Ask tough questions, U of Manitoba president tells graduands

At York’s 2008 Winter Convocation ceremonies on Feb. 15, Emõke Szathmáry, president & vice-chancellor of the University of Manitoba, told graduands that the world needs individuals like them who are not afraid to ask tough questions and break down barriers.

"Our society needs thinkers, our society needs doers, our society needs thinkers and doers – those whose educational background has encouraged tackling questions to which answers are not yet known, those who are not content with arbitrary boundaries," said Szathmáry.

Szathmáry was presented with an honorary doctor of laws degree from York University, during the Faculty of Graduate Studies convocation ceremony, for her leadership in education and her work in enhancing diversity and accessibility, internationalization and community service. She is the first female president of the University of Manitoba – a post she has held for 12 years.

Left: Emõke Szathmáry at the Faculty of Graduate Studies convocation ceremony

Highly-regarded internationally for her ground-breaking work on the genetic causes of type-2 diabetes in the Aboriginal peoples of North America, Szathmáry is also the author of over 80 scientific articles and reviews and is the co-editor of three books. While a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, Szathmáry worked as a teaching assistant at York. "But the wheels do go around, and today I’ve been adopted by York as one of its own, an adoption through the conferral of an honorary degree that means the world to me."

Following her graduation from U of T, Szathmáry went on to lecture and conduct research at Trent and McMaster universities in Ontario. She was appointed Chair of McMaster’s Department of Anthropology in 1985, then served as dean of the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Science, only to return to McMaster in 1994 as provost and vice-president academic (see the Feb. 14 issue of YFile).

Szathmáry told the graduands that everyone with an advanced degree steps into an ancient company of scholars that are linked together in an environment of shared research interests. "A chain of linkages from the present to the past binds everyone with an advanced degree…. Our scholarly and scientific interests bring us into such a network of intellectual relationships. These networks are not only exhilarating, but they are the life blood of serious scholarship and research."

In her discussion about the power of graduate degrees to foster forward-thinking, Szathmáry spoke about Alexander Kennedy-Isbister, the first benefactor of the University of Manitoba and a native of Red River, Man. A person of Scottish and Cree ancestry, Kennedy-Isbister didn’t attend the University of Manitoba. Instead, he studied in Scotland where he earned a degree at the University of Aberdeen and later an advanced degree at the University of London.

"But when he died in 1883, his will specified that $83,000 from his estate should go to the University of Manitoba to be used for scholarships and prizes by those who merited them without regard to sex, race, creed, language or nationality. That was in 1883. It took the Rhode scholars more than 90 years to reach the same conclusion," said Szathmáry.

"Kennedy-Isbister knew that good minds exist in all sectors of humanity and he knew that knowledge is power. Alexander Kennedy-Isbister, like many who earn advanced degrees, acquired professional skills, learned how to do research and applied the knowledge he came to through formal and informal learning. His know-how transcended the boundaries of his office, transcended the collegian. He acted deliberately to bring about change because he thought the world needed change. It is this aspect of graduate education that makes it so special."

Right: Emõke Szathmáry (left) holds her honorary doctor of laws degree as York University President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri and Chancellor Peter Cory (right) congratulate her

Szathmáry believes earning a graduate degree leads to a differentiation in what is defined as important research questions and the manner in which the answers are given. Within that process, a scholar’s understanding of the world is deepened through the insights of other disciplines. "Those insights can alter perspectives and from there influence us to think differently and to act differently."

A graduate degree should give people the tools they need to do something original and critical for the world. It should enable people to see what others don’t and give them the courage to tackle problems others might not, says Szathmáry.

"In my view, networks of intellectual ancestry, networks of knowledge, and the tools of that knowledge are the gifts of graduate education. Your academic linkages connect you directly with people who change the world over time. We’re all beneficiaries of the inquiry of those who came before us, beneficiaries of their insights and their understanding, and it is that legacy of benefice that makes graduate education so valuable to a community and makes engagement in research so worth while."

A member of the Order of Canada, Szathmáry is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and has been named among the Top 100: Canada’s Most Powerful Women. In 2007, she received the Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Excellence in Public Administration in Manitoba.