After Queen’s bid goodbye to former Provost Alan Harrison at the end of July, it ushered in a brand new face. As of Aug. 1, Benoit-Antoine Bacon joined the University as its newest provost.
Chatting with The Journal via email, Bacon discussed his new position, growing up French-Canadian, and the landscape of modern universities.
Provost Bacon, you’re still in the early weeks of your new job. To start, we’d love if you could tell us a little bit about your path here.
My first academic appointment was in the department of psychology at Bishop’s University. I love teaching psychology and conducting research in visual neuroscience and I think I would still be doing just that — if not for a major crisis that hit Bishop’s in the mid-2000s.
To make a long story short, a combination of awful labour relations, enrolment drop, financial instability and reputational fallout had brought Bishop’s to a very low point.
With the arrival of a new principal, there was a chance to rebuild, so I got involved first as chief negotiator on the union side, and then as chair of psychology, dean of Arts and Science and associate vice-principal (AVP) research.
I was then fortunate to serve as provost at Concordia University in Montreal, a large and exciting place. And when the consultant called to let me know that Daniel Woolf and Queen’s University were looking for a new provost, I knew right away.
All along I took on these kinds of roles because the right people asked me to, and because I have seen how much damage a poor administration can do, and how much can be achieved by faculty and students when the right kind of leadership protects that space where they can do their best work.
You’ve spent a great deal of your life in prevalently French-Canadian parts of the country. What has the shift to Kingston been like? How has living in a bilingual, and arguably bi-cultural, part of Canada impacted the way you approach your job and every day happenings?
I’m French Canadian by birth but was encouraged by my father, a business executive and an anglophile, to study in English. This has obviously had a major impact in my life.
Being born and raised in Montreal, I used both languages interchangeably, often in the same sentence. I think the Canadian reality today is much larger than the French-English divide, and that we must always strive to be inclusive of all people regardless of origin and mother tongue.
The reality is that humans are a single group that shares the same DNA and the same small home, the Earth. It is the main challenge of the 21st century to work together towards sustaining our living conditions.
Through both their research and teaching missions, universities can contribute to solving these issues. I take heart in the fact that our students are both more aware and more concerned about these issues than I was at that age.
You spent your academic years focusing on visual neuroscience. What caught your interest there, and what kept it? Where does human wonder and curiosities balance with academia?
The human brain weights less than three pounds but it is made of 100 billion neurons that form trillions of connections with each other. Everything that we see, hear, think and do is a result of brain activity.
You speak of wonder and curiosity, that is also the result of brain activity. Seeing the world seems simple and straightforward, but it is the end result of incredibly complex and sophisticated neural processes that we still today only partially understand.
I entered graduate school because I was curious and was somewhat surprised, and obviously delighted, when that led to full time employment. As to the last part of your question I would say that the best researchers, like the best students, are those moved by curiosity.
As Provost, a good deal of the circumstances you’re faced with won’t have a clear-cut ‘right’ answer. How do you balance ethics into your professional decision making?
A university has a complex and wonderful mission that includes the quality of the student experience, research and discovery, community engagement and service, training of the leaders of tomorrow, knowledge curation and dissemination, and service to the state.
Given those sometimes complementary but sometimes competing priorities, I think the biggest challenge is making decisions when faced with a number of options that are all right answers.
There is only one way to lead a modern university and it involves building strong partnerships with all constituencies, consulting widely and being clear and transparent as to what the challenges and opportunities are.
When facing a hard choice, you have to go back to your mission and to fundamental principles, and that almost always informs and clarifies the best path to take.
What do you think are the biggest issues students face? How will you work towards remedying these issues in your role?
I think the biggest challenge for anyone today, young or old, is to decide for oneself how much of the modern world to let into our lives.
We have evolved from a very different world and there is a tension between our inner nature and our twenty-first century circumstances. These questions take different forms, from what to eat, to alcohol and drug use, to social media involvement and consumerism.
We are far from nature and uncertain about the future. I have found gratitude for being and for the natural world to be the most helpful bridge across this tension. Maybe the biggest issue is finding gratitude and holding on to it.
You’ve mentioned before that your job as Provost is one of service. What does that mean to you, and how does that manifest?
The core mission of the university, and it’s a very noble mission, is the creation, dissemination and transmission of knowledge.
The core actors in this mission are the faculty, students and staff engaged in teaching and research. I am a researcher by training and a teacher at heart, and I understand how complex and demanding these core activities are.
As provost, I am proud to be of service, or in support of this mission. If I do my job well, the conditions in which students and faculty can do their best work will be optimal and our community will thrive.
Are there any particular individuals you look to for guidance or exemplary leadership? Why?
I have been fortunate to work with three great principals, and I have learned a lot from each.
Here on campus I have found incredible solace and guidance with Mary Ann Spencer, Janice Hill and the team at the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Center.
I had a chance to do some translations for Vaclav Havel and Elie Wiesel when I lived in the Czech Republic, and their immense struggles in the name of truth and peace have carried me through the comparatively small hurdles I have had to face.
How do you seek and grapple criticism? What sorts of things are difficult for you to hear in terms of critiques, and why do they strike a chord in your experience?
As a provost you cannot please everyone and that can lead to criticism. I am always happy to discuss substantive issues, ideas, decisions and the best path forward for the university.
I also understand and accept that people who disagree will voice criticism towards some of my decisions. I always assume that people are acting in good faith and that they are arguing for what they think is best for the university, and I only ask that they grant me the same consideration.
You’ve also mentioned that you have a young daughter yourself. What would be your biggest hope and biggest concern for her on a University campus, years down the road?
My biggest hope is that my daughter will come to university in the spirit of intellectual curiosity and discovery, including self-discovery.
This is the only path to success in a university, whether you are a student, professor or provost. I would worry if I felt she only enrolled to get a degree, or to satisfy people other than herself, and was not engaged with the wonder of her own work and her own mind.
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