The Chair of the Board of Governors, Ram Panda, a former McGill University graduate student himself, sits down with GradLife McGill. Offering his advice to current students, he discusses graduate school, social media, his passion for sustainability and the importance of creating a better world for generations to come.
- GradLife McGill is about sharing the graduate student experience through social media by engaging and connecting with all graduate students. Do you have any memories of your time at McGill as a Masters or MBA student?
Of course, I have many fond memories. Remember, you’re talking 51 years ago, I came to McGill in 1968. Those days, there were no cell phones, no internet, no GPS, and of course, social media did not exist. It was books, maps, and people. That’s how we connected. I can tell you that the campus was as hospitable then as it is today, and I made a lot of friends. It started with my Faculty, where there were a lot of graduate students, coming from various countries, with various backgrounds. We got to know each other very well, because we were literally spending our whole day, and sometimes evenings, together. Working in labs, I also got to know the lab instructors and technicians.
Because they were so approachable, we tended to know most of the professors, even if we had not taken any of their classes. I am sure it is the same today. So, in that sense, I think life as a grad student was phenomenal. Even later, when I was in the MBA program, the same experience continued. We had other stresses, of course, which were related to our thesis, project work, etc., but those exist all the time.
- What do you think are the challenges facing McGill graduate students in 2019? Have they changed since your time as a student?
I would say the challenges are numerous compared to what I faced. When I was a grad student, I felt like I was part of a group that had the specific objective of working in a certain domain. Now, I think things have changed a lot.
First of all, there are a large number of distractions. In our days, a distraction was literally someone coming and interrupting you. Today, we have phones, the internet, group-chats, you name it – there is just a multi-fold of distractions constantly around us. I think the ability to concentrate today is very difficult.
The next challenge, I think, is that the requirement of skills is changing very rapidly. People are morphing from one career to another and there is no sense of stability in any area. In my time we thought, perhaps wrongly, that we would graduate, get a job, career or profession that would last for the next 20 to 30 years. Even if we changed companies, we would be more or less in the same domain. I do not think that there is the same sense of understanding today. The job market today is much more amorphous.
- What is your advice to current graduate students?
First of all, you have to manage the distractive elements. You can’t let them manage you. The ability to concentrate and focus for a period of time is very important, not only for the absorption of knowledge but also for creative thinking. For ideas to flow in, you need a period of tranquility in your life. If the environment does not permit that, you have to somehow create it for yourself. For instance, if you sit in a quiet library room, but you still have devices that interrupt you, you are no better off.
Given the fact that the need for skills is changing all the time, learning is going to be much more life-long. It has probably been life-long the whole time, but we used to think that once we graduated, we would get a job and that was our life. We did not think much about reinforcement. But now, we have no choice but to educate ourselves continuously.
Jobs require much more inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary skills. That means your social skills are important, as are your communication and language skills. It is not just about technical skills.
- In 2017, you were appointed the Chair of the Board of Governors. What are some of your responsibilities as the Chair? What do you want graduate students to know about you?
The McGill Board of Governors has 27 members, from various communities. There are 12 members at large, who come from outside the University. They all have specific expertise, whether it is building and properties, investment, finance, etc. They are all volunteers who are engaged with the work of the Board. The Board’s overall responsibility is fiduciary- that means we are concerned about the protection and care of all of the assets of the University, including its reputation. As the presiding officer of the Board, my job includes maintaining cohesive communication between the administration, especially the Principal and senior administrators, and the Board members. The Board does not replace the administration, it has an advisory and supportive role, and it has the responsibility of oversight. It has to independently think of every major issue, how it impacts the University and only then, consider approval. It is working for the security, safety, and advancement of the institution.
Every year, in the spring, we hold a Board of Governors and Student Forum. This year’s Forum was on February 28th at Thomson House. The Forum provides an opportunity for both, Board members and any interested students, to exchange information on activities happening on either side. There is also a bit of education for students who do not really understand what the Board does: its mandate, committees, and responsibilities. The forum also provides an opportunity for Board members to get to know about all the student activities taking place on campus.
- One of your passions is sustainability, you have been a driving force behind the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design (TISED). Talk to me a little bit about that, how did this passion grow?
Sustainability is a huge topic. All the communities within the University have a responsibility to teach, mentor and to live in a sustainable way. I thought that in Engineering there was a lot that could be done, so when I was a member of the FAB, which is the Faculty Advisory Board, I, along with colleagues, notably Mr. Lorne Trottier, put forward a proposal, which led to the creation of TISED (https://www.mcgill.ca/tised/). I think McGill has done a lot, with our sustainability vision and our commitment to carbon neutrality by 2040. These are major initiatives that place us at the leading edge of universities. It’s also important to remember that this is a continuous process.
- Lastly, how can graduate students connect with you?
I mentioned the Board of Governors and Student Forum happens every year. Additionally, the Secretariat is always open to receiving communications directed to the Board at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Emails are sent to me or the appropriate body or person, depending on the nature of the topic.
Banner image by Owen Egan for McGill News