, or how he was able to move beyond it. Every so often, he would take his own sons to visit that teacher, long retired, who had offered candy and a book, but ended up giving Chanan the world.
Years later, as he prepared for the next leg in his own remarkable journey, one of Chanan’s sons would reflect on those visits with wonder undimmed by the decades.
“Visiting him was a very spiritual experience,” Deep Saini would recall, “just seeing this one man, a teacher, who changed absolutely everything.”