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A thoughtful 'steward' for Queen's

A thoughtful 'steward' for Queen's

[Photo of Dr. Benoit-Antoine Bacon]
Photo by Bernard Clark

Instead of using the word “leadership” to describe the work of university administration, Benoit-Antoine Bacon prefers to describe it under the umbrella of “stewardship.”

“I think leadership needs to be balanced with stewardship. There is an element of care involved in stewardship,” says Queen’s new provost and vice-principal (academic). “When you look at a place like Queen’s, I think you need to look at it in terms of caring – for the traditions, for the strengths. And part of that caring is to make sure we remain relevant over time. We should all feel like stewards of the university and its future success.”

Dr. Bacon, who began as provost in August, succeeding Alan Harrison, is a neuropsychologist, and deeply passionate about the inner workings of the human brain and how we “see” the world – what is called visual neuroscience, or how our brain reconstructs visual reality.

It’s a field that lends itself well to working in stewardship – without a doubt, decades of professional investigation into human thought and behaviour provide insight into how to best steer a large institution.

“I love my studies, I love being a professor of psychology, and I think it’s very useful in everything I do,” says Dr. Bacon, who has held professorships and lead administrative roles at Concordia University and Bishop’s University. In particular, Dr. Bacon was a key player in navigating Bishop’s out of difficult times, when low enrolment, labour unrest, and accumulated deficit sent the university into crisis.

“That experience showed me that this kind of stewardship matters. We are here to create an optimal space, where faculty and students can do their best work,” says Dr. Bacon, adding that he’s thrilled to be working alongside Principal Daniel Woolf.

“Daniel is an impressive leader with a strong vision, and I think we complement each other and are aligned in our views for the long-term.”

Experimentation and a shifting landscape

Regarding his research, Dr. Bacon talks of how every image the brain sees is filtered twice – first by our perceptual, sensory systems, our eyes and complete physiology – and second, cognitively, through the mental processes and accumulated images used to make sense of what we see.

“That top-down, cognitive input impinges on the objects we see and shifts our perceptions,” he says, going on to explain how creativity is essentially the ability to suspend the obvious interpretation of the world and go with other, more fanciful interpretations.

That ability to suspend the obvious interpretation is important at the university, where Dr. Bacon says experimentation is and will be essential for continued success.

“One of the things that attracted me here was Queen’s very powerful combination of a strong research portfolio and a truly first-class student experience. Not many universities in Canada do both of those things really well,” he says.

“The challenge is how can we continue to protect and develop those two things conjointly, in full respect of the tradition, of the strengths, of the history of the university – and at the same time ask ourselves, how is the world changing and how do we adjust our approach and still stay true to ourselves while adapting to a changing world?”

In particular, Dr. Bacon sees great opportunity in increasing and progressing Queen’s digital and global presence – two areas that he says complement and influence each other, and strengthen other areas. “Digitalization helps on the international front, and once the international brand is established, that influences the work we can do on social issues, pushing ahead to address the burning issues of our time and staying at the forefront of diversity, inclusion, sustainability, and social justice. And all of this together works to bolster the university’s reputation as a whole.”

Dr. Bacon emphasizes that the future requires creative thinking, and addressing the shifting needs of students – notably, students entering university around 2025, those who have had the richest immersion in the digital world.

“As the university’s chief academic, budget, and operating officer, I have the responsibility of making sure everything runs well, but I don’t feel I need to do anything particularly spectacular for Queen’s to be successful next year. Queen’s will be successful next year. But I think we need to take a longer view, to 10, 15, and 20 years from now.”

Key to that longer view is working with what’s already been established in the provost’s office, and the university as a whole. Dr. Bacon thanks Dr. Harrison for the past five years and the strong office he leaves behind. The provost is also grateful to Principal Woolf for the opportunity to be at Queen’s –at first word of the available position, Dr. Bacon knew it wouldn’t be something he could turn down, even though it meant leaving his hometown of Montreal and important partnerships in the city.

“I am really excited to be here – Queen’s is an exceptional place with a strong alumni community and an incredible student population – they are a very talented and successful group who have always had a strong voice on campus and who stay engaged with every part of university life. I’ve already met with student leaders, including Rector Cam Yung, and I look forward to working together in the years ahead.”

Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic)

Benoit-Antoine Bacon, Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic), is the university's chief academic, budget and operating officer. In these roles, Dr. Bacon is responsible for the development of the university’s budget as well as oversight of academic program development and review under the Queen’s University Quality Assurance Processes. He also works with his fellow vice-principals and senior leadership team to ensure that operational planning is fully integrated across the university, aligns with the university’s strategic vision, and is supported by an appropriate allocation of resources.

The Office of the Provost welcomes your questions and feedback at provost@queensu.ca

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 4-2016]