I sit across from Professor Deep Saini in his rather spacious office. His windows offer a view of the rain outside. The sky looks quite bleak.
Perhaps not as bleak as Saini’s thoughts on leaving UTM, as he has now been appointed as the next vice-chancellor (president) of the University of Canberra in Australia and will be ending his current term on August 31.
“The buildings, the grounds—they’re just the containers. The contents [of UTM] are the people—and this place has amazing people. I’m going to get emotional [right now] […]. I’m going to really, really miss the people,” says Saini.
“This is an amazing place, and I will always be watching it—no matter where I am,” he adds.
Saini’s tenure as the principal of UTM began in July 2010.
His early academic career began at the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, India, where he completed both an undergraduate and master’s degree in botany. He then completed his doctorate at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Saini then moved to Canada, where he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta. Saini worked as the director-general of the Plant Biology Research Institute at the Université de Montréal, before transitioning to being the dean of the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo.
With a glance at his academic career, I wonder what fuels his every move—is it wanderlust? Or is he simply a risk-taker?
Saini laughs and replies that he “like[s] interesting, challenging scenarios to work in”.
“Each of my moves has essentially been triggered by an opportunity that has come up [and] has taken me somewhere where there is an interesting challenge. I generally tend to go for riskier things than the more comfortable ones, and they have so far in my life paid off very nicely. And I hope that this one would not be a mistake,” says Saini.
Has he challenged himself enough though?
“Most of the people who know me would think so. I think I’ve pushed the limits quite well. You know, the trick in life is to see a challenging opportunity that’s coming your way. Most of us, when an opportunity is coming [our] way, we tend to see it in the form of a risk. Because we get focused on that risk, we end up missing the opportunity,” says Saini.
However, he admits that when it comes to financial opportunities, he tends to see opportunities as risks too. Saini says that he hasn’t been a good investor over the years, as at times, he believed that certain stocks were too risky only to find out later that those risks were now selling at a much higher price and would have raked in quite a profit.
“When it comes to career opportunities, I have been fortuitously very good at judging the opportunity when it comes my way, and have been able to cut through that scary fog of risk that always is associated with these things,” he says.
Last year, Saini took a six-month administrative leave, where he focused on both his research and considering the priorities and “the future direction of UTM”. It was late during his sabbatical, in November, when Saini was first approached about the possibility of a position at the University of Canberra.
His initial reaction was not very positive. Saini says that he “wasn’t even thinking [about] this kind of [opportunity]” as he had just accepted a second term as the principal of UTM.
“But as we talked more, it became more and more interesting,” says Saini.
Saini says that his move is not a matter of prestige or the position offered, but that it’s simply a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
“It’s the nature of the project. They have a very significant campus development project to do, both in terms of physical development of the campus—they’re looking at about 1.6 billion dollars of development […] and the academic development of the campus. It’s the nature of the work there they have conceived they would do—it’s exceptionally exciting. There’s nothing like that happening anywhere else in the world, in any university. And that’s what excites me,” says Saini.
There is also a sentimental aspect to his decision: Saini believes that he owes his start to Australia, where he received “top-class education” which he didn’t have to pay for.
“That country gave me an absolutely amazing education—and this is my opportunity to pay [it] back,” says Saini.
He further comments that this “doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt to leave UTM—that duality is going to be a big regret. I wish I had spent another five years here at UTM. I wish I could do both somehow. I will miss UTM sorely.”
But what about the ideas that Saini had been developing through his sabbatical—how will they be implemented?
“Things happen when you are planning something else—this is one of those things,” he says.
“I have done a lot of work, and have given a lot of thought to the future of UTM. But I also believe that it would be not very prudent and ethical on my part—now that I’m leaving—to openly articulate a vision for UTM, because I won’t be here to carry [it] out,” says Saini.
However, Saini will be leaving his thoughts with U of T president Meric Gertler and a few key members of the administration.
“I certainly am very committed to not inadvertently doing any harm by my departure. So I won’t be talking openly about my vision any more, but I will be leaving my thoughts with others, because a lot of work has been done on this,” he says.
As for his final few months here at UTM, Saini will be focusing on transitioning.
“I’m here practically to the end of July, so I’m actually starting to work with my senior colleagues to ask them about what are perhaps [the] two or three most important things in their portfolios, with which they would need my help to take to fruition, or at least substantially advance those before the next person takes over,” says Saini.
While these tasks will keep him busy during the day, at night, he will be occupied with the arduous task of packing.
Looking back on the period of Saini’s tenure, a key feature has been the several building projects that have been initiated (and completed), such as the Instructional Centre, Deerfield Hall, Innovation Complex, the completion of the Terrence Donnelly Health Sciences Complex, and the Centre for South Asian Civilizations.
When I ask him about which project he would consider to be the most important, Saini’s reply is immediate: “All of them.” Though he does admit that he has a special attachment to the Innovation Complex.
Three years ago, before the Innovation Complex was built, the area consisted of the Kaneff Centre (built in 1992) and a circular green lawn in the middle. Saini and Paul Donoghue, UTM’s chief administrative officer, reimagined the architecture together. They imagined a structure standing in place of the lawn. What shocks Saini the most is that the architects rendered that dream and made it a reality.
“Every time I go there, I think, ‘Yes, we dreamed of that,’ ” says Saini.
Saini is also looking forward to the upcoming renovations to the North Building.
“I have a bit of an emotional feeling about [that] one […] because when I first came here in 2010, I visited all the departments. One of the thing[s] that I got from everyone in the North Building [was the question] ‘Can you do something about this building?’ ” says Saini.
While Saini regrets that he will not be around to see the construction, he says that he will be coming “all the way from Australia to see the opening of this building”.
“I feel that [the North Building] is the fulfilment of a promise that I had made [to] my colleagues,” says Saini. He comments that this situation is similar to what happened to him as he left the University of Waterloo. Despite his position here at UTM, he returned to see the opening of the new building that he had previously initiated.
Aside from the many structural achievements, Saini believes that a part of the legacy he will leave behind includes “qualitative changes”.
“I feel that UTM is [a] much more confident place than when I arrived here. It was confident, but the confidence of UTM and what it aspires to, and how it is viewed in the community, [and] how it is viewed in the tri-campus system has gone a quantum leap forward. We think of ourselves not as a satellite campus anymore—we think of us as a university. I often joke about it: there’s UTM, and then there’s our satellite, downtown Toronto,” says Saini.
Along with these achievements, Saini has also faced several challenges during his term as UTM principal, such as clashes with students regarding parking fees and last year’s CUPE 3902 strike.
“[There were] some of the debates with my student colleagues—at times, we had some moments on parking and so on, where I feel that we reached a kind of dead-end impasse where there is no way for us to reconcile our differences. But that’s the nature of any job. I’ll have that in Canberra, and no matter where I’ll go,” says Saini.
As for the CUPE 3902 strike, Saini believes that it was a “very unfortunate period in the history of our institution”.
“A great institution such as the University of Toronto ought to be able to sort out their differences without going to that extreme. I don’t blame anybody. Whenever something goes wrong to that point, it’s a collective failure. It’s not an individual’s failure. It’s not a particular group’s failure. We all failed,” says Saini.
During the strike, there was a student sit-in outside Saini’s office—which Saini joined.
“I was saddened by the effect [the strike] had on the students—especially undergraduate students. I was also pleased that we are on a campus where the principal can sit down with students who are protesting and can have that kind of conversation. That’s why I’m so proud of people here […] that we never lose sight [of] our relationships, that we never lose sight of our ability to talk and that was the beauty […]. I’ll remember that as one of the highlights of my time here that we had that moment—it lasted for half an hour. It was a beautiful moment,” says Saini.
I jokingly tell him that we can recreate the moment.
He laughs and says that he’ll bring pizza this time.