Alastair Summerlee is Carleton University's interim president. Photographed on campus Thursday (August 31, 2017). Julie Oliver/Postmedia Julie Oliver, Postmedia JULIE OLIVER / POSTMEDIA
Three things about Alastair Summerlee, a biomedical researcher and veteran university administrator who will be leading Carleton University as its interim president for the next 10 months:
He sleeps an average of four hours a night and can’t imagine living any other way. The medical consensus is that sleep deprivation can be dangerous, but Summerlee, genetically wired to need minimal sleep, is one of the subjects of an international study on people who thrive with little slumber. Summerlee takes cat naps of between 10 to 40 minutes and he confesses that if he sleeps for seven hours, he feels wretched in the morning. His low sleep requirement makes it possible for him to work almost around the clock, shooting off responses to emails at 3 a.m. He typically starts his work day at 4 a.m. at home — security doesn’t unlock his office at the university until 6 a.m, so he starts out at home, then walks or takes a bus to campus from his home in the Glebe.
Summerlee is passionate about iron deficiency and its impact on global health, one his areas of academic interest. Two billion people around the world are anemic, affecting more than 30 per cent of the world’s population in both developing and industrialized countries, according to the World Health Organization. Summerlee is the director of research at Lucky Iron Fish, a project founded by one of his graduate students at Guelph to sell and give away fish-shaped cast-iron ingots to be added to boiling water to act as iron supplementation. In Cambodia, clinical trials have shown that regular use of the fish ingot reduces the prevalence of anemia by as much as 46 per cent.
He’s a big believer that university administrations must be transparent. And he’s predicting that there will be changes in this direction at Carleton, starting out with an event he calls “rumour mill” to run this fall. “Anyone can say whatever they like, challenge whatever they like,” he says. At the University of Guelph spent 11 years as president, Summerlee ran a similar event where a worker with hospitality services took him to task for this “egregiously large salary.” (He earned more than $460,000 in salary and benefits in 2014, his last year as president at Guelph, and has often been on lists of top-earning Canadian university presidents) One of the Guelph board members, a business executive, remarked to Summerlee: “She’s gone, isn’t she?” But Summerlee says a university can’t fire people for speaking out.
Universities should be the moral and social conscience of society, says Summerlee, and transparency will be one of the themes of his term at Carleton. It’s not that anything nefarious is going on, but there can be the perception of secrecy, he says. Just few weeks ago, a Toronto journalist sent a list of questions about Carleton’s controversial sexual violence prevention policy. The response was written in legal jargon. Summerlee requested that it be written in “human-speak” before the response was sent back to the reporter. And sent back quickly.
“These days, if you don’t respond quickly, then you’re obviously hiding something,” he says.
Summerlee says there will be discussions about how the university’s 32-member board of governors can be more open in response to criticism that too much is discussed in closed rather than open meetings. Some students and faculty were furious last spring, for example, when the sexual violence prevention policy was approved at a board of governors meeting with only seven outside observers permitted in the board room.
People have the right to be heard, as long as they do it with decorum, professionalism and politeness, says Summerlee. “If we don’t help students learn how to do it, what hope do we have for society when they graduate?”
And yes, he fears that clashes around racial tensions and freedom of speech that have predominated in the U.S. are headed north. “I am also a pragmatist. We can’t expect people to behave beautifully all the time. Instead of being offended, we have to figure out a way to encourage respectful debate.”
Meanwhile, there are a number of initiatives underway that will unfold during Summerlee’s term as interim president, including rethinking the Sprott School of Business; improvements to the university centre; enhancing traffic flow at the Bronson entrance to campus and increasing international study opportunities for students.
Carleton is also in the midst of exploring a partnership with the Dominion-Chalmers United Church on O’Connor Street to create a rehearsal and performance venue, says Summlerlee. It could be a win-win solution. The church, which has a shrinking congregation, has been used by as a performance space by Chamberfest, Music and Beyond and the Jazz Festival. It has good acoustics and seating for as many as 1,000 people, but all of the potential costs and benefits have to be weighed before a decision is made in November.
Summerlee had completed 11 years as president of the University of Guelph when he stepped down in June 2014. He was lauded for his work both in international development and in building bridges with the city of Guelph. “He has shown that our mid-sized city can make a tremendous difference on the world stage in tackling complex global issues like hunger, poverty and climate change,” wrote Guelph’s mayor, Karen Farbridge.
Summerlee says he didn’t plan to be a university president again when a search agent came knocking to ask if he was interested in becoming Carleton’s interim president. As chair of the Council of Ontario Universities, he says he often thought that Carleton was a “hidden gem.” Carleton’s previous president, Roseann Runte, told him: “It’s even better than you think.”
A university president has to juggle a complex set of skills: teaching, financial aid, budgets, research and “town-and-gown” (school and city) relationships. Summerlee has signed on as interim president until next July and believes it could take that long to find the right person to be Carleton’s next president.
And he won’t rule out being interested in the job himself.
“I have to say I have fallen in love with the place,” he says. “Who knows?”