By Erica Simpson
Special to The Toronto Sun
Robert Birgeneau is on a mission: to bring the University of Toronto up to the highest international standards of education and research.
As president, he's in a pretty good position to do so.
Birgeneau became U of T's 14th president after leaving his position as dean of science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in July 2000. When previous president Robert S. Pritchard personally sought him out for the job, he found the offer too good to refuse.
"I have always been a very deep believer in public education," Birgeneau says. This passion for the public system brought Birgeneau back to his alma mater after spending almost his entire career in the United States.
Birgeneau completed an advanced honours undergraduate degree in math and physics at U of T before heading off to complete a PhD in physics at Yale University.
Following his time at Yale, he accepted a position at MIT and worked there for the next 25 years as a professor, the head of the physics department, and finally, as the dean of science. This latter position taught him that "In academia, leadership really matters."
Despite all of his experience in the scholastic world, Birgeneau says he was astonished by the demands of his current position."In this job you really use all parts of yourself."
Being president requires working seven days a week, 12 months of the year. Generally, his days are scheduled with meetings relating to every area of university affairs.
"You have to know about provincial politics, federal politics, capital construction, research, education, infrastructure and student life," Birgeneau says.
How does "Bob," as he's known around campus, manage to tackle such a daunting task?
"With a sense of humour," he laughs.
Birgeneau says he is keenly aware of the high-profile nature of the job: "If things go wrong, suddenly you find yourself on television or on the front page of the newspaper."
Birgeneau tends to take negative episodes in stride, though. He often reminds himself that negative press is often aimed at "the president of U of T," not Robert Birgeneau personally. "You have to learn how to disassociate yourself from your title," he says.
But he finds the positive aspects of the job far outweigh the negatives. "It does really matter," Birgeneau says. "If you improve education and research, then you improve the lives of Canadians."
One of Birgeneau's most enjoyable activities is being the master of ceremonies at convocation. Facing a sea of several thousand students, telling jokes and offering inspiring advice can be a challenge. "I learned for the first time what it is like to be an actor," he jokes.
While some nights the audience laughs louder than others, Birgeneau maintains it's the highlight of his job. "I like graduations because the students are so excited," Birgeneau says with a smile. "That's why we're here."
To prospective presidential candidates, Birgeneau recommends first becoming a good teacher and scholar. He also said that working your way up the administrative ladder can be a big asset. "You have to develop a high level of accomplishment in both areas," he says.
But more importantly, he recommends having a great sense of humour -- a lesson he learned personally during his in the first month in office.
Driving up to his house just prior to a reception where he had to shake the hands of 1,200 guests, his front tooth suddenly chipped off. Having just moved to Toronto, he did not yet have a dentist. Frantic, he remembered that a member of the governing council was a dentist. He called him up and had an emergency cap done in his office. Birgeneau made the reception in seconds flat.
"Being a pubic figure is harder than it looks sometimes," Birgeneau says. As president of the University of Toronto, nobody seems better suited to make that claim.
(Erica Simpson (email@example.com)
is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)
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