FULL TEXT: Nathalie Des Rosiers’ Talk at the Senior Fellows’ Luncheon – September 17, 2019

FULL TEXT: Nathalie Des Rosiers’ Talk at the Senior Fellows’ Luncheon – September 17, 2019

On Wednesday, September 17th, Principal Nathalie Des Rosiers delivered the first Senior Fellows’ Luncheon talk, organized by Jennifer Jenkins and Mohamad Tavakoli. Here is the transcript…

“Why Massey? Journey and Destination”

I am very honored to be giving this introductory talk for the Senior Fellows’ luncheon.  It is indeed a risky venture, since I have never attended the Senior Fellows’ lunch.

I thought that I would present to this community why I chose to come to Massey and what, in my preliminary view, are the great opportunities that lie ahead for Massey.

I first want to acknowledge that we are on the ancestral lands of Mississaugas of the Credit River, and it is important to present our respect and commitment to being good stewards of the land where we work and meet.

My talk is entitled “Why Massey? Journey and Destination.”  My objective is to invite you on the adventure that I see for Massey and connect it to my own journey.  You should feel free to interrupt and ask questions at any time.  I am better at answering questions and I view this event as a great opportunity to complement the discussions that I am having with all of you, individually, at our community meals and events.

I believe that good leaders connect their administrative work to an intellectual enterprise. Otherwise, they get bored, or even worse, boring.  Therefore, this talk is an opportunity to present how I view the world, and how it has shaped my contribution and will shape my contribution to Massey.

My talk is divided in two parts that explain “Why Massey?”

First, I will discuss why I believe that if Massey did not exist, we would need to invent it, because it responds well to some of the academic challenges of today, as I see them.

Second, I will argue that nevertheless, it must continue to articulate and prove its value, its importance and its relevance to our society: all institutions must be aware of the environment in which they operate and redefine and re-express their mission. This is particularly the case for academic institutions like Massey in the current environment.

1. Massey’s Strengths

First, if Massey did not exist, we should invent it.

Here, let me make three quick points. One, all universities struggle with interdisciplinarity.   Massey does it. Two, all universities struggle with their relationships to the applied world, to the transfer of knowledge, to the “town” and their students’ access to employment.   Massey does it through its inter-generational community, formal and informal mentorship and access to members of Quadrangle Society.  Three,  all universities struggle with the mental health challenges and the sense of isolation of their students, particularly at the graduate level.  Massey responds to that as well.

Let me explain why these three characteristics attracted me to Massey and how they relate to some of my past experiences.

Knowledge is often about categories: to understand the world, and to help us understand it, we categorize it. It is impossible not to have categories. Citizens- non-citizens, chemistry / physics, XIXth century / XXth century, liquid / gas, the private sector / the public sector. We need categories to organize our thoughts and deepen our understanding.

Universities are organized around categories and disciplines. However, we know that every boundary gets challenged, that frontiers of categories get redefined, that categories overlap, and that to fully understand the world we must question previous categorizations which illuminate something but obscure other dimensions. To truly solve problems, we need an array of disciplinary knowledge.

I come from a discipline laden with categories.  My first Law degree is a Civil Law degree from Université de Montréal.  Civil Law is the epitome of categorization.   Civil Codes typically organizes the world into categories to define obligations and responsibilities.  Typically it says Chapter One “of the person”, Chapter Two “of Things”, Chapter Three “of the relationship between persons and things”.

The deductive system of civil law responds well to minds like mine who like abstract and logical thinking.  Early on, I had to integrate the inductive approach of the common law, which bluntly speaking is: “How did we solve this problem before? Is this case the same or different? If the same, same result; if different, different result.”   In the process of deciding sameness or difference, categorizations are also made but they are more porous and flexible and less prevalent that the logical Cartesian edifice of the civil law.

I have always been intrigued by journeys into other places for the mind and for the imagination.  That is why to the “despair” of my parents, I moved to Ontario because I had met a man.  My father famously said to me when I announced my decision to move to London, Ontario, that I would have to speak English all the time, and speaking English, as would he, does give a headache.

My journey into Ontario was therefore a transfer into the other Canadian solitude.   I was probably destined to come to Massey because during that first summer when I arrived in Ontario, I realized that I knew nothing about Ontario’s history, laws, and literature. I spent my holidays at a cottage reading Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro.  I had a beautiful summer.

My early scholarship was about compensation for victims of sexual violence and I encountered early on the necessity of understanding trauma; feminist thought was part of an interdisciplinary movement, “ the Therapeutic Jurisprudence movement” which sought to understand the psychological implications of participation in the justice system.

My more profound interaction with the challenges of interdisciplinarity was as President of the Law Commission of Canada.  I had been a Commissioner for the Ontario Law Reform Commission and was part of the initial team to set up the new Law Commission of Canada in 1997.  Our first President Roderick Macdonald was a brilliant man and sought to deepen our understanding of trying to meet the mandate of the Act: “ that the commission’s work should be open to and inclusive of all Canadians and the results of that work should be accessible and understandable, and that the commission should adopt a multidisciplinary approach to its work that views the law and the legal system in a broad social and economic context.”

So we built multidisciplinary research teams, many questioning the very concepts and categories that were used to organize legal thought: one report questions the limits of the public/private distinctions in policing, for example.

My interest in interdisciplinarity continued as a Dean, as VP Governance for the University,  and eventually as President of the Federation of Social Sciences and Humanities.

It is difficult to do interdisciplinarity well. We need to create and support the translators who are able to create linkages between disciplines.  I am interested in this creative sphere of movement between disciplines, the efforts of understanding new intellectual territory, the gratification of being a translator and seeing one’s own discipline through someone’s else eyes.   My sense is that, at Massey, the gathering of all stimulates this curiosity about the other’s discipline and the explanation that is often required to make sense of what one is doing.

I was very much attracted to this aspect of Massey.

Second, the inter-generational and “town and gown” interactions are also very attractive to me.  All my life, even when I would move to the applied side of law, I continued to teach and to supervise graduate students, and had OLIP interns, articling students.

I have been fortunate in my career to be able to move between the academic and applied sides and it has enriched me.  I was a law professor at Western for 15 years before becoming the President of the Law Commission of Canada; then returning to academia to be Dean and VP Governance; returning to the applied side as the head of the CCLA (I really wanted to contribute to protecting what I saw as dangerous ways of undermining basic principles in the name of national security);  returning to academia as Dean of common law; then becoming a politician to try to help the justice enterprise; and now I am back in the world of academia.  Every venture on the applied side has brought to me new ideas about scholarship.

Third, studies show that loneliness is what makes students abandon their graduate studies.  Peer support  is key to resilience; community building is, as well.  I saw it as a researcher on responses to sexual violence.  Healthy communities are able to instill resilience in their members.  I want to continue to build such communities of learners. I believe that as Senior Fellows, we have special responsibilities in this regard.  We are the adults in the room and we should model the kind of supportive behavior that encourages our younger colleagues to go as far as they can, to take intellectual risks, and to be ambitious.   It is our responsibility.

Let me conclude on this part quickly : Massey has great strengths that are relevant to challenges of universities.  They must be strengthened further, and well-articulated.  However, the environment of intense scrutiny and accountability that we live in requires from us that we do communicate our relevance and deliver on our responsibilities.

Massey was conceived of as an “elite” institution.  The wording is clear that the intent was, “to bring into being a College to serve a body of graduates limited in number but of high promise in scholarship and qualified to make of worth the fellowship to which they belong.”

How does one pursue such a mission in a world that appears to despise intellectual elites, a world recently dominated by populist leaders who make a point of scorning experts?  Is it possible to celebrate and invigorate Massey and its vision in such a world?

I certainly believe that it is possible, and that we must.   With great resolve.

2.  Massey’s responsibilities

In this part of the talk, I will focus on a few themes and ideas that are presented with great humility. Many ideas have arisen from conversations with you and will be certainly further refined through our on-going exchanges.

  1. Intellectual leadership and national reputation

Massey was conceived as an institution that would lead and would train, support future leaders. Its mission is, as noted earlier, to serve a small body of graduates, and then it continues: “It is the Founders’ prayer that through the fullness of its corporate life and efforts of its members, the College will nourish learning and serve the public good.”

I believe that serving the public good requires that we be present to the world and engage with the issues that are troubling it.  The Walter Gordon Symposium does that, and we must continue to push ourselves to address some of the pressing questions, and also to be heard when we do so.  I have a few ideas.

  • We should publish our papers on the website and maybe in other forms. Starting today. I hope that we will have as a tradition of inviting our speakers, if they want, to provide their notes for publication on the website. We can tape or live stream our great speakers as well.  A public face for Massey to show its great intellectual contribution is essential and makes us relevant to the world;
  • The series “Ethics, Community and Leadership” will speak to current ethical challenges facing our society. The Installation will be the occasion to have conversations on the ethics of reconciliation, the ethics of engagement, from  a disability perspective, and a diversity perspective,  the ethics of engaged researchers, in philosophy and science.   Thanks to the generous support of some of you, the series will continue throughout the year.  For me, it is a way to recognize our responsibility to empower our Junior Fellows who will all be leaders in their fields — whether in the private, non profit, academic, public sectors — to become the best leaders that they can be -with an ethical framework for their action upon the world.  I view this ethical framework as being larger than simply avoiding conflict of interests, and having personal integrity and honesty. It also involves being curious, engaged, other-centered, courageous, thoughtful, able to inform one self and critically assess one’s role. I view this series as allowing us to carry our responsibility as a meaningful elite institution of the XXIst Century.  I am looking to suggestions for other speakers or panels for the rest of the year.
  • A few other aspects of this engagement on leadership issues for our community is the new  “Back of the CV” series for the Junior Fellows — whereby we divulge our failures and our false starts. I am looking for volunteers to participate — we might want to integrate this in the mentoring activities, and our visit to the community of the Mississaugas.
  1. Engagement

A more ambitious agenda that I hope that we can develop is to leverage our fabulous interdisciplinary community and delve more deeply into a particular question to frame the debate and advance it.  Again a few ideas that came up :

  • What are Universities For? – The future of universities…
  • The Charter of the Green Consumers
  • AI and Academia, AI and Law, AI and Medicine, AI and the Next Economic Revolution
  • The Massey Commission 2.0. – whether we should take the lead in creating ourselves a “royal commission” to discuss the future of Canadian culture in the era of Internet giants and social media.
  1. Sustainability

All of these grand ideas require a sustainable Massey, which has the necessary human resources and financial capacity.

Briefly, fundraising efforts must focus on:

  • Capital Needs for accessibility, maintenance, technology and modernization (wiring), greening, heat efficiency
  • Program Needs as described above
  • Support for our Students (Junior Fellows should be supported in a way that ensures no one who would be admitted to Massey chooses not to come because of financial difficulties.)

In my druthers, I would like to wean Massey of the hotel summer rental business to develop more academic summer programming, and allow our Junior Fellows to remain at Massey during the summer.  I dream of Summer Institutes, writers retreats, the Bellagio of the North.


If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an engaged community to sustain Massey.  For the last month and a half, I have been very impressed by the level of interest and engagement that you have all displayed in the work of Massey, and in its future.  You have signed up to meet one-on-one and also to come to the community meals.

I have enjoyed this because I believe in deliberative leadership where ideas are generated through our discussions and further refined through critical engagement.

I want to thank you in advance for your generosity toward the college, and your contribution toward ideas for its continued success.  Massey has great strengths, and, because of that, great responsibilities.

I hope that I can count on your support to deliver on such responsibilities. Massey est une communauté unique qui a besoin d’appui et qui doit se faire connaître comme une communauté agissante.   J’ai bien hâte de continuer de travailler avec vous.