Deep Saini’s tenure as Dalhousie president may have proven short, but it was certainly eventful.
Some of those events — like the launch of a new, forward-looking strategic plan for the university — were decidedly expected. Others were less so, with perhaps none other having the scale and scope of impact as the COVID-19 pandemic, which arrived in Nova Scotia shortly after Dr. Saini did and transformed nearly everything about how Dal’s students, faculty and staff worked together.
Dr. Saini’s departure after only three years in office surely falls into the “unexpected” column as well; as he explains it, it surprised even him that he found himself leaving Dal so soon. In the new year, Dr. Saini will be moving back to Montreal — the city where he spent the bulk of his academic career — to become principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University.
Before he finishes his time as Dalhousie’s president at the end of December, Dr. Saini sat down for an interview with Dal News about his time in office, how the university persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic, the promise he sees in Dal’s future, and his final message to the Dal community.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s begin at the ending, with your decision to leave Dalhousie to become principal and vice-chancellor at McGill. You’ve shared some of your perspective on what went into that decision, and I expect people had a wide range of reactions to the news. I’d love for you to talk a bit more about your feelings on departing Dal so soon, and what you might say to people who were surprised to hear you were leaving.
I would be surprised if there was somebody who wasn’t surprised. To an extent, it was even a surprise to me that this was the outcome. It was certainly not something I ever expected.
I have a strong loyalty to Dalhousie, and I adore this institution for so many reasons. When I eventually said “yes” to McGill’s offer, it came after a long process, and what really triggered the decision was our family’s needs. I was seriously contemplating not seeking a second term at Dalhousie because of that family question for me. Everyone in my office and on my team knows that I’m a stickler for work-life balance, and I felt like at a time when my family needed me, I was something of a hypocrite for not practicing what I was preaching. In Montreal, however, I can be close enough to visit my family every weekend if I need to. [Editor’s note: Deep has children and grandchildren in Ottawa.] And I can do that while continuing to maintain my commitment to this profession that I am so passionate about.
Now, none of this would have happened if I had any doubts about Dalhousie’s ability to manage just fine without me. For me, nothing is ever done solo — not here, not anywhere else. It’s about the team around you. My job is like the conductor of the orchestra, and we have tremendous players here at Dalhousie who will not only keep the music going but are more than ready for someone else to step up and take over the conducting.
Dr. Saini and his wife Rani (left) tour the Dalhousie Dental Clinic. (Danny Abriel photo)
You arrived at Dalhousie in January 2020, just as the World Health Organization discovered evidence of human-to-human transmission of a new coronavirus we’d come to know as COVID-19. Less than two months later, Dalhousie would swiftly end in-person instruction and enter truly uncharted territory. Take me back to that moment when the pandemic changed everything: what were you thinking and feeling?
It was an incredibly scary time, considering what we were hearing from China and elsewhere about the virus. We knew so little about it. We were making decisions in a context where there was zero protection, no defence. The two thoughts that were dominant in my head at the time were: one, what if someone in our Dal community gets it — and then it spreads? The safety of our people was the most important thing. And the second thought was about the financial outlook for Dalhousie if we found ourselves in a scenario where the core activities we perform as an academic institution — like teaching students — were at risk. If enrolment plummets, it could bankrupt the university. What would we do about that?
In the end, my mind focused on our people: health had to come first, and we’d deal with whatever else happens. We have to base our decisions on protecting people’s lives, health and well-being. And from that moment on, I can look back and there’s not a single decision we’ve made that was in isolation from that dominant consideration. And I think our community understood that; even if they didn’t like what they were being asked to do, they understood it was about health. And what we’ve seen has been the most phenomenal experience in cooperation I’ve encountered in my entire life.
That leads nicely to my next question: what are your impressions of how the Dalhousie community has navigated these pandemic years, and the challenges of work and study in the shadow of COVID?
People stepped up and did two things. One, they did what was necessary to continue their work and their lives, whether that was international students keeping up their studies from around the world or faculty and instructors figuring out — incredibly quickly — how to move their courses online. People did what they had to do. And two, people took care of one another. They took precautions. They gathered protective equipment to donate. They volunteered to assemble COVID testing kits — hundreds of thousands of them. When vaccines were available, they got vaccinated. And the result is that during the most dangerous period of the pandemic, we successfully prevented any outbreaks among our Dal community. That’s a testament to our people and their care for one another.
Dr. Saini updates on Dal's strategic plan at the Annual Progress Report event this past June. (Nick Pearce photo)
One of your first priorities in office was to finalize and launch a new strategic plan for Dalhousie. That plan — Third Century Promise — arrived in June 2021 following pandemic delays and a change of leadership in the Provost’s Office. Talk to me about bringing Third Century Promise to fruition and what you feel the plan represents for Dal’s future.
I arrived in the midst of a massive consultation experience that had spanned 18 months — one of the longest exercises in consultation I’ve ever seen at a university. So when Frank [Harvey, provost] and I sat down to translate that into a cohesive plan, we really strived to remain faithful to that process, and I believe we did just that. It is a plan that truly reflects this university and its people.
In many ways, I consider Third Century Promise to be something more than simply a strategic plan. Yes, it covers a five-year window, but looking at its vision and priorities, it’s really more of a strategic vision for the direction Dalhousie can take in the longer term. I leave feeling very strongly that Third Century Promise can be a long-term guiding light for Dalhousie, a roadmap to guide Dalhousie independent of whoever the players are at any given time. The tactics will be determined by the people who are present at a particular moment. But the objectives are very well defined, and there is consensus around those objectives. Themes like Dal’s role as a civic university — that’s really been embraced by our Dal community, and that’s an indication that people are truly behind that vision.
You’re the first Dal president who was president of another university before coming here, and you’ve also held senior positions at multiple other schools as well. That gives you a unique vantage point on Dalhousie’s place in the broader context of higher education not only in Canada but globally. What defines Dalhousie to you? What distinguishes this place from the other universities you’ve been a part of?
When you’ve been a president elsewhere, you’ve already been through a learning process that comes from stepping into the role itself. And so I think you develop a certain eye for those critical things that stand out about a university. And my two answers to this question are actually the same things I observed when I first came to Dalhousie and have proven true from my experience here.
The first is that Dalhousie is a research-intensive university — and increasingly so — but one with a very strong commitment to high-quality teaching. And that is not an easy thing for a research-intensive university to accomplish. Many struggle with achieving both those things together. It’s not an accident that Dal’s undergraduate population is so pan-Canadian, that the university attracts more students from elsewhere in Canada than we do even from here in our home province. That national draw to Dalhousie is informed, in a large measure, by the fact that students come here knowing they will get a quality education in a highly intellectual, enriched environment.
The second unique feature is Dal’s civic role. Now, every university is a civic university to varying extents and plays a key role in their community. But for some institutions, positioned as they are by history and geography, they have no choice but to be civic universities. They have to step up, because it’s their established and vital role in their community. That’s the case with Dalhousie, where the role we play in this province and region is so significant. Embracing that role is critical. It’s not as if we have just simply suddenly decided we're going to be a civic university — but we're being deliberate about it now, more open and intentional in what we do about it.
Chatting with students at a welcome reception in early 2020. (Nick Pearce photo)
The pandemic has not been the only major issue Dalhousie has faced during your presidency. There has been a labour dispute, community tensions, and other issues that have proved challenging as well. But there have been successes, too — new milestones in enrolment, in research funding and in progress towards other key institutional goals. How do you feel about the state of Dalhousie, right now, and its ability to meet the opportunities and challenges of the years ahead?
What I’ve learned over the years is that difficult moments are not unique to any one university. Multiple universities are going through labour challenges right now. The pandemic was everyone’s challenge. Universities are large, complex organizations and there are always going to be challenges, issues and sometimes disagreements that emerge as we move forward with our mission.
And yet this period of great difficulty was also a period of great successes. We’ve managed to get financing to double the size of our Computer Science Faculty such that, when the project is complete in four more years, it will make it one of the top five Faculties of Computer Science in the country. We have enrolment that reached record heights, increasing every year — even continuing strength in our international enrolment — despite the pandemic’s challenges. We’ve been able to grow our operating budget, push research revenue to a new record, and our fundraising results keeps getting stronger. And internationally, we’re making major strides in building a global network and growing our global activity. So Dalhousie is making its mark in a big way.
What is the future of Dalhousie? It’s very bright. And I think it’s that way in part because we’ve embraced doing the kinds of things you need to do to succeed in an environment where universities must be increasingly innovative and self-sufficient to thrive. Government will always be a crucial partner, and they will always provide support that allows us to survive, but if you’re going to thrive as a university, to really make major strides in our teaching and research and impact, we’re going to have to do more things ourselves. And I think Dalhousie has an exceptional team that is taking the right steps to move this great university forward to an even stronger future.
Behind the scenes of an episode of Dr. Saini's video series, "The Deep Dive." (Cody Turner photo)
I know people in your position often think of how your work adds to and sustains the long and continuing history of a place such as this. Even though it was shorter than expected, what do you hope you’ve contributed to Dalhousie in your time here?
The idea of solo leadership — someone on a white horse, in shining armor, to lead a place like this — is a fallacy. I got over that kind of notion of individual heroics a long time ago. This is about the team. And I leave feeling really good that I was able to play a role in creating an environment where leaders in their different roles here at Dal could express their talent to their maximum capabilities.
Quite aside from the accomplishments of the team I mentioned earlier, I also believe we’ve raised the bar very significantly on the boldness of our ambitions for this institution. We’re not just seeing ourselves as the top university in Atlantic Canada anymore — we’ve moved beyond that. We are now thinking of ourselves as a very significant global player, and one of the top universities in Canada. And we have done that without losing our connection to our community, our anchor that keeps us grounded. If it wasn’t for our community, we would be nowhere — but as partners with our community, we get to bring the world to this community and vice-versa as we grow our stature on the global stage.
On a more personal note, I’ve been so proud to be part of Dal’s Agricultural Campus community during my time here. My wife Rani and I have set up a bursary in honour of Rani’s late mother, who was a devoted teacher. This entrance bursary will help support a first-year student in need on the Ag Campus.
What final parting words do you want to share with the Dal community?
That while I’m leaving physically, a part of my heart will always be here. This is an institution I love. I will always be a champion for Dalhousie, an ambassador for Dalhousie, and a friend — no matter where I am. And I know that, at the U15 and Universities Canada tables, we will continue to work together and be great allies.
Deep on-stage in the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium. (Cody Turner photo)