Into the future with Jacques Frémont
By Kelly Haggart
From his academic parents to his own career centred on university campuses, uOttawa’s new president evidently has higher education in his DNA. He clearly also thinks and cares deeply about its future.
Jacques Frémont’s childhood home even had the multidisciplinary character of a large university. His father taught physics and astronomy at Laval University before becoming an administrator and later heading the Presses de l’Université Laval. His mother, unusually for the era, went back to university in her early 30s, when Frémont and his two sisters were children, eventually earning a doctorate in psychoanalytic literary criticism and teaching at Laval.
“She’d bring friends home from the literature department, which was hugely different from the scientific world of my father,” he says. “It was a fascinating home to grow up in.”
It was a background that helps explain his comfort on campus and lifelong appetite for learning, across disciplines, in both official languages. His early education at a Jesuit school also instilled in him a desire to make the world a better place. As a student at St. Charles Garnier College in Quebec City, he says, “I wanted to change things. When you’re young, it’s a great attitude to have.”
“The charm of university life”
Asked what drew him to working in academia, Frémont’s eyes light up as he enthuses about “the wealth of knowledge and passion” that makes universities so interesting.
“A campus is very different from anywhere else in society, with a unique culture,” he says. “It’s a small town, but very diverse and full of smart people with expectations and profoundly held values. That’s the charm of university life.”
The special appeal of the University of Ottawa, with its long and harmonious history of combining French and English, enticed him away from his most recent position, as president of Quebec’s human rights commission. An expert on human rights and constitutional law who has taught at universities in Canada and abroad, he was also attracted by uOttawa’s international mindset and reputation for teaching and research excellence.
After many years as a law professor at the University of Montreal, he had risen to become a dean, then a provost and later a vice-rector, but he had never been a university president. So following “a very serene transition” from outgoing president Allan Rock, in July he attended a boot camp held annually for this cohort, the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents. The leaders of three other Canadian universities (Saskatchewan, Ryerson and Saint Mary’s) were also among the 50 or so participants.
“Most of us were too new to have experienced real challenges yet on any of our files on campus. But it was fascinating to spend a week discussing the role and the importance of higher education with such a smart group of people,” Frémont says.
“In our societies, we tend to forget about humanity’s profound belief in the importance of education. But in emerging countries, as soon as a middle class develops, parents’ first priority is a proper education for their kids. They would give up their soul for their children to be educated well and to have a great future.”
Critical thinking skills
With “the wind blowing toward engineering, business and professional programs,” as he says, some anxiety about the future of education in humanities and the arts was also in the air at Harvard. But Frémont ardently defends these disciplines, calling them “the heart and soul of a campus and our society,” which continue to produce educated, engaged citizens.
“It is crucial that our graduates have critical thinking skills, and they can’t be conjured up. You need to develop and practise them,” he says. “In a world of prejudices, where received ideas — sometimes stupid ideas — are the order of the day, it is so important to be able to reflect on and form an opinion about these ideas. There is no way we will have a decent society if people don’t have proper intellectual skills.”
He underscores that universal truth in recalling one of his own extraordinary experiences working internationally. As director of the higher education support program of the New York-based Open Society Foundations from 2011 to 2013, he travelled frequently to Myanmar, helping to rebuild a shattered university system emerging from half a century of military rule.
“Higher education had always been high on the generals’ watch list, because critical thinking comes from universities,” he says. “That’s what we do and that’s why universities are so crucial to any country. The day universities give up their critical thinking role, their academic freedom, they will be largely disabled.”
The promise of technology
Universities everywhere are in the midst of a radical transformation as the information and communication technologies (ICTs) reshaping the globe present new challenges and opportunities, Frémont says.
“The world has been full of surprises for the past 50 years that no one foresaw, not even (communications guru) Marshall McLuhan,” he says. “Reality — and ICTs — overtook him. Now everybody has access to knowledge, so that part of the positioning of universities — of having knowledge that others don’t have — is not the case anymore. Their added value has to be somewhere else.”
With technology offering novel ways to develop skills and acquire knowledge, educators in every field can harness new tools “to make the best use of the precious time we spend together in classrooms.”
“History, philosophy, literature, the visual arts, music — a society without those disciplines would be horrible, but the challenge is to keep them relevant and to help people understand their relevance,” he says. “Digital humanities is a brilliant example of how those programs can be made extremely exciting.”
He believes it won’t take much to interest students in the Faculty of Arts’ new digital humanities minor launched this fall. (“I’d register for those courses myself if I had time.”) Another “next big step” that technology makes possible could be virtual classrooms and seminars that bring students or research teams together with their international counterparts, he says.
“We’re in the business of passion”
The student experience, now a more globally and socially engaged adventure than it was 30 years ago, will continue to change for the better, Frémont believes. CO-OP, studying abroad, volunteering and other experiential learning opportunities can all spark lifelong interests and new directions.
“Our role is to induce a passion for something — that’s the best thing we can give students,” he says. “And what makes a good professor? It’s the passion they have for their subject matter and for reaching out. So we’re in the business of passion — also, of course, of rational and scientific knowledge — but passion for all that.”
Universities should also be places “where wild ideas are given a chance,” he says. “And they don’t all have to succeed, quite the contrary. If youth are not enterprising and demanding — then, wow, they’ll be bored adults. If the younger generation is allowed to think outside the box, we’ll be better for it, as a university and a society. We have to refuse to let their talent be wasted.”
The University’s changing physical appearance testifies to the evolving nature of higher education, Frémont says. He notes that newer buildings, such as Desmarais, Social Sciences and the Advanced Research Complex, were designed with collaboration and sustainability in mind and have many pleasant spaces where students can meet and work together. The forthcoming Learning Centre (ready for the 2017 academic year) will add significantly to those creative places.
Frémont intends to spend the next few months “listening to, and learning from, faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends.” When he visits each of uOttawa’s 10 faculties in the fall, he looks forward to town hall-type discussions where he can say, “Tell me, how is your university? How can we improve it? Let’s be frank enough to sometimes have to say some unpleasant things, but also to say what’s good.”
His to-do list includes initiating a wide-ranging conversation to gather insights that will help inform the University’s next strategic plan, a process that will begin in a year or two. He feels fortunate to have inherited an excellent roadmap in Destination 2020, which he regards as a useful springboard for the next guiding document.
“The seeds of what the University is going to become are already there. We have a strong personality and we are different, because of our bilingual nature and genuine openness to the world, and we ought to build on that,” he says. “But we need to look ahead to the ideas of 2060, which will make it much easier to answer concretely for 2030. We will really have to think about where we figure the whole parade is going.”
Frémont has some personal hunches about what the future holds, for higher education and for uOttawa. But he wants to hear what others have to say, on campus and beyond, and will welcome that unique opportunity to reflect as a community on these issues.
“As we set out to forge that new identity, we have more keys than most universities around the world,” he says. “And we’re privileged to have governments, in Ottawa and Ontario, with progressive values and a belief in higher education.”
To keep pace with fast-moving times, he assumes that the University will have to become more ambitious in many fields. “But universities are always a work in progress. The job is never done, and rightly so.”
Jacques Frémont became uOttawa's 30th president and vice-chancellor on July 1, 2016. Photo: Andrea Campbell