An activist you are!


The letter from the president of The University of Victoria informing me about my honorary doctorate was a complete surprise. “My former graduate students and postdocs, who are now on the faculty at UVic, must have been behind this nomination,” I thought. Wishful thinking and a healthy dose of vanity made me wonder which aspects of  my mathematical contributions would be cited. I eventually asked and ultimately learned that I was wrong on both counts.

“Your nomination package shied away from talking about the technical side of your work. Instead, your nomination talked about your activism on behalf of mathematics on a Canada-wide level, …. the research institutions you founded, …. and the role of your blog.”

Woah! That was a novelty. For once, this blog and the severe strain of activism I am accused of suffering from, didn’t get me in trouble. Plus, this might change my children’s minds. They claim –unfairly I must say– that whenever I burn my tongue trying to drink coffee, I start to rant about the second law of thermodynamics, and proceed to campaign against it.

And since I have to make a speech next month, I’d better start charting an outline.

I am definitely an activist for Mathematics, “this wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve,” according to Eugene Wigner. How to make people aware of the mathematics used to make a single cell phone call? How do we convince that Canada deserves to be a leading nation in this most fundamental of human activities? My role in the founding of the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences was a simple corollary of that activism.

I am a promoter of Canada’s leadership in international scientific collaboration. The Banff International Research Station “underscores how international cooperation adds up to more than what any nation could accomplish alone,” but also how Canada can be a focal point for such collaborations.

I am a believer in mobilizing the advanced research and training capacity in our PSE institutions to Canada’s advantage, be it in industrial or societal development. Espousing the Mitacs mission was a natural consequence.

And since we’re at it …

I am a defender of basic research that tackles fundamental questions, not just research that only looks at short-term commercial gains. The innovator could develop the toaster, because a curious researcher, sometime somewhere, discovered the laws of electric conductivity and heat transfer.

I am a militant for Canada in this raging global war for talent. Canada’s immigration laws should aim for a future, where our country is viewed as an international hub for leading-edge research, and talent development.

I am an advocate of peer review in evaluating research and researchers’ accountability. Research projects cannot and should not be decided by politicians, power brokers, donors, or career administrators, nor should they be imposed or funded through patronage, connections, special privileges, or political access.

I am concerned by this powerful “new strain of fact-resistant humans,” who may be threatening the ability of Earth to sustain life.

I favour “evidence-based decision making” over “decision-based evidence making.”

I plead for the nurturing of intellectual curiosity, problem solving, and critical thinking in a world that is shamelessly becoming a land of moral relativism.

I worry about those who believe that Calculus is a horrible and hideous instrument of torture to life sciences students… and those who think Greek mythology needs a trigger warning.

I am also an activist against those who lecture students, about how College should cause them “intellectual discomfort,” yet royally spare a class of entitled university managers, who expect to never feel uncomfortable.

I fight against those who view college students as customers, universities as businesses, campuses as Club Meds, and faculty members as employees.

I am opposed to those who think that faculty paychecks should be directly linked to the number of fee paying  –preferably international– students they teach.

I refuse to accept that a remarkably land rich university could be running the risk of losing its competitive edge because of the prohibitive cost that disenfranchises its faculty, staff and students from its own real estate.

I am for competitive and merit-based hiring. I am also wary of a culturally homogenized administrative class, for it could be limited in its perspective on the diverse humanity populating our universities: another important step towards decolonizing our imaginations.

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2 Responses to An activist you are!

  1. Thank you, Nassif, for another inspiring post.

    Congratulations for this very well deserved honour!




  2. Pingback: Humbled and Proud | Piece of Mind

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