Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

The Magazine Of Queen's University

2018 Issue 1: The Water Issue

Search form

Clarity of vision

Clarity of vision

As a neuroscientist, Benoit-Antoine Bacon's research explores how the senses, particularly vision, help us make sense of the world around us. As Queen's Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic), Dr. Bacon oversees both the academic mission and the budget. And he sees a bright future for Queen's.

[photo of Benoit-Antoine Bacon]
Photo by Bernard Clark

For as long as he can remember, Benoit-Antoine Bacon has been captivated by questions about how we see and perceive reality. As a child growing up in a dysfunctional home in Quebec, he observed the shifting landscapes that the adults around him were navigating, quickly discerning that things were not always as they appeared. To make sense of that confusion, he developed a keen desire to see the world as it truly is, rather than how it could be or as others make it out to be.

That desire for clarity of vision not only charted the path for Dr. Bacon’s academic career, it has also guided his decision-making as he accepted progressively weightier responsibilities within university leadership, stepping into the role of provost in August 2016. Reporting to Principal Woolf, Dr. Bacon’s is a multi-faceted role. He oversees the university’s academic mission and the more than half-billion-dollar operating budget, while also serving as chief operating officer. “There is a profound connection between visual perception and how we conceive and understand the world,” says Dr. Bacon, a psychologist with a specialty in visual neuroscience – the study of how we learn to navigate the world through our senses. “Everything we see, hear, think, feel, and do is a result of the complex activity of our brain. Our brain shapes our thoughts and actions but is also in turn shaped by them. It is our individual responsibility to take very seriously both the input and output of our brains. When we do, we make the world better one thought at a time.”

It’s clear that Dr. Bacon, who has the nimble mind of a scientist and a psychologist’s ability to build trust and connection, lets that human and mind-centred approach guide his work in the university’s second-highest office. Building on the work of his predecessor, Alan Harrison, who was tasked with ensuring the institution’s financial sustainability before retiring in 2016, Dr. Bacon thinks he can contribute to a “generational shift” at Queen’s, one focused on ensuring the institution is ready to face the future. “Given all of the strengths we start from as a university, what will we need to be successful five or 10 years from now?” he muses. “That’s the job. You really need to be able to lift your head and think, ‘What do I need to do now?’, so that the people who succeed us can say they’re lucky that the people in charge before them were on the ball.”

For Dr. Bacon, who holds a PhD from the Université de Montréal, that has meant focusing his attention on a few key areas he feels will be critical to ensuring that Queen’s thrives for generations to come: increasing diversity and championing inclusion; recruiting new professors and researchers; increasing digitalization and internationalization; and caring for the university’s infrastructure, including its many historic buildings. “It’s the first time in my career that I’ve had a year where there was no major crisis, either financial or failing to meet student enrolment targets or faculty, student, or staff strikes,” he laughs as he looks back on his first year in Kingston. “It turns out that you can do a lot of interesting things when you don’t have to worry about just keeping things together.”

Before stepping into his current role, Dr. Bacon served as provost at Concordia University, an institution larger than Queen’s, with many more part-time students and the full diversity of downtown Montreal. Drawn to Queen’s for its national reputation for excellence, he was also attracted to the high level of community engagement among students, faculty, staff, and alumni. It is those strengths that Dr. Bacon, who is still an active professor and researcher, feels will position Queen’s so uniquely for success well into the future. As he embarks on his second year as provost, he is committed to championing a collegial model of governance, communicating genuinely, and staying true to his vision for the university’s future for as long as he feels he is still making a difference. “The moment I feel that I am no longer effective, or that I have to go against what I think is right, I will go back to teaching psychology full-time,” he says simply. “I love my job, but it is a position of service, and the priority should always be the highest interests of the institution and of the community. I truly hope I will be serving Queen’s for a long time.”

The provost’s priorities

[Architect's rendering of the Innovation and Wellness Centre]
Dr. Bacon’s priorities include caring for the university’s infrastructure, both its historic buildings and new academic and research spaces like the Innovation and Wellness Centre, set to open in fall 2018.
(Credit: CS&P Architects in association with Montgomery Sisam Artchitects)

Diversity and inclusion

Dr. Bacon is deeply committed, not only to increasing diversity on campus but also to ensuring that everyone feels welcome once they have arrived. “Being able to attract, retain, and foster the most talented people from all origins is absolutely critical for our continued success,” he says. “For me, it’s not a nice-to-have; it’s a business imperative.” Although about 25 per cent of the current Queen’s student body self-identifies as a visible minority, dr. Bacon says too many still see it as homogenous. “Can we imagine a truly diverse and fully inclusive Queen’s in the next 10 years? My view is definitely yes – and if we fail to do it, then we won’t remain relevant.”


For Dr. Bacon, internationalization means attracting more foreign students to campus, finding more opportunities for Queen’s students to study abroad, and generally building a more robust international research and reputational profile. While nearly 10 per cent of undergraduates and 20 per cent of graduate students now arrive on campus from outside of Canada, Dr. Bacon is confident those numbers can be increased. “In 20 years there will be a limited number of truly global universities, and the rest will be local,” he explains. “We need to be part of that first group.”

Research and innovation

While Queen’s has long prided itself as an institution balancing the student experience with research excellence, Dr. Bacon says we cannot rest on our laurels. “The needle has moved,” he says. “We need to be achieving greater things to label ourselves as research-intensive.” With traditional funding sources having plateaued, Dr. Bacon argues it is important to look to other funding models. “Can we enhance industry partnerships? Enhance entrepreneurship? Can we link up with international networks and go after international grants? Philanthropy? There are a number of ways to revitalize research and innovation.”

Faculty renewal

“The quality of the student experience, our research intensity and impact, as well as our ability to maintain our reputation depend largely on the strength of our professorate. We are at a turning point where a generational turnover can precipitate our decline or make us surge to greater heights. To insure the latter, we have committed to a five-year plan to hire 200 new faculty members across all disciplines. In addition to revitalizing teaching and research, this is a golden opportunity to diversify and internationalize, and start to define the Queen’s University of 2040.”


With many buildings on campus more than a century old, Dr. Bacon feels it’s important to ensure they remain viable well into the future. “We are stewards of this campus,” he says. “We need to make sure we maintain and preserve our facilities and that we enhance their sustainability.” While Queen’s has a deferred maintenance program, Dr. Bacon wants to see its annual budget increased from $2 million (in 2011) to $20 million. He’s also excited about new building projects like the Innovation and Wellness Centre, which will open in fall 2018.


While digital technology once only served specific functions on campus, Dr. Bacon believes it is now embedded into all aspects of the university’s mission. “We need to move from letting our technologies grow organically to a carefully considered digital strategy for the university. The students coming in increasingly expect a high level of digital technology integrated into everything we do,” he says. “To intentionally and strategically harness the full power of these incredible technological advances really is a must; it needs to be reflected in all aspects of our academic mission.”

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 4-2017]