Autumn 2000 / Cover Story
A Class Reunion

The kid who used to wow adults with his math prowess has returned from the halls of Yale, Oxford and MIT to take on the presidency of his Alma Mater. For Bob Birgeneau, coming home could be his greatest challenge yet


A pharmacist at a Toronto drugstore used to hoist five-year-old Bob Birgeneau up on the counter and pass the time pitting the boy’s unusual mathematical ability against the wits of his unsuspecting adult customers. “I always won,” recalls Birgeneau matter-of-factly. Photo: Steve FrostMore than a half-century later, that one-time boy has taken another elevated position in his home town. This time he will be calculating how to vault a large and complex institution upwards in the ranks of world-class public universities. That challenge will require more than mathematical wizardry, but his friends and colleagues say they have little doubt that the 58-year-old former dean of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has the stamina and wits to take on the mammoth task “He’s creative, a bit bold, definitely not dull,” says Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at MIT who has worked closely with him. “He’s also brilliant.” Upon his return to Canada, Birgeneau (BSc 1963 St. Michael’s) became one of the country’s most cited physicists, and research remains his passion.

The move this summer into the president’s residence on Highland Avenue completed a circle that began when Birgeneau left U of T in 1963, diploma in hand, and headed south. His journey took him to the halls of Yale and lawns of Oxford and to the Bell Laboratories in New Jersey during the institute’s golden age of research. It also took him to the troubled American South as a civil rights advocate before he and his wife settled at MIT 25 years ago.

It is a remarkable path for a teenager who had a helping hand financially from his church to attend St. Michael’s College School in Toronto and who helped support himself and his family by working summers. Birgeneau’s return to the city of his youth and his Alma Mater is no nostalgia trip. In fact, it’s a challenge neither he nor his wife, Mary Catherine (BA 1962 St. Michael’s), expected. Last year he turned down a chance to be president at a leading American university and passed up a shot at a senior-level job with the Clinton administration in Washington. In the summer of 1999, the couple felt rooted enough to renovate their longtime home in the Boston suburbs, adding a sun porch and redoing the kitchen. All four of their children live in the United States, their first grandchild was born recently in nearby Connecticut, and the Birgeneaus were even considering finally becoming American citizens. “We had pretty much decided Boston was where we would stay,” says Mary Catherine.

But the presidency of his old school proved too tempting for the peripatetic physicist, who despite white hair retains the lanky frame, frequent smile and sharp eyes of a younger man. “There’s genuinely a possibility of Toronto moving into the very top ranks of public universities internationally,” he says. “And I thought it would be interesting to pay back my debt to Canadian education and see if I could make a contribution to research in Canada.”

At first, Birgeneau’s wife had a few reservations about taking on such a public role. “For him it’s a wonderful challenge, but I’m a quieter person, and while I will enjoy the people part of the job, I don’t like being the focus,” she says. But family ties to Toronto, where her 91-year-old mother and two brothers (and Birgeneau’s two sisters) live, made the move more palatable. “Besides,” she adds with a laugh, “he’s not the kind of person I imagine retiring early and walking on the beach with me.”

There will be precious little time for beachcombing in the new position. Leading one of the largest universities in North America – with an operating budget of nearly $700 million and a student body of more than 50,000 – is a far cry from managing a half-dozen science departments at an elite private institute.

Birgeneau already has a clear idea of the challenge he faces in converting his rhetoric about a world-class university into reality. “There is a fundamental economic problem for education in Canada compared with the United States – which is that universities are underfunded and salaries are significantly lower.”To address these issues, he wants to seek out new funding sources and squeeze more out of old ones. The Ontario government, he says, needs to increase core support for salaries. The federal government is already preparing to fund about $900-million worth of research chairs nationwide over the next five years, and U of T will receive the largest number of them. Birgeneau wants to build on that momentum, and on Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s call for a “brain gain,” to reverse the decades of emigration by Canadian academics to Europe and the United States.

In addition, he wants to take a page from the book of American universities, whose strong alumni associations contribute substantially larger sums than their Canadian cousins. “In Canada, education has traditionally been seen as a government responsibility,” he says, “rather than as a target for private financial commitment.”

The last and probably the most controversial funding source is industry. While MIT has a long history of collaboration with industry, U of T does not. The subject stirs strong passions on campus. At an initial meeting last fall in Toronto, Birgeneau received an earful from students who said, “We don’t want any dirty industry money.” He just said, “I’m sorry, this is an area where we will disagree.” From his perspective, universities provide both students and a knowledge base to industry, and companies should be willing to pay academia back. “You shouldn’t see this as industry contaminating universities,” he insists. “This can and has to be done so it does not alter our core values.”

Birgeneau spent a good deal of time as dean of science at MIT striking deals with industry, and he says those agreements have retained MIT’s intellectual property rights, while imposing only minor limitations on how and when researchers can publish their findings. His savvy in this complex and difficult field is a good sign to some, including Bill Graham, former president of the U of T Faculty Association. “We think he will actually be a help, given his experience,” Graham says.

Increased funding from such a variety of sources will help ease the pressure on students’ limited pocketbooks, says the new president. As a student of modest means who commuted to the university while living at home, he says he is well aware of the trials of students. “You cannot increase tuition indefinitely at the rate of 10 per cent a year,” he insists, while noting that tuition costs here are far lower than at comparable American institutions. “And if you are going to pay faculty higher salaries and provide startup packages for star faculty, then you have to have more resources.”

While raising money is central to his strategy, Birgeneau is also focused on other issues he says are vital for his campaign to boost U of T’s quality and reputation. Though a scientist, he says he is keenly aware of the need to maintain strong humanities and social sciences programs. “Our role is to educate people, not to train them, and we want to educate leaders.” Leaders, he adds, must know where they come from (history), who they are (psychology) and what impact they have (economics and social science). And that assertion is not likely just diplomatic talk, given that he won a scholarship to U of T in classics and has a great respect for Greek and Latin.

Diversity is also likely to be a focus of his administration. “U of T’s undergraduate body is possibly the most diverse on earth,” he says. But he notes that the faculty is “more homogenous, and that has to evolve over the next decade. We need to be sure that department heads increase diversity in the faculty, and in such a way that they improve the overall quality of the faculty.”

It’s a subject close to his heart. As a 12-year-old student at St. Michael’s from the Dundas and Dufferin area, Birgeneau recalls that some teachers and classmates seemed to assume he lacked brains as well as money. He was put in the class for the weaker students. When the school realized its mistake by the end of his first fall term and tried to transfer him to “the brain class,” he resisted as long as he could because he felt he had little in common with the wealthy kids who dominated that group. “Growing up modestly in Toronto and being sent to a school with a lot of privileged people was an important part of being aware of the difficulties of being in a minority position, being sensitive to how it feels,” he says. “It toughens you up. You survive and you are better for it.”

Last year Birgeneau’s name became a household one in American university circles following his work with a group of women science professors at MIT. With his approval, that group published an article in MIT’s faculty newsletter summarizing a controversial report that concluded the university was systematically discriminating against them in the amount of money they were paid, the lab space they were allotted and the way they were treated by colleagues and superiors. Long before the report was concluded, Birgeneau had already put pressure on his department heads to hire more women, which they did in record numbers. The inequity issues were quickly addressed, and President Chuck Vest made the results known to widespread praise from national leaders, including President Bill Clinton. MIT’s Hopkins, who led the group of women, gives Birgeneau high marks for the role he played. “He listened,” she says. “Once he knew the problem for the women was real, he was determined to understand it, no matter how much time and effort it took – and it took a lot. He stuck with it.”

Birgeneau is quick to point out that he has much to learn in his new job. “I’m not going to do anything drastic at first because I don’t want to alienate others,” he says. And unlike the insular and tight-knit community of MIT’s upper management, U of T “is a lot more bureaucratic because it’s a public university. I’m much more constrained now.”

The goal of pushing U of T higher in the ranks of the world’s top public universities will doubtless put his political skills to the test, since it will entail making substantial changes to hiring and promotion practices. Birgeneau says he will work gradually to upgrade those practices. “I will have to have the full cooperation of the faculty otherwise it won’t work. Faculty will have to realize the changes are not something threatening to them but in their best interest.” Practices at top American research universities – such as promoting only one-third of junior faculty – simply won’t work at U of T. “That’s a harsh thing to do, particularly at a large public university,” says Birgeneau. And when it comes to hiring, competing monetarily with American universities is not a realistic goal, he adds. Other strategies must be found. “First, you prevent the best people from leaving. Then, if they do, you try to get them back” by trying some combination of quality-of-life arguments – and by taking advantage of what he calls old-fashioned Canadian chauvinism.

Although he spent most of his adult life in the United States, Birgeneau’s pro-Canadian feelings seem undiminished. It was only last summer that he and his wife gathered the forms to file for U.S. citizenship and took them along to a physics conference in Aspen, which is where he got the call from the U of T search committee charged with finding a new president. “Canada is, frankly, a much more humane society,” he says. “There are many great pluses in the U.S. as a high-achieving society, but the cost is a general level of harshness, which affects people in their daily lives.”

Birgeneau is closely acquainted with what that means. His wife has a master’s degree in social work and did volunteer work for an after-school program in the black and Hispanic area of Roxbury in Boston. Birgeneau himself has seen something of the world beyond lab and office. While a graduate student at Yale, he worked with a friend at a recreation centre in the grim inner city of New Haven, Conn. In the early 1960s he worked with a group that aimed to increase the quality of teaching at black universities in the South and in 1965 he taught briefly at a small college in Columbia, S.C. “It was a tense summer and a close-up look at the effects of segregation,” he says.

Birgeneau’s own early life, which he is reluctant to discuss, was not free from harshness. Born of an Irish Catholic mother and French-Canadian father, he laboured in the summers to help make ends meet, including a season when he was 15 at the Yardley factory compressing talcum powder and working on the loading dock. But the priests at St. Michael’s soon recognized his intelligence and told his mother he must use his talents for public service rather than remain a labourer. “That made a huge impression on me, he says. By the time he was ready to graduate, he was so adept at physics that his teacher let him grade the papers of other students.

Thanks to a classics scholarship to U of T, he began to climb the educational ladder – an exceptional effort, given that he was the only person in his grade school to finish high school. At a dance on the first day of classes at U of T, Birgeneau spotted his wife-to-be, whom he had already met in high school. They were engaged three years later. He threw himself into applied mathematics rather than classics – which he considered more a hobby than a potential profession. But a stint at IBM soured him on the idea of following the math path. “I came in one day wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt rather than a white one. The salesman congratulated me on my courage – and I thought it was a joke, but he was serious. On the spot I decided I would not survive in this kind of a life. I could not live a life where people thought it took courage to wear a shirt that had stripes.” So in the middle of his senior year, he dropped a pure math course and picked up a physics course, a first step toward his ultimate change to physics.

MIT rejected his bid to go there for graduate school, but Yale University accepted him, and he won a spot as a summer student at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories in Northern Ontario, where his love affair with research began. His former adviser Gerald Dolling, researcher emeritus of the National Research Council, recalls going to Europe for a conference that summer – and returning three weeks later, pleased to find data for an experiment on the interatomic forces of nickel complete and neatly catalogued.

In 1964, Mary Catherine and Bob married, moved to New Haven and soon had their first of four children. Granted a PhD at the young age of 24, he was offered a job at Bell Labs. But wary of being drafted into the Vietnam War – his Canadian citizenship did not protect him – he taught a course in computer science at Yale for a year then went to Oxford until he turned 26, when he was no longer eligible for military service. When he eventually went to Bell Labs, which had held a job for him, it was at the height of its renown as a temple of research. “That was the first time I felt below average,” he says. “I was always among the best where I had been before.”

After a few years at Bell, he decided to move into academia. The company was pushing him to move into management, but he craved research – and students. “I’m an instinctive educator,” he says. So in 1975 he joined MIT’s physics faculty and he and his wife settled in Boston. His energy and enthusiasm for research became legendary there. “I got lots of Saturday afternoon calls with a new idea to discuss,” says Marc Kastner, a close friend and MIT physics department chair. And even after Birgeneau became dean of science in 1991, Kastner says with awe that his research output remained phenomenal for someone not doing research full time.

U of T officials have agreed to support a research program for Birgeneau, and his passion for science likely will stand him in good stead with a faculty eager for a leader with a strong academic interest, says Graham.

This is, after all, a man who as dean spent much of his summer working at a facility on Long Island, N.Y., doing basic research. Kastner thinks the dean’s job was Birgeneau’s hobby, while science was his real job. That love of research is unlikely to change. “I’m a faculty member first and an administrator second,” Birgeneau insists. No doubt he will frequently be spotted striding across campus, eagerly grabbing a few precious hours to spend in the lab.

Andrew Lawler is a writer for Science magazine.


Reader Comments

# 1
Posted by Scott Anderson on April 27th, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

Very interesting profile of the new president. I probably attended Canadian officers’ training sessions on St. George Street at the same time as Bob Birgeneau in the early ’60s. Even more interesting to me is that Bob married a schoolmate of mine from grade school. In the mid-’50s, before my family moved from Toronto to Smiths Falls, Ontario, I remember that Mary Catherine Birgeneau (née Ware) was one of the brains, if not the brain, in our class. One of my claims to fame was to be named as a top student one year (Grade 5, I think) on the same list as her. I think at least four of us from that class ended up attending U of T. Lots of fun reading about the president’s family.

Gerry Heffernan
BPHE 1963
Smiths Falls, Ontario

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