Imagine you’re a member of the advisory committee for the selection of a new McGill principal. There are a few traits that you would definitely be on the lookout for in any of the candidates you seriously considered for the job.
One: A thorough understanding of the challenges facing Canada’s top research universities.
Two: Significant international experience and a strong desire to seek out new opportunities for McGill beyond Canada’s borders.
Three: A familiarity with Montreal – its strengths, its quirks, its unique characteristics. All the better if the person you had in mind felt an attachment to the city, if they relished the idea of living here.
And, of course, a proven track record of leadership. Might be nice if they had actually led another university. Or even two.
Deep Saini, McGill’s new principal and vice-chancellor, ticks off all those boxes.
As an academic and administrator, he has played a substantial role at four of Canada’s top research universities – Université de Montréal, the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto, and Dalhousie University.
His academic career spans three separate continents. He is comfortable in many different environments.
He lived in Montreal for 18 years. He knows the city well. His children grew up here.
He was Dalhousie’s president for three years and, before that, the vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra in Australia. You would have to go all the way back to Arthur Eustace Morgan in 1935 to find a new McGill principal who had previously led another university.
You look at his CV and it all just seems to make sense. Saini, though, looks at it a little differently.
“I come from the kind of background where, when I was young, even the idea that someday I could become the principal of McGill University would have sounded absolutely crazy,” he says.
Saini was born in India. “My father grew up in very humble circumstances,” he says. “My childhood was, by Indian standards, middle-class, but by world standards, still pretty poor. The Indian middle class today is very different than it was when I was growing up.
“I know how a lack of privilege can hold back [people] who aspire to do something big in life,” says Saini. “When you have had that kind of a journey, you have personally encountered all the doubts, all the obstacles, and, at times, the bigotry, the racism, all sorts of things. I’ve gone through all of that. I have a very deep personal understanding of what it feels like to succeed when you come from a background other than a ‘standard’ background.”
As a young man, Saini had a clear idea of the career he wanted – and it had nothing to do with being an academic.
“I wanted to become an army officer. In India, particularly in those days, it was a very prestigious career. Hundreds of thousands of people would apply every year to get into the Indian Military Academy and only about 300 made it.”
One of the prerequisites for receiving a commission as a military officer was an undergraduate degree. So, Saini went to university. “Universities felt like another world,” he says. “The first time I ever heard anyone mention Rhodes Scholars, I thought they meant people who did research on roads.”
He was a quick learner, though, and did well. He was offered a prestigious scholarship to do a master’s degree. It wasn’t really what he was planning for, but he decided to accept it.
“To be totally honest, I only began my masters because I had that scholarship. Somebody else was going to pay for it. I thought, okay, let me start it, and once I get into the army, I’ll quit.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but he never would become an army officer. From then on, his life would revolve around universities.
He credits two mentors in particular, his master’s supervisor, A. K. Srivastava at Punjab Agricultural University in India, and his PhD supervisor, Donald Aspinall at the University of Adelaide in Australia, with sparking his passion for science and research.
“About six months later [after beginning his master’s degree], I started thinking, ‘Wait a minute, this is actually exciting,’” says Saini. “Research was exciting. All the things that appealed to me about a military career – the sense of adventure, never quite knowing what might happen the next day – I discovered those things in research.”
Canada would play a huge role in Saini’s life after he completed his doctoral studies (his PhD thesis focused on crop physiology under drought). After finishing a postdoc at the University of Alberta, the plant biologist built an impressive academic career. He has been the director of the Institut de recherche en biologie végétale at Université de Montréal, the dean of the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment, a vice-president at the University of Toronto and the principal of its Mississauga campus, and then the top jobs at both the University of Canberra and Dalhousie.
And now he finds himself at McGill.
“Earlier in my career, whenever I thought of McGill, it seemed a little scary to me,” says Saini. “It was an institution that intimidated me. It was a university I looked up to. It had that long history of great research and all those Nobel laureates, more than any other Canadian university.”
As Saini progressed in his career, McGill continued to intrigue him, “but the right job was never there at the right time. The closest I ever came was spending part of a sabbatical year in the Department of Biology here, working with a very accomplished researcher who is now retired, Raj Dhindsa.”
His return to McGill – this time for a much longer duration – was spurred, in addition to the allure of McGill, by family matters.
“I have felt the need to be closer to my children and my grandkids for quite some time,” says Saini. His two daughters and their families live in Ottawa. “I was becoming increasingly restless about the fact that my grandchildren were growing up and I wasn’t close by.”
And then, without expecting it to happen, McGill, the university he had long admired, reached out.
So, what kind of a leader can McGillians expect to see in Saini?
“I’m very much a people person,” says Saini, “and I am a team player. When you are in a leadership role, something you learn very early on is that there is nothing you accomplish that is done solo. The notion of individual heroics – if I ever believed in that – it’s something I left behind a long time ago. I’m very comfortable with the fact that I’m not always the smartest person in the room. More often than not, I know I’m not the smartest person in the room. You intentionally surround yourself with smart people and that’s what gets the job done.
“I’m driven by excellence,” he adds. “Universities are about the never-ending pursuit of excellence and that is something else that informs my approach [to leadership].
“I’m not afraid of making bold decisions. I’m not a big fan of too many incremental things,” says Saini. He pauses and laughs. “That’s not to say that I’m going to come up with a crazy idea every day, but when I go after something that I truly believe matters, I go all in.”
As the first person of colour to lead the University, Saini is making McGill history.
“To be honest, I have had those firsts [in my career] so many times already, it isn’t something I dwell on,” says Saini. “At the Université de Montréal, I was the first non-white, non-francophone director of that institute. When I was in Australia, I became the first non-white person ever appointed as a university president – not just at the University of Canberra, but in the whole country.”
Still, Saini recognizes that his appointment “has a symbolic importance. There are people who look at me as a source of inspiration, not so much as a person, but because of where I am, because I sit in this office, and I do take that responsibility very seriously.”
Saini believes that McGill plays an essential role in Quebec.
“I want McGill to be known as a university from Quebec and for Quebec. We take Quebec with us wherever we go in the world, and we bring the world to Quebec. McGill was a global university before universities even talked about being global. Continuing to work with the many excellent universities in Quebec and growing our international reach are major priorities.”
He points to McGill’s alumni as key allies in that regard.
“They are our ambassadors around the world. I have seen it myself. I travelled widely when I was with other universities, and I would meet McGill alumni time and time again. They are a special breed. The passion that they have for this institution is unparalleled, at least in Canada.”
The fact that McGill places such an emphasis on both research excellence and high-calibre teaching is another trait that makes the University stand out, says Saini. He notes that one of his peers, the former president of one of Canada’s top research universities, has talked about how “McGill has managed to maintain high-quality research and high-quality teaching hand in hand. And he is right. I look forward to taking a deeper dive into McGill’s DNA to see how we do it here. This is a global powerhouse in research that has also found a way to become a student-centred university.”
Saini says he and his wife Rani look forward to reengaging with Montreal.
“It is a special place for us. This is the city where our kids grew up. One of our daughters is married to a Franco-Québécois. They met at Dawson College.
“We enjoyed the city enormously when we lived here the last time,” says Saini, “but, in some ways, I developed a full appreciation for what Montreal has to offer after leaving here.
“Walking down Ste-Catherine Street and seeing all the cultural diversity and the richness that it brings. The natural beauty of this city. Its amazing and accessible waterfront – it is accessible to everybody and that’s not always true of waterfronts in other cities. The vibrant arts and culture scene – there is always something going on.
“And, of course, the incredible food scene,” adds Saini. “We have lived in some amazing places when it comes to food, but we always thought of Montreal as being extra-special. I remember attending an alumni gathering in Sydney, Australia, and looking for a place to eat after the event. We couldn’t find any food at 10 p.m.! Sydney is a pretty cool city, but at that moment I thought of Montreal. This would never happen in Montreal.”