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Gaffield’s departure raises concerns about SSHRC’s direction

His tenure as president spanned a time of change for the granting council.

BY NATALIE SAMSON | APR 23 2014

Throughout his presidency at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Chad Gaffield has engaged in his fair share of strategizing. It may come as a surprise then that where his professional life is concerned, he isn’t much of a planner. “I end up following the bouncing ball a bit,” said Dr. Gaffield from SSHRC’s 11th-floor office in downtown Ottawa. “Opportunities come up and they make sense and I say, ‘OK.’”

On April 1, Dr. Gaffield announced that he would follow a new opportunity. Effective Aug. 31, the 62-year-old will step down as president of SSHRC with two years left in his second five-year term and take on a chair in digital scholarship at the University of Ottawa. He has been a professor of history at U of Ottawa since 1985 where he was the founding director of the Institute of Canadian Studies and a pioneer in the field of digital humanities. Dr. Gaffield’s early departure has left several people in Canada’s academic community surprised and concerned.

“As soon as it was announced that Chad was stepping down, my inbox was flooded by colleagues from Memorial and across the country expressing concern and worry,” said Noreen Golfman, dean of graduate studies at Memorial University and a former president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. She said she and others are concerned that this government-appointed position may go to someone who isn’t as committed to research in the humanities and social sciences as Dr. Gaffield.”

Douglas Peers, dean of arts at the University of Waterloo, said he was “gobsmacked” by the news. “I’ve just gotten used to seeing him there,” he said. “Doing eight years in that position – that’s a tremendous commitment.” In that time, Dr. Peers says the president kept SSHRC “steaming ahead” during transitional and economically unstable times. He echoed Dr. Golfman’s concern around a leadership void at SSHRC by pointing to the situation at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, which has been without a president since March 2013, when Suzanne Fortier stepped down to become principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University. (James Edwards has been the interim leader since Dr. Fortier’s resignation.)

“If NSERC is anything to go by, I’m not going to be holding my breath,” Dr. Peers said. “SSHRC has managed to provide a lot of leadership in the last little while because it has had somebody well-experienced and plugged into the community. I think if you go too long with someone as an interim without a clear mandate, especially as we start to move into the next [federal] election, things could just flounder for a while.”

Dr. Gaffield said the six-month lead-up to his departure should provide ample time for succession and that he is confident SSHRC’s staff and council members will keep the agency moving forward. “Our strategic plan takes us through 2016, so that means a new person could come in next year and have some time to listen and learn.”

When Dr. Gaffield was first appointed president in 2006, the position had stood vacant for a year. SSHRC had just come out of an intensive, multi-year review of its processes and programming and Dr. Gaffield came in with a mandate to improve efficiency and raise the agency’s profile. “I felt at the time that we weren’t putting our best foot forward … that we were not embracing the challenge of articulating the value of what we do, why we do it. And we also weren’t really focused on how we could do it better.”

For many, Dr. Gaffield’s leadership will be associated with a time of major change at SSHRC. Most notably, the agency launched its Program Architectural Renewal in 2010, which overhauled existing grant programs in favour of new funding opportunities recognizing collaborative and interdisciplinary work. And while some critics claim these changes have eroded the agency’s independence by aligning its principles too closely with those of the government and the market, Dr. Golfman and Dr. Peers say much of this criticism is misguided. “I don’t think that SSHRC has sacrificed its basic values or undermined the integrity of its traditions or its past practices of supporting individual scholars doing traditional kinds of scholarship. But it has certainly opened itself to new forms of scholarship and new approaches to research,” said Dr. Golfman. “If they had not done that, [SSHRC] would be dead. I’m convinced of that.”

For his part, Dr. Gaffield says the reconceptualised programs avoid boxing researchers in, offering instead “creative open spaces” for scholarship. “There hasn’t been a single decision here that I’ve made that hasn’t been driven by a desire to want to enhance the contributions of the social sciences and humanities to the making of a better world. I feel good about that,” he said.

“We are embracing the fact that the times change. We are a research council made for the 21st century. … I think that’s the way it should be. I think there’s no justification for doing something now just because we did it like that back in the day.”

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