SPECIAL REPORT

A PROUD ‘CHILD OF SPUTNIK’

For the president of McMaster University, research is the key to the future

DIANE BRADY November 9 1992
SPECIAL REPORT

A PROUD ‘CHILD OF SPUTNIK’

For the president of McMaster University, research is the key to the future

DIANE BRADY November 9 1992

A PROUD ‘CHILD OF SPUTNIK’

SPECIAL REPORT

For the president of McMaster University, research is the key to the future

In 1957, a 14-year-old girl with artistic aspirations listened to radio reports as the first Soviet satellite blasted into space—and it changed the course of her life. Thirty-five years later, that “child of Sputnik,” as she calls herself, occupies the president’s office at Hamilton’s McMaster University. Geraldine KenneyWallace—former chair of the Science Council of Canada, renowned laser expert and a successful painter whose work has been exhibited in the United States and Canada—is remarkably candid about where she has landed. “I never wanted to be president,” says Kenney-Wallace, now 49. “But I did want a president’s position to accomplish some of my goals.”

She has found an ideal forum at McMaster University. In the highly territorial world of academia, both Kenney-Wallace and McMaster are almost wilfully blind to the borders among disciplines. Since 1974,

McMaster has won worldwide acclaim for its revolutionary faculty of health sciences. The model, which such schools as Harvard and Hebrew University in Israel now copy, admits students from all disciplines, on the premise that medicine demands skills in communications and science. The current class even includes a former concert pianist.

Now, the university is launching its first two “theme schools”—focused on international justice and human rights, as well as the impact of advanced materials on society—which will bring together faculty and 200 students from all parts of the university. For students, that involves adopting a holistic approach to learning—moving among subjects as various as literature, biology and economics to find creative solutions to problems—that enriches the normal honors program from which they will graduate. Kenney-Wallace describes each program as an “almost magic combination” of learning.

“It’s not wise for students to have fixed ideas,” she says. “It means they lose exciting opportunities to walk intellectually among disciplines.”

Indeed, Kenney-Wallace insists that false boundaries have blocked Canada’s success in global competition. At a time when all universities are trimming costs to cope with underfunding, Kenney-Wallace continues to reinforce McMaster’s research intensive mandate. In June, the president endorsed a bold strategic plan to win her school international recognition as “the most advanced university in Canada in research and scholarship.” The plan, called Into the 21st Century, pledges to achieve that aim with a concentration on identified areas of strength in arts, sciences and professional faculties. But she acknowledges that the quest for research excellence is a difficult battle. “Toshiba invests more each

year in research than all of Canada,” says Kenney-Wallace. “We don’t realize that our resource base has shifted its centre of gravity to the brain.”

Many prominent academics share Kenney-Wallace’s concerns. Rudolph Marcus, a Montreal-born scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry last month, says that an emphasis on the practical applications of research is shortsighted at best. “Excellence comes from pushing the limits of research, not from working on well-mined problems,” says Marcus, 69, who works at the Pasadena-based California Institute of Technology. He adds that he left Canada in 1949 because there were no training opportunities in theoretical chemistry: “People need to use their training or it’s a wasted resource.” Kenney-Wallace vows that her first goal is to “achieve excellence through discovery.” That quest for discovery is often a money loser, notes Alan Shaver, head of Q McGill’s department of chemistry, I but it always pays off in long-term * progress. “Our strength has to come « from curiosity-based research,” says Shaver. “We will be the losers if our universities are turned into gadget factories.”

According to Kenney-Wallace, one of the greatest obstacles in the quest for excellence is Canada’s emphasis on tolerance and equity. “There is such a thing as healthy competition,” she says, “of choosing which areas we are going to build up.” Although she occupies the president’s chair, she still competes for research grants for her work on the ultrafast motions of atoms and molecules. And she says that universities must try to excel in an environment where knowledge is not highly valued. “We live in a country that adores baseball statistics,” she says, “but hates arithmetic. We don’t think globally. What an exquisite paradox.”

For McMaster’s renaissance president, the largest stumbling block is a polarized view of knowledge. And in making her point, she turns to history. “The magnificent stained glass on the Chartres cathedral was a mega-high-tech project of the 12th century,” she says. “Was that science or art? The pigments and sand of that time would be the lasers and fibre optics of today.” Keenly aware of the broad spectrum of knowledge, Kenney-Wallace is unflinching in her prescription for success. “Education is about imparting the confidence to ask a question and the responsibility to find the answer,” she says. “As a society, we should decide the most important questions and direct resources to finding the answers.”

DIANE BRADY