Deep Saini began his term as the chair of the board of directors for Universities Canada in October 2023. The 18th principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University, he is a career academic with a research background in plant biology. He most recently served as president of Dalhousie University and, prior to that, was vice-chancellor and president of the University of Canberra in Australia. Dr. Saini grew up in India and received his PhD in plant physiology from the University of Adelaide in Australia. I recently caught up with Dr. Saini to discuss his aspirations and thoughts on the current challenges facing Canadian higher education.
University Affairs: What do you hope to accomplish in your new role as chair of the board of directors of Universities Canada?
Dr. Saini: We are at a time where we need to be much more deliberate about educating Canadians about the value of universities to this country. In my view, the role of Canada’s universities has never been more critical to the advancement of our society. We are the economic and social anchors within our local economies, and yet that is not widely recognized. At the national level, universities are where major issues get debated, where solutions are found, and where the talent that drives our country forward is developed. Universities also serve as Canada’s global ambassadors in terms of educational diplomacy; we are among the biggest connectors in the world. We are also the town square of our country and the conveners of societal debate, especially on big issues where we are in a position to play the honest brokers. However, we don’t always step up and assume all those roles with equal emphasis. Those are some of the major ways in which I would like to better position Canada’s universities.
UA: The role of universities as a town square appears increasingly under threat with isolated incidents of conferences being canceled and professors being censored or punished for expressing certain political positions. How can universities protect their space where civil debate can happen freely and opinion can be challenged respectfully?
Dr. Saini: This is a very timely question because we’re living through that right now. The first thing is education. Ignorance thrives in dark places. An education, however, has the power to shine a light on those dark places, to open new horizons and sensibilities that prevent disinformation and misinformation from taking root. Secondly, speaking up on difficult issues is never easy, and there have always been people who have tried to stifle academic freedom and free speech. As university leaders, we have a moral obligation to stand up with courage to defend the freedom to debate difficult issues. Of course, if debate degenerates into incitement of violence, hatred, or breach of law, we have to step in as well. But there must be a pretty good reason for such an intervention and the bar for that has to be quite high. For example, being uncomfortable with an issue or feeling insulted are not sufficient reasons to stop debate. We must learn as a society that uncomfortable encounters happen in life, and that that’s very much part of a good debate. A healthy debate that puts our preconceived notions to the test is often how we arrive at the right decision, so it is indeed something that is worth protecting.
“Ignorance thrives in dark places. An education, however, has the power to shine a light on those dark places, to open new horizons and sensibilities that prevent disinformation and misinformation from taking root.”
UA: Universities across the country are also increasingly facing threats to their institutional autonomy. Whether it is demands to tie funding to labour market needs, government representation on boards, or more recently in Quebec, the tuition levels for out-of-province and international students. How do you defend against those encroachments and protect institutional autonomy?
Dr. Saini: There is one common element among the nature of these encroachments: they generally come from a position of ignorance, and very often those who are doing the encroaching don’t quite have the facts. The interference also often comes from a position of some kind of power. The antidote to ignorance is evidence and information. We haven’t always been very good at distilling down the facts to a level that general population can understand. We must sharpen the art of translating facts into simple language and presenting the information in a way that is more accessible. This often means that, in addition to correcting ignorance and misinformation, we also have to confront deliberate disinformation. That’s when it gets tricky, because university leaders must tread the fine line between speaking up and safeguarding the interests of the institutions they serve. The stakes for society and humanity are increasingly high, so those of us who are in a position to influence decisions with facts must find the right combination of courage and tact to speak up.
UA: It is rare for a university leader to have served in leadership positions at six Canadian universities, not to mention your international experience in Australia and India, where you grew up. How does that breadth and depth of experience influence your leadership style?
Dr. Saini: Let me point to three aspects of my journey that are particularly relevant in this regard. In the 41 years since I arrived in Canada, I’ve experienced this country almost from coast to coast and in a very immersive way. I know exactly how it feels to be in a university in Alberta versus Quebec or Ontario versus Nova Scotia, and what issues and opportunities are specific to each context. I believe that’s an asset that I offer to bring people together.
The other element is my international experience. I’ve experienced Australia as a graduate student and then as a university president. I’ve experienced India as an undergraduate student and a master’s student, and, more recently, given India’s emergence as a global player, I am often working to connect India with the rest of the world and vice versa. From this broad East-West perspective, I see clearly how the centre of gravity of the world is shifting eastward, and how we in the West can position ourselves to seize the attendant opportunities.
And third, we live in a time when inclusion, access, and the need to diversify our workforce is critical for success. I don’t see diversity as just a nice thing to do; I see it as an operational necessity and a competitive advantage. I am a stickler for excellence, but I also believe very strongly that nobody should be deprived of the opportunity to excel because of their background or circumstance. We are a very diverse country, and we must harness all that diversity to the benefit of the country. I believe I can bring my lived experiences to both the debate on this issue as well as the implementation of appropriate measures to attain our objectives.
UA: Many international students are struggling to pay very high tuition fees, then looking to pursue a chosen career in Canada that sometimes does not materialize after graduation. How concerned are you that Canada and its academic institutions are not fulfilling their promise to international students?
Dr. Saini: I agree with some of that but not necessarily with the rest. Yes, in an ideal world, I would want everybody to have an education that is free and accessible, and high tuition has introduced a very different element to international education than when I was a student. This said, education costs money, and someone has to cover the cost. While domestic students are funded through a combination of tuition, government grants and tax-financed infrastructure, it is tuition alone that is available to the universities to cover the entire cost of educating an international student. That’s where the disparity comes from. There is also the issue of value for money. I would say that students who come to study at our universities are getting some of the best education in the world at a fraction of the price that they would pay, for example, south of the border. The problems you point to relate to the many sub-standard actors who have gotten into the act. As a country, we need to pay attention to this, and not simply leave it to the devices of free enterprise. It has introduced a distortion in the system that is unhealthy for the country.
UA: What aspect of your new role are you most looking forward to?
Dr. Saini: Universities in Canada come under provincial jurisdiction, so we spend a lot of time working with the provinces. Universities Canada is the only institution that provides a unifying forum that functions at the national level. There is a lot of diversity among universities and the situations in which they exist – geographically, economically, politically, and so on. But they are united in one regard that they collectively comprise one of Canada’s biggest national assets. This opportunity to function at that level, to engage with university leadership from across the country, and to help showcase the value of this amazing national asset is what I’m most looking forward to.
UA: What do you consider the most pressing concerns facing universities in the next decade?
Dr. Saini: We have already spoken about some of them, and I could add the often-discussed funding challenges to that. But let me go to two different ones.
One is the assault on trust by the modern vehicles of misinformation and disinformation. Universities were once the bastion of trustworthy information, but the pillars of trust in our society are being demolished, partly by bad actors and partly by the social media channels that have spawned on the technologies we created through our own ingenuity – with the former often exploiting the capabilities of the latter. Social media is incredibly powerful. I liken it to a matchstick – you can light the world with it, and we have, or you can burn the world down with it, and I fear we could end up doing that. We need to take control of these tremendously powerful channels of misinformation and disinformation.
Second, I constantly hear from students just how worried they are about the future, and how they want to do something about it. That anxiety concerns me deeply, but accompanying this is also an opportunity to harness the tremendous energy of our youth to address the big problems that are rapidly coming at us, including climate change and what I see as an increasing global disorder. As the institutions where those young people reside, learn and develop themselves, it is incumbent upon us to step up and help channel their interests, passions and energy to help steer the world back in the right direction.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.