VIEW to the U transcribed - Professor Amrita Daniere

VIEW to the U transcribed
Season 8: We Are UTM; Episode #1

Professor Amrita Daniere, Vice-Principal, Academic and Dean

Department of Geography, Geomatics, and Environment

U of T Mississauga


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Professor Amrita Daniere from the Department of Geography, Geomatics and Environment

Amrita Daniere (AD): Our students are so excited to be back. Their interest to be part of the campus is infectious.

Amrita Daniere, Vice-Principal, Academic and Dean, the University of Toronto Mississauga.

It's always been true for me that when I walk into work every morning. The energy of the students just picks me up and lifts me into my day. That's why it's such a fantastic job.

And similarly, we've had a number of faculty – this is their first fall on a fully open campus, and many of them have said to me how stunned they are at the difference between even six months ago and now, and how encouraged they are by the enthusiasm and the joy that is meeting them in the classroom.

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Carla DeMarco (CD): A Dean's Domain

Have you ever wondered about what all the role of a Dean entails? Well, we have a guest for that: on this episode of VIEW to the U, UofT Mississauga's current Vice-Principal, Academic and Dean, Amrita Daniere fills us in on the joys and the challenges associated with serving in this role at UTM.

Hello, and welcome to VIEW to the U, an eye on the UTM academic community. I'm Carla DeMarco at UofT Mississauga.

VIEW to the U is a monthly podcast that will feature UTM faculty members and students from a range of disciplines who will illuminate some of the inner workings of UTM science labs, enlighten the social sciences and humanities hubs on campus, and put a spotlight on our academic community at large.

On the new season called “WE are UTM,” I will introduce you to some of the people from our vibrant and ever-growing scholarly community, from some of our newest members of UTM's leadership team to students who are doing innovative things on the UTM campus.

On this episode of VIEW to the U, my guest is Professor Amrita Daniere, who talks about her research related to informal settlements, housing, and urban infrastructure around the world, but particularly where she is focused in the cities of the global South, with much effort devoted to Southeast Asia.

And, as the opening quote illustrates, Amrita is passionate about the upbeat morale and maintaining the spirit of the campus at an optimal level.

Over the course of today's interview, Amrita talks about her priorities as Dean, and the important initiatives that have been established, such as keeping equity, diversity, and inclusion as a focus, as well as a continued commitment to various sustainability measures, and also plans on the horizon that she wants to see through in the next few months, and over the course of her term.

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Amrita Daniere is a professor in the Department of Geography, Geomatics, and Environment at UofT Mississauga, where she has worked in the area of policy and planning and urban environmental issues for over 25 years.

She has held a number of academic appointments since joining UofT in 1995, including as UTM’s Vice-Dean, Graduate, Acting Vice President and Principal, and the Chair of UTM's Department of Geography, Geomatics, and Environment.

Amrita holds a MMP, as well as a PhD in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Just a note, that a few days after we recorded this interview, one of the faculty members from Amrita's Home Department of Geography, Geomatics, and Environment, the beloved Barbara Murck passed away.

We were all shocked and saddened by this sudden and profound loss, and we dedicate this episode to Barb, and will include a bit more about her work and legacy at UTM at the end of today's show.

AD: I'm a scholar of what I like to describe, environmental attributes of informal housing. So, another way to think of it is all the things that communities, that are often described as “slums” in English or squatter settlements. Or in Brazil, they're called favelas, but every country seems to have their own word for them. What people in those communities need in terms of public services to function safely and healthily in their environments. So, that’s normally includes water, waste, so sanitation, disposal collection, and can also include transportation. Of course, it could include housing. In general, my focus most of my career has been on water, and..

CD: And is that global or…?

AD: My focus is generally on what we now call cities of the Global South, and in particular, I would say,  I am the most familiar with the city of Bangkok in Thailand, where I have worked with primarily since about 1991.

But I've also had a great fortune of being able to do research in a few Latin American cities, such as Santiago, Chile, or La Paz in Bolivia, and once I got to do some consulting work in Cairo and a couple different cities in India.

CD: And can I just ask, though, too, when you say “slums” and those kinds of words, would that also include things like when some people say “the projects”?

AD: Interestingly, not really. Because when we talk about public or social housing, or the projects - when I grew up in Boston they were “the projects” – we are talking about housing that the State has some role in supplying, and which are normally considered legal, for which people pay a set rent, and, you know, actually have to go through an application process to get into that kind of thing, whereas these communities that I mostly work in are communities that can be thought of as self- constructed, that people often occupy the land without any formal permission of a government or a market. They don't go through the regular market. They occupy space, they inherit that occupied space, or they carve it out from another space, and then often they come up with some means, some kinds of systems to construct a dwelling of some kind.

In some cases, these can become quite long term and stable. There are some slums in Bangkok, for example, that have existed for more than 50 or 60 years, and you wouldn't really necessarily be able to tell that they were generally self-constructed and occupied by people who didn't really own the land, or have a legal right to be there. But many of them you are able to walk into and say, ‘oh, I bet this is a slum, an informal settlement, a squatter settlement,’ because you can tell it looks a bit temporary, haphazard. There's no real roads that have been marked out. There's no real legal provision of water from type system, or even electricity from a system that either is underground or overground, they would be most comparable to say tent cities here in Toronto, for example. In Mexico, I think they're called Colonias populares.

And another way to think of them is they're not really tents. In most cases, people are lucky enough not to just living in tents, but they are often very poorly constructed, and with mediocre inferior materials. Things that have been found, you know, as bad as cardboard, as good as tin for your roof, for example.

CD: I was curious about how you got into your particular area of research in the first place?

AD: I grew up in Boston, and my mother was born in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan. But when she was born it was India, and my father was born in France. And both of them immigrated to the United States and met there.

My father was a professor of economics, and he worked a lot in what was then called developing countries, mostly in Africa, but a bit in Latin America as well. And I just admired my father a great deal, and I thought he had the best job, and I also, because of my mom, I had visited India a couple of times, as I said I was a young girl. And I just loved the experience of traveling there and having family there, because obviously we didn't have any family in America.

So, when I got to college I already kind of had this idea that I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to work with people in what we now call the global South, and I loved cities. I grew up in a big city, and I enjoyed cities very much. I just thought they were such exciting places to live, and that people were always brushing up against the unknown, and I really enjoyed that about cities. So, it kind of all coalesced, and as I got older and older and I took years off between starting graduates and getting a Master’s in public policy. And then I took another year off before starting my PhD program in public policy, and I used those years to really test out what I thought I wanted to do. And, in fact, I was still incredibly interested in cities, in the global South, and working particularly with communities that didn't have the necessary resources to pursue all the opportunities that life offers. So many people in North America, for example. So, I guess you could say I was programmed into doing it, but I don't think I was, and I've never regretted it. That's how I discovered it, and I wasn't able initially to do field work as part of my PhD, for a number of reasons. But when I eventually graduated, my supervisor helped me get a job in Bangkok.

So, my first real field experience, as it  were, was when I was a young mother and my whole family and I moved to Bangkok. And of course, if you've ever been to Thailand, it's an impossible country not to fall in love with, and Bangkok is the city of all cities.

So, it was a great opportunity, and that kind of started me off. It really inspired me, and focusing on some communities, and also in terms of access to public services that made a great deal of difference to how people experience living in those communities. If you can have potable water, if you can have electricity, if your garbage can get picked up, your life is just so much better. And yet how could it be that so many of these people couldn't get that? So, that's what inspired me.

CD: It's true that we take so much for granted. When I'm getting ready in the morning, and I'm making coffee, and just grateful that I've got a tap that I can turn on, and that water comes out flowing

AD: And it’s safe, unlimited in Canada. It feels like sometimes.

CD: I know, and we hear about these droughts happening in California and everything. And I'm very grateful for what we have here.

AD: Yeah. Me, too.

CD: Was there ever new pressure for you to go into economics?

AD: I don't know that there was pressure. You know I did toy with it. I did take a minor in economics at my college, and then, when I got to graduate school, my three supervisors were all economists, but I was in a school of public policy. So, it was a more broad ranging. But I remember a colleague of mine, he was an economist, saying, ‘Well, you really are an economist. I mean your mother science is economics.’ And I'm like, ‘I bet there's some economists that would disagree.’ But yeah, I think I could pass myself off as an economist.

CD: And then if you could talk a little bit about the work you do here in the Dean’s Office

AD: The work I do here in the Dean’s office is very broad. The Office of the Dean here at UTM is responsible for all the academic aspects of a student and faculty's life.

So, we're in charge of what kind of programs get offered, what courses get approved, what courses are retired because no one's teaching them or taking them anymore. We are in charge of an academic-integrity system. So, trying to educate students about what is correct and what we expect of them in terms of avoiding situations that might jeopardize their ability to stay here. So, plagiarism, avoiding copying, and getting assistance from aids that might not be allowed.

We're in charge of the experiential education of our students. And by that we mean, courses and opportunities to work closely with professors to learn how to do or practice their education in a hands-on way, either conducting research under the guidance of a faculty member, or taking a course where they get an internship that places them with an organization or a company as part of that course, and for which they get credit.

We're in charge of the faculty Human resources: HR. So, we're in charge of monitoring the process of hiring faculty, making sure faculty get the support they need to transition well into UTM, learning how to teach. For example, when we went online, our office was the one that coordinated widespread education of faculty as to how to teach online, which the vast majority of us didn't know how to do.

We're in charge of helping faculty get tenure and promoted. We're responsible for deciding which units, which departments get sessional assistance to teach all their courses.

And finally, we're in charge of the units themselves, like creating new academic departments or institutes, making sure that they thrive, and are able to provide every possible opportunity to UTM students.

CD: That's great.

You talked about your research, and then you talked about what you do as the Dean and you were also at one point, and for many years, the chair of Geography. And so, I just wonder if your administrative and leadership work in these roles have impacted the way that you do your research or how your approach your research.

AD: That's a really interesting question. So, I would say that the most tangible way in which my administrative work has influenced my research would be in providing a real clear sense of the leadership that's involved in a project because you usually – well, I never work by myself. I always have colleagues that are based in the country where I am, or I hope to be.

I generally have students who are working on the project as well, and it takes a lot of organization, clarity, calmness, and kindness to make the project work. And those are skills that you really need to develop when you're an academic administrator. No one has to listen to you, or maybe a few of your staff people, they feel like they have to listen to you. But none of your colleagues feel they ever have to listen to you. You basically have to persuade them through various – usually carrots – to go along with what is best for the group or the unit or the campus sometimes, and that can be very challenging. So, you bring those same things: you really have to learn how to be clear, how to be calm, how to be kind, and work in a way where you negotiate and compromise, and those have really impacted how I do research.

I think I've really come into my own as a researcher surprisingly in the last 10 years, because I've been able to bring a lot of very disparate people together to work on complicated issues and problems that I never would have attempted before I had this kind of maturity about group dynamics, and how groups can work to solve problems together.

CD: And because you mentioned some challenges, I am curious because – you mentioned about sometimes getting people on board and things like that – but what would you say are some of the more rewarding parts of being the Dean?

AD: I think there's two most rewarding things.

The first is kind of what you'd expect, which is that you get to influence the campus, and maybe sometimes the whole university, in terms of making decisions that really further what's important to you and the stakeholders in UTM. So, you get to, for example, recognize that there's a need for a new program, talk to different colleagues and inspire them. Find out if they are as equally excited about it. Bring them all together. Help them figure out who needs to do what to get it drafted, and come up with a proposal. And then, because of your position, you get to help oversee it as it makes its way through the endless rounds of governance. And in the end, you've actually tangibly made a difference in the quality of the educational experience of our students, as well as really rewarded and motivated some of the stakeholders, the colleagues, the faculty, the staff, who are very excited about the program as well because of its intellectual contributions or the way that it impacts society. So that's a traditional kind of thing.

The other part of the job that I didn't expect is the daily rewards, which, almost every day, and sometimes more than once a day, across my desk will come an email, or someone will show up, or I'll get a phone call or a zoom, and someone will have a problem. Often a stakeholder, often a faculty member, or a staff person or student, or a librarian, and someone will come up to me and say, what are we going to do about this? And we’ll be able to

resolve it in a way that makes that person's life a little easier, and that's incredibly rewarding. I mean, most people don't get to do that. Because of where I sit, I have a lot of connection to every part of the campus, and often outside of the campus, and I can bring all that knowledge and all that linkage to these other people and other offices to bear. So that that's the part that I really like.

CD: And I know that you're only in this seat for a certain amount of time. But what would you say are your priorities while your UTM’s Dean?

AD: It turns out that the main task this year for this office is to participate in a self-study, which is a review of UTM’s academic side. So, coincidentally when I started being a Dean seven years ago, UTM had just undergone a review of this exact same type, and there was a report by the external reviewers that laid out what were the strengths, and what were some of the challenges facing UTM, and that was kind of my blueprint for the next number of years that I was Dean. You know how much work, how much progress could we make on these challenges?

And now I just finished overseeing the writing of this self-study that basically reviews the last seven years, and is the book that the external reviewers, which will be three new people, coming in a few months, that they will use to kind of think about and ask questions about UTM as they visit. And I'm sure that their report will be in my hands before the year is over, so I'll get to see how well I did, how well we did, all of us, and meaning the requirements or the recommendations of the last review. So, I would say, overseeing a successful review is my personal priority, but it will benefit all of us here on this campus. If we do well, and of course there will be recommendations on how we can do better. But I'm looking forward to that a lot.

AD: We also face some financial challenges this year, and probably in the next few years, as we deal with a variety of factors, most of which are not under our control. And I want to be helpful, especially in terms of protecting and preserving academic accomplishments that we've made over the last five to seven years, from being eroded as a result of these financial pressures.

So, I see my role as the Dean in helping the principal and other people involved with overseeing our budget to make the best choices we can in terms of preserving and even improving our academics. What we offer our students, and how well they're able to achieve their goals. They really don't want to have to take a step backwards after all the progress we've made, and I feel like it could be a very time-consuming part of the job. So, those would be the two top things.

And I also am very closely related to our sustainability work on this campus. We are starting to really distinguish ourselves from other universities in terms of our commitment to sustainability, both intellectually and in terms of our physical campus; and I have a strong inclination, and I believe that the campus as well, the students are telling me all the time that one of the key things weighing on their minds is the climate crisis. And we really want to prepare our students, both in terms of practical things we can do, as well as research and education on the climate, crisis and sustainability, and I believe there are several concrete steps we can take to enhance that in the next few months.

And finally, the Dean that just left Rona McEwen: she really invested a great deal of energy in our equity, diversity, and inclusion record and processes, and I would like to make sure we move ahead with those as well. The EDI – the equity, diversity, inclusion – I  feel because of the time at UofT and in the world, actually, there's been an incredible amount of actual work done rather than simply rhetoric around EDI at UTM and at UofT. And in particular around the

Indigenous initiatives and Indigenous presence on our campus. Our relationship with the First Nation of the Credit Mississaugas, for example, that has really, really made incredible progress. Even in just the last year we've hired several more staff people who are indigenous themselves, and who are providing us with leadership and advice, and how to move forward, and becoming and embracing the truth and reconciliation recommendations.

When I was Dean before we did, for the first time, hire some Indigenous faculty. But it goes beyond that, and we're starting to really make some measurable changes in that area which I think are wonderful.

And similarly, the anti-black racism group started while I was away, and they've come up with a whole list of recommendations from how we spend our money, how we hire people, how we support people and our students around anti-black racism that are being implemented slowly but surely across the board in every area of our campus, and that also is something that I didn't have anything to do with, and delighted that there was some great progress made there.

CD: Yeah, totally. And you did mention about – going back to that self-study – I was so impressed with all of the programs that are in place now that are focused on Indigenous education and it's just, I think, been so amazing, and I know good feedback from the students.

CD: So, because this is sort of a trying time for people, I think, being in university, we've all kind of dealt with a lot of changes. But if you had some words of encouragement for the students who are just starting out in their first time at University or some of the new faculty members.

AD: The most amazing thing has been for me is the enormous sense of gratitude that is flooding through this campus, and I'm sure it's not just here. Our students are so grateful to be back. They're so excited to be back. They’re interested in participating, and being part of the campus is infectious.

It's always been true for me that when I walk into work every morning the energy of the students just picks me up and lifts me into my day. That's why it's such a fantastic job, but I just feel it's on steroids right now. We just are like ‘Whoa! This is amazing,’ and I really have to commend and thank them.

And similarly, we've had a number of faculty join us since March 2020, and this is their first fall on a fully open campus, and many of them have said to me, how stunned they are at the difference between even 6 months ago, and now, and how encouraged they are by the enthusiasm and the joy that is meeting them in the classroom.

And so, I think for me, these students just at the same time expressed much more anxiety, overt anxiety about the climate crisis, about the war in Ukraine. The threat of violence from that area, either reaching us here or reaching people they love in Europe, and the anxiety is something that all the research on the impacts of COVID.

But even before COVID, the climate crisis and other things, they were having an effect on our students – on all students – and the message that I would offer is one that in some ways this is really hard time. But in another way, this is a time where the possibilities are endless, because no one is really sure they're the boss, or they know the answer anymore. I think there might be much more willingness on the part of establishment, or at least much less attempt to control and dominate than there has been in the past, because we're all realizing that the future belongs to the young.

The opportunities and the way forward is something they're going to have to be very much a part of, and yes, that's scary and daunting, but at the same time it means you get to take risks. You get to be a leader – maybe before you're 63 years old. You get to be creative, and people will listen to you, and I feel like that could be the upside of this moment.

Certainly, we want to do everything we can to try to help students manage their anxiety, put it to use to help things change for the better, and we're constantly coming up with ideas about how we might help do that. But I want to try to emphasize that, yeah, it can look dark, but the sun always comes up in the morning.

CD: I think that is just great, and you also made me think about the people that did either start as a new faculty member in 2020 or students who started during the pandemic, and this year I just felt so excited for them that they get to see this beautiful campus for the first time, because some of them have never set foot on it

AD: And a day like today it couldn't be more beautiful.

CD: Yeah. So, this is my last question, and it's just you know again, because I'm hoping the podcast is kind of a way to get to know our faculty members and our students for us to all get to know each other. And so, I just wondered if there's anything that you would want to share something about you that people might not know. If you have a hobby, or I don't know something that you like to do in your spare time.

AD: I think I'm pretty nerdy and predictable in that way. I love to read. I do yoga. I'm a pretty good cook. And I love to travel, of course though now I’m realizing I need to be a lot more responsible about flying and traveling, so I'm committed to changing that.

The things I think people might not know about me are that I am a devoted mom, and I have two young adult sons who are not professors. One of them is a creative writer/waiter in Chicago. He just got married to an actor, and that was probably the most joyful event I've gotten to attend in a very long time.

And my other son is a computer scientist who has abandoned the profession and is now snowboarding in Revel Stoke this year for the entire year, while he figures out his next steps. I couldn't be more excited for them.

I've never regretted being pretty much a straight-and-narrow person, who did all the school, and did well, and got a job and rose through the profession. But nothing is more joyful to me than to watch my two sons pursue their passions, and feel very lucky that they get to do that. So that's a part of me I don't normally share with people.

CD: But that's so beautiful. I just love that your son, who is in computer science is, you know, sort of exploring because I've heard like a lot of people, as you mentioned before, maybe taking risks or just venture, you know, to really think about what brings them joy and what they want to do with their lives to make it more meaningful.

AD: And he was definitely that way. Like he went to school, he didn't take a year off until he finished his Master’s, and you know it was in a hard field that's very competitive.

CD: You're just making me think I went to a talk once, and it was this career counselor and she had two kids. She said one of them in their 20 s was sort of bopping around in these different areas because they didn’t really know what they wanted to do, and people kind of teased her, like ‘you're a career counselor, what's going on?’ But, she said, you know what, if they weren't exploring in their 20s, she said, I'd be more worried about them. The ones that are so focused, and she said I think they are the ones that experience burnout. It's better to just, especially when you're young, go out and figure out what it is you want to do, because you could potentially be doing that for a long time.

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CD: I would like to thank everyone for listening to today's show.

I would especially like to thank my guest, our Vice-Principal, Academic and Dean, Professor Amrita Daniere from the Department of Geography, Geometics, and Environment at UTM. It was kind of nice to sit down with the boss, so generous with her time, and for telling me about her infrastructure research and the work she does as UTM’s Dean.

I mentioned at the outset that this episode was dedicated to Professor Barbara Murck, who died in October 2022. I wanted to include a couple of highlights related to the work that Barb did, and that were published online soon after she passed away. This is from the Geography department's website.

Barb's impact on the UTM community cannot be overstated.

In recent years she taught nearly 25% of all Utm students through one of her courses.

Her dedication to teaching was recognized by students and colleagues. She received the University of Toronto President's Teaching Award in 2010, and was twice nominated for TVO Ontario's best lecturer competition.

She authored several textbooks and was a leader in online teaching, providing endless support to her colleagues during the rapid switch to online learning in 2020.

Most of all, Barb will be remembered as always, having time for students and colleagues, a compassionate listener who provided sound advice and steadfast support. Anyone who needed it inspired thousands of students who follow their love for the environment, and constantly identified new ways to improve her craft. Her students experience the department and UTM as a whole.”

There is a kudoboard where a number of UTM faculty members, students, and admirers have posted about their reflections on Barb's impact. I highly recommend you check it out, but also feel free to add your own thoughts and reflections:

I will give final word about Barb, though to Amrita, who said the following:

She was a remarkable champion of all things UTM and dedicated herself to the care and well-being of her students, as well as to the many colleagues and friends she supported and advised in our community. Barb was a truly lovely person, and her love for teaching, and the planet deeply touched all who knew her.”

Finally, as for this podcast, if you are a new faculty member at UTM, please get in touch with me. I would love to meet as many people from our campus's scholarly community as possible. Also, if you can take the time to rate the podcast in iTunes, it helps others to find the show and hear more from our great UTM academic community

And I am closing in on 6 years for VIEW to the U with over 50 tracks, more than 24,000 downloads and everyone's support. I am eternally grateful to the researchers who participated, and those who have supported me. You know who you are. A heartfelt Thank you all.

Also, my article, “Hear Here! The Case for Podcasting in Research” was published in the Journal of Research Administrators in their spring 2022 edition. Check it out if you get a chance.

Lastly, and as always, thank you to Timmy-two-tone for his tracks, tunes, and support.

Thank you!