School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

From Queen’s to UNB, and Close to Everything in Between

December, 2015
By Sharday Mosurinjohn

Alumnist - George A. MacLean

Dr George A.MacLean

For Dr. George A. MacLean, the University of New Brunswick’s new Dean of Arts, “it was Queen’s that solidified that research and teaching” would be what he did for the rest of his life.

As an undergraduate, MacLean considered grad school, med school, and law school – even an MBA. But while he considered every option, he knew “in his heart of hearts” that he wanted to wind up in a PhD.

Even when he eventually wrote the dissertation for that PhD in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s, his penchant for being thorough was still in full force. A committee member joked at MacLean’s PhD defence that the bibliography for his project on converting nuclear materials to peaceable ones was so exhaustive that the only source he hadn’t used was the Bible. MacLean remembered an Old Testament passage in Isaiah about beating “swords into ploughshares” and added the reference.

“Everything seemed to gel at once,” when MacLean reached Queen’s. “Some of my closest friends are my old grad student buddies,” he reflects. “Those who were my professors are now my colleagues, personal friends, and collaborators. I loved being there.”

In fact, MacLean says that if he “had to bring it back to a moment,” it was one before he even arrived at Queen’s that said it all about his experience here. “I had been driving and flying around to see different universities. I had just come from one where I was told I probably wouldn’t get in, but if I did, I probably wouldn’t finish – and if I finished, I probably wouldn’t get a job. Then I visited Queen’s. The first prof I met with was so excited he forgot to take his bike helmet off for the whole meeting. I didn’t even get a word in for the first twenty minutes because he had so much to say about how enriching my experience there would be.”

As it happens, MacLean did get into the other school, but, he says, “of course I went to Queen’s.”

From Queen’s, MacLean went on to a faculty position at the University of Manitoba, later serving as head of the Political Studies department, and then as Associate Dean of the faculty of graduate studies.

There, his eclecticism continued to serve him well. Among MacLean’s many interests, music is one. He keeps a guitar hanging in his office. Once, a student and various university representatives had gathered together in his office for a rather serious meeting about a disciplinary matter. But for an opener, the student in the hot seat gazed around the room and, seeing the instrument, remarked, “I see you play piano.” A tense pause, and then a torrent of laughter. Whether innocent or calculated, the slip broke the ice, and the meeting proceeded smoothly on musical common ground.

The same “piano” hangs on the wall of his office at UNB, where he continues to balance administration with engaging students. “I always assign myself a large lecture class each year, even as Chair or Dean. I’m teaching a first year class this year,” MacLean says. “It’s an effective way to stay connected with the student experience.”

And the faculty experience, too. It was when MacLean took on his first major administrative role as Chair that he “realized the power of facilitating other people’s goals, stepping aside to let that happen, understanding how difficult it is to get to that stage, and celebrating it.”

In the times when MacLean is balancing teaching and research with an administrative load, it has meant that he couldn’t take on the contracts he would accept at other times. Over the years, he has been in demand to consult on issues around international relations, foreign policy, international political economy and security.

But in his words, “you shouldn’t feel you have to do it all. The Zen of it is making the right decision at the right time with the right people.”

It seems more than a hint of the diplomacy involved in topics like international relations and peace building winds its way through MacLean’s moves between institutional roles.

And while his scholarly programme has grown in each of these roles, he reflects on a continuity as well: “Security, foreign policy, peace, international political economy…there’s a thread there that reaches back twenty years to my MA at McMaster, through to Queen’s, and that’s still informing my work.”

In scholarship, as in music, there’s a continuity – a character or a timbre – that gets expressed in one’s work. And MacLean appreciates how that individual character contributes, in turn, to the character of a campus.

“I love the idea of learning from the places that you can go,” he says. Originally from the Maritimes, he is thrilled to be back in his home region. But he loved his time away, too. “Each institution is a different culture. You go to places to become immersed in their knowledge.”

As a teaching Dean and a writing Dean, MacLean knows scholars are increasingly connected and collaborating, but he also knows “there’s still something about actually going there and being part of those academic families.”

For his fellow Gaels who are having their own graduate adventures at Queen’s right now, MacLean has a word of advice from his own varied experience. “There were times when I was worried about what would come next, but I realized it came down to finding where my skills really were and what I found most appealing in the qualities in my life; what characteristics I wanted to express.”

Thankfully, some of the tools you need to find those skills are already part of your graduate training. Having recently visited a former grad student of his who’s in the middle of his comps at Dalhousie, MacLean recalls what the exercise had done for him as a grad student: “It’s a stressful time. But you come out of it with all of these overlapping Venn diagrams of who said what and where it will relate. None of this is lost. I didn’t necessarily feel this way as a grad student! But now I know that you’ll have these skills for your whole career.”

As far as his own career, MacLean sees himself doing this mix of administration, research, and teaching for some time. Wherever it is he ends up though, Queen’s can boast that it was in some sense the pivot point that sent him there.

Read more about Dr. George A. MacLean and the Faculty of Arts at UNB that’s thriving with him at the helm.