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Coming home

A good story begins at the beginning. Except when it doesn’t.

The story of Deep Saini’s tenure as the 12th president and vice-chancellor of Dalhousie University technically began in January when he arrived on campus. But one could choose to begin by flashing back to his past year winding down his presidency at the University of Canberra — a young Australian university that, under his leadership, has skyrocketed to among the top 200 universities in the world. Or perhaps it begins in Montreal in the mid-1990s, when the Indian-born Dr. Saini affirmed, in a tenuous moment for the country, what being Canadian meant to him. Or what about in early 1960s India, in such humble origins that his school didn’t even have desks until he reached the sixth grade?

But let’s begin this story in the 1920s, more than three decades before Dr. Saini was even born. Because, as Dr. Saini sees it, his story is literally impossible without his father’s story.

“My father was one of four sons and a daughter of a subsistence farmer in Northern India—very poor, growing up in abject poverty,” says Dr. Saini. “There was no thought of anything like school; they all just worked on the little farm.”

One day, when Dr. Saini’s father was six or seven years old, he was sent to the local village on an errand, about a kilometre-and-a-half away. As he made his way on foot, he came across a new, one-room school opening in the village temple. And, by chance, the teacher was outside and waved for him to come over. He took part in the day’s lesson, was given some candy and a book, and completely forgot the task he was sent to do. It could well have been a one-and-done experience for the young Saini; he was reprimanded by his oldest brother when he returned home for having taken so long on the journey. But a few days later that teacher showed up at the Saini farm, wondering why the boy had not returned to classes.

“My grandfather told him, ‘I need to make a living on this farm, I need him here,’” recalls Dr. Saini. “Well, that teacher wore my grandfather down and convinced him to let one of his kids go to school. The teacher even paid for it out of his own pocket.”

Dr. Saini’s father turned out to be a bright student and eventually finished high school—something Dr. Saini says was “a miracle” for a poor Indian farmer’s kid living in British-occupied India at that time. His father would go on to earn roughly the equivalent of a forestry degree and retire from the government as an upper-middle-level administrator. And, most importantly, he instilled in his own four sons a near obsessive commitment to higher education.

“Without that one moment, had he been just a few seconds earlier or later and not run into that teacher, his life would have been entirely different,” says Dr. Saini. “That moment, essentially, determined my life. It’s the transformative value of education that’s just so incredible.”

Even though Dr. Saini’s father died seven years ago, the lessons he passed on still speak to his son as he begins his next chapter at Dalhousie. That’s why you’ll find a portrait of Dr. Saini’s father hanging in his office in the Henry Hicks Building—a reminder of where he comes from, a guidepost to inform where he’s headed.

Dr. Saini in the Lord Dalhousie Room in the Henry Hicks Academic Administration Building on Studley Campus.

If it’s not already clear by now, Dr. Saini is unlike anyone else who has taken residence in Dalhousie’s President Office. He’s not the first president to be born outside of Canada, but his journey to Dalhousie spans the global academic community like none before him. He is Dal’s first president of colour, and the first to have been president of another university prior to arriving at Dalhousie. He’s also certainly the first to be fluent in Punjabi and Hindi in addition to English and French.

Yet for all that makes his path to Dalhousie unique, there is also much that’s familiar. Dr. Saini has previously worked at four of Canada’s U15 group of leading research universities, laying academic roots in Canada that stretch nearly from coast to coast. An agricultural scientist by trade, his journey has taken him steadily up academia’s ranks, and he’s spent much of the past decade as either principal or president of a major university campus, setting him up well to take the reins at Dalhousie.

“I think it’s his people-centred leadership, for me, that distinguishes him,” says Candace Thomas, chair of Dalhousie’s Board of Governors and member of Dal’s presidential search committee. “He has a sense of strength, but one that meets people where they are to help them address and deal with difficult issues. I’ve seen the level of respect he has for people when he speaks with them. It reflects a real confidence: in himself, but also in Dalhousie and its people.”

David Naylor, former University of Toronto president, recruited Dr. Saini as principal for U of T’s Mississauga campus, where he served for six years. He says Dr. Saini’s great relationships with students, faculty and staff on campus, as well as strong collaborations with the local community, speak to what an exceptional leader he is. “His inspiring life story reflects his first-class mind, wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, industriousness, determination and, not least, adaptability and resilience,” he says.

A common word former colleagues use to describe Dr. Saini is “warm.” Anu Seoni, a Waterloo-based dentist and longtime family friend of the Sainis, recalls a farewell reception at U of T Mississauga.

“He left to go out and individually thank the service staff,” Dr. Seoni recalls. “And you know what surprised me the most? He knew all their names. That, to me, was really a prime example of the humility, the passion, the care that Deep brings.”

“Surround yourself with the best people you can find and empower them relentlessly.”

That’s the advice Dr. Saini received from his PhD supervisor 24 years ago when he was approached to take on the role of director general of the Plant Biology Research Institute at the Université de Montréal. “That has become the number one mantra for me in my life and my administrative style,” Dr. Saini says. “I am a team player and I go to very far distances and lengths to find top people and bring them on my team and, to be honest, they are the people who have made me who I am.”

He approached that first leadership opportunity with some reluctance. Though Dr. Saini and his wife, Rani, had found their way in Canada, they had not come here expecting to stay as long as they had—especially not after a couple of unfortunate racist incidents early on. But Canada had grown on them, and in turn they had grown more Canadian, something that became evident living in Montreal in the lead-up to the 1995 referendum over Quebec independence. As a faculty member at a French university, one who was visibly not from here, Dr. Saini felt pressure to lay low and not make waves. But the huge unity rally on the streets of Montreal on October 27, 1995 was a turning point.

“Everybody was talking about it, and we said, ‘This is the moment: if we care for Canada, we have to be out there,’” he recalls. “So a couple of my colleagues and their spouses, my wife and I, and some friends, we picked up flags and headed for the rally. We were emotional—I still get emotional thinking about it. We had tears in our eyes to see the absolute ocean of people there in the streets of Montreal… it was a bit of a coming out for me, personally, as a Canadian, and from that point on I never shied away from standing up for Canada.”

That confident spirit later inspired him to set aside his doubts about being the first non-French director in the Plant Biology Research Institute’s 60-year history. From there, he made his way to the University of Waterloo, becoming dean of the Faculty of Environment at a time when the faculty was in serious trouble. His ambitious Smart Green Solutions strategic plan led to a complete transformation: growing enrolment, launching new world-class buildings and new research programs. 

Dr. Saini’s strong work continued at the U of T Mississauga and, later, the University of Canberra. In Mississauga, he led major internationalization efforts, oversaw a significant facilities expansion and increased faculty complement by nearly 100 professors. At Canberra, he helped position the school as a national leader in professional education and experiential learning as well as in equity, diversity, inclusion and access.

“I was always impressed by his integrity, resilience and continuing positivity,” says Eric Wells, who served as university secretary and general counsel at the University of Canberra under Dr. Saini’s leadership. He says the strategic planning process led by Dr. Saini has resulted in “a university with a much clearer sense of purpose, identity and focus than the university we both joined nearly three years ago.”

Dr. Saini had left Canada for Canberra thinking that returning to Australia, where he had completed his PhD years earlier, would be like coming full circle. But with the end of his first term on the horizon, he and Rani found themselves missing the country they’d come to truly call home—especially with their two children and now two grandchildren settled there. That made the opportunity at Dalhousie, a university Dr. Saini had long admired, something they couldn’t pass up. 

“We still love Australia; it’s the country that gave me my start,” says Dr. Saini. “But being away for three years taught me what it means to be a Canadian, and it taught me how Canadian I’d become in those 34 years and how much I missed Canada… now, we get that feeling of coming back home.”

Dr. Saini’s story may be unique among Dalhousie presidents, but his experience as a newcomer is increasingly common among Canadians. In the 2016 census, nearly 22 per cent of the Canadian population reported having been, at one point, a landed immigrant or permanent resident—nearly matching the highest level ever recorded in the country’s history. That experience is even more pronounced on campus. Nearly a quarter of Dalhousie’s student population now comes from outside of Canada, up from just nine per cent a decade ago. Today, you’ll find more than 125 different countries represented among the Dal student body.

Dr. Saini sees this link between Dalhousie and the world not only as a vital part of the university’s future, but an extension of the values that have shaped its 200-year history.

“Dalhousie was set up as a university ‘open to all,’ those early words that are so often repeated,” he says. “That resonates with me. I know that the scope of what was then meant as ‘open to all’ was very different than it is today, but the fact that we had that in Dalhousie’s DNA, right from the beginning, is I think a shining light we can carry forward into the modern world, where ‘open to all’ means something more. I think Dalhousie can truly become the embodiment of that early maxim the founders used for the university.”

Dr. Saini is stepping into the presidency at a time of great momentum at Dalhousie. In strategic areas like enrolment, research funding and fundraising, the university is as successful as it’s ever been, often more so. Dal’s global reach, powered by new international collaborations, research networks and student/alumni links, has never been greater. At the same time, the university’s vital role at home in Atlantic Canada is becoming more and more pronounced.

“There’s been this incredible lift over the last decade or so in the role that Dalhousie perceives it has in the community and the recognition of that role by the community—and that’s community in the broadest sense, including industry, government and so on,” says Dr. Saini. “To bring that to life, and to take it to the next step, is one thing that really excites me. I think we have a massive opportunity to transform Atlantic Canada.”

At the same time, he sees Dal setting its global sights even higher—without losing track of where it has come from. “When we operate out there in the world, we are wearing Dalhousie on our sleeve … and we bring the world to our community. We make the connection.”

Dr. Saini has spent his whole life drawing on connections in his own story—the ones in his past, even from before he was born; the ones he’s made one-to-one, with the people who have shaped his life and career; the ones forged in the places he’s lived, worked and learned. Now, as he gets set to help Dalhousie write the next chapter of its 200-year story, his excitement in what lies ahead is palpable.

“There’s an amazing opportunity for us to do something here that will be a huge leap forward,” he says. “This is a really special place, and I’m so excited to be part of it at this special time.”