In Conversation: Harold Cook, dean of the Faculty of Agriculture

Q&A about the future of Dal's new faculty

- September 7, 2012

Harold Cook, dean/principal of the Faculty of Agriculture.
Harold Cook, dean/principal of the Faculty of Agriculture.

It’s been three years since Harold Cook completed his final term as Dalhousie’s dean of medicine, and two years since his retirement. In that time, he’s made a home in Yarmouth County, becoming involved in local community and church activities.

He never expected that he’d return to Dalhousie in a high-profile position and yet, here he is: serving as inaugural dean and principal of Dal’s new Faculty of Agriculture, a role he’s been in since May 1.

In many ways, the post is a logical fit. At the foundation of Dr. Cook’s 34-year career in pediatrics and biochemistry research are two degrees in agricultural science that he started at NSAC before completing at MacDonald College at McGill. (This was before NSAC granted its own degrees through Dalhousie.) And as the 11th dean of the Faculty of Medicine, he guided the Faculty through an extensive renewal process involving significant executive recruitment and strategic planning designed to meet the changing medical needs of Canada’s three Maritime provinces well into the 21st century.

Tuesday morning, mere hours into the Faculty of Agriculture’s first day as part of Dalhousie, we spoke with Dr. Cook about what attracted him to the role, what he hopes to achieve, and the potential of Dal’s new faculty and campus.

Today is, for all intents and purposes, the first day of operations for the Faculty of Agriculture as part of Dalhousie. How does it feel to be at this point?

I’m extremely excited. And I feel that excitement all around me. There’s so much enthusiasm and commitment here to where we are and where we’re going.

I sensed that in the orientation activities on the weekend: this idea that we are Dalhousie now, but with reference to our history and the value of this campus and community that’s been built here. The new students got that right away, but I encounter that sentiment among the faculty and staff as well.

The next couple of years mark an important new chapter in that history. What was it that attracted you to the opportunity to lead the new faculty as its dean/principal?

I’ll admit that my first inclination was to continue enjoying my retirement, as I didn’t have any thought of anything of this magnitude coming my way. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the fit. From the time I graduated, my interest and passion for the college and its activities has stuck with me, but I also have strong ties and a feel for the Dalhousie environment, both from an operational perspective and my personal commitment to it. So putting those together, I agreed to take on the role.

As you note, you’re an alumnus of NSAC. I’m curious what that experience as a student meant in your life and career.

I shared with the students on Sunday my five “Cs,” and one of them is “commitment.” And what I meant with that was about how this faculty and campus sets you up for a strong future.

When I think of it, it was my basic interest in science and having a solid footing with my bachelor and master's degrees in agricultural chemistry that led to my career through biochemistry and research in the Faculty of Medicine for more than 35 years, including my tenure as dean. I pointed out to [the students] that it’s all based on a non-clinical degree that started here. There are many avenues in life we can’t imagine, and I didn’t imagine that for sure.

[An agriculture degree] is something that never leaves you, and it’s something you can mold in many different ways as life goes on. So much of what we learn in university is not the retention of information and material, but how it influences the way we think, the way we interact with others, and our broader way of life. And I think it’s fair to say this campus does create a special environment for that aspect of your early learning.

Most people at Dal understand the role of dean, but your position is a dual one: you’re both dean of the faculty, and principal of a campus. Describe what your role means to the mission of the Faculty of Agriculture.

The big difference here [in Truro] is the sense of community that this beautiful and functional campus affords us. It’s an opportunity to do things on a full university scale, but in a sort of more confined environment—a very pleasant one—with this wonderful physical campus as a focal point.

It’s my role as principal to make sure that local character is maintained. As we shift our services from just based in Truro to becoming part of the Dal system, it’s my job to support both our academic experience and our campus experience, ensuring that the services and supports for students and research activities are maintained at an optimum.

What do you see as the priorities for the new Faculty of Agriculture in the months ahead?

Over the fall, we’ll be taking a look at the rather vigorous strategic plan that exists here and seeing where it fits with the overall Dalhousie strategic plan. We’ll be melding some of the ideas here into that format but, more importantly, we’ll be identifying what we can learn from both Dalhousie overall as well as the faculty-based structure to help us focus and improve on things.

While it’s not specifically my role to revise curriculum, we will be looking at where it fits relative to the strategic plan. How do we deliver the most engaging curriculum possible? Then there are going to be maturing issues as we continue to advance as a faculty, making sure there’s alignment between good policy here and Dalhousie policy overall.

What is it that excites you most about the Faculty of Agriculture?

Knowing Dalhousie—how large it is, how much expertise there is in the broader Dal community—what excites me is bringing Dal together with an environment here that is special: one that is very close to industry, rural living, and many elements of the agri-food and agriculture environment.

To some extent this campus, and now this faculty, represent rural Nova Scotia and rural Maritimes. We are advocates, representing and trying to improve that sector of life. There’s actually a large contingency of urban people involved, but it’s a feature that struck me markedly: how connected the faculty, and in particular researchers, are directly to the industries, and how much of their research is a reflection on practical things that industry want done now or in the very near future.

It’s about melding Dalhousie together with this fantastic campus to strengthen all our efforts: student offerings and opportunities as well as research. I fully anticipate all these areas to ramp up in the months and years ahead.

We’re talking fairly early in the morning, so I’m curious what the rest of your day as dean is like on this, the Faculty of Agriculture's first day as part of Dal.

I’m doing a walkaround and say hi to people for an hour or so. Then the rest of the day is pretty much a typical one. We’re getting an update on some outstanding issues in the transition, then I have a couple of appointments for support in areas like Canada Research Chairs, funding for alterations and renovations projects, making sure we get a fair share of all that’s offered.

So you could say we’re already getting down to business with our work, as it should be.


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