Calgary historian named new dean of graduate studies

Douglas Peers, a University of Calgary history professor with a wealth of senior administrative experience, has been appointed dean of York’s Faculty of Graduate Studies and associate vice-president graduate, starting Aug. 1.

For a fourth-generation Calgarian whose ancestors were prairie homesteaders, coming to York presents a radical shift and an exciting opportunity for Peers.

Left: Douglas Peers

After years of reviewing research policy for Ottawa funding agencies, he knows how strong York is in the social sciences and is impressed by its innovative, interdisciplinary activity – especially in master’s level programs – and deep commitment to internationalization. "There is a real sense of possibility coming out of York," he says.

Peers brings a strong commitment to interdisciplinarity and to integrating graduate education and research, said Sheila Embleton, York VP academic, in announcing his appointment.

An expert on British colonial rule in India, Peers has not strayed long – though he has strayed far – from his alma mater and long-time employer, the University of Calgary. He earned a BA in political science and an MA in history at U of C. An early interest in political philosophy led to a master’s thesis on how the British reconciled a liberal political philosophy with the brutal, oppressive nature of colonial rule. Hooked on India, he left Calgary for the first time to do a PhD at King’s College, University of London, on the coercive aspects of imperial military power. When he returned to Canada, he taught as a sessional at McMaster University, then joined U of C’s history faculty in 1989.

During the next 18 years, Peers discovered he liked all three aspects of academic life – service, research and teaching.

An enthusiastic teacher, Peers has taught undergraduate courses on South Asia and Africa, given introductory lectures on the contemporary world and led senior-level seminars on British Imperial history. "I still get an adrenalin rush before walking into a classroom," he writes on his Web site. "Teaching is fun." Peers has also guided a dozen graduate students doing research on his pet topics – South Asia and imperial  Britain. At York, he will teach as a member of the Department of History, Faculty of Arts.

Always busy pursuing new tangents to his research, Peers is about to complete India and the British Empire, part of the Oxford University Press series on the British empire. As co-editor, Peers is writing the introduction and contributing a chapter. An avid cook and fan of Indian food, he had hoped to write a history of curry, until someone beat him to it, and jokes about writing a history of trifle, the popular English custard dessert, instead.

Right: A symbol of empire, the Albert Memorial, Hyde Park London. Photo by Douglas Peers

Peers has had considerable administrative experience. Currently interim dean and associate dean, research and development, of U of C’s Faculty of Social Sciences, Peers has also held the academic and students portfolios as associate dean. Addicted to reading research policy the way some people are addicted to reading mysteries, Peers has enjoyed stints on Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) grant adjudication committees. For seven months in 2004, he commuted weekly between Ottawa and Calgary as interim VP of SSHRC’s programs branch. Peers has also served in similar capacities with the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Calgary-based Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute.

Peers believes that good research attracts quality students. To demystify the grant-writing process and attract more research funding to Calgary, he started a grant mentoring program. He began offering workshops to colleagues on how to write successful grant applications to the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). They were so effective, his science colleagues at U of C have started offering similar workshops on how to apply for grants to the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council. "I like being in a position to help reearchers get on with their research," he says.

At York, Peers hopes to enable graduate research and to communicate research to the community at large. Getting the word out especially about social science and humanities research is "a challenge right across the spectrum of universities," he says. But he’s committed to "knowledge mobilization – linking researchers with research users" and offering workshops to teach researchers how to share their knowledge with people outside the academic world.

Peers also hopes to create more international and national student exchanges. He also hopes to generate discussion about offering more terminal master’s programs and non-academic career possibilities for grad students. "Being a grad student is radically different than when I was a grad student," says Peers. As more people earn BAs, more are seeking graduate credentials but not all intend to pursue an academic career, he says.

On Aug. 1, his own career takes a turn in a different direction as he begins a five-year term at York in his new position, currently occupied by interim Dean Ron Pearlman.

Peers, his wife and two teenage daughters have already begun house and school hunting. They are hikers, not skiers, so look forward to exploring Ontario’s trails. Peers coaches his girls’ soccer teams, a task that will serve him well as he meets his new team at York. "If you can coach 14-year-old girls’ soccer, you can conduct any kind of meeting."

Story by Martha Tancock, York communications officer