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Janice Stein: new role for renowned expert on Middle East, founder of the Munk School of Global Affairs

Leading global scholar named senior advisor to U of T president on international initiatives

Photo of: Janice Stein, John Baird and Stephen Toope at the launch of the Munk School's Digital Public Square Project

Janice Stein with John Baird and Stephen Toope at the launch of the Munk School’s Digital Public Square Project. Photo: Johnny Guatto.

After founding and leading the Munk School of Global Affairs for 16 years, Janice Stein could be forgiven for taking a few months off to catch her breath.

Instead, two months after handing over the directorship of the prestigious school to Stephen Toope, Stein is taking on a new challenge, as University of Toronto President Meric Gertler’s senior presidential advisor on international initiatives. 

A few years ago, U of T Magazine described you as “an academic celebrity.” Do you see yourself as a celebrity?

No. I don’t see myself as a celebrity, I see myself as an educator. And the mandate for education at a university of course is primarily to our students but is also to the broader public, so I try to make time to do that by speaking, writing and talking to the public, as well as the in-the-classroom teaching I do at the University.

You started what was then called the Munk Centre for International Studies in 1998. Are you pleased with how Munk has developed? Surprised?

I am delighted and yes I am surprised. When we started, we were very small and our original mandate was to gather together the centres and institutes from across the campus that work on international issues. So one could argue that the core, which was I and a small administrative staff, was really tiny. Gradually, to my surprise, we did more and we attracted more and more interest.

I think of the Munk School now as a startup that succeeded, got through the startup phase, to a point where it is now ready for a second phase of leadership and development.

What led to the establishment of the Munk School?

With due apologies to my colleagues across the country – I felt that given the University of Toronto’s strength we had a unique opportunity to create a school of global affairs which would draw not only on social science faculty but would also draw on our outstanding professional faculties – Law, Medicine, Engineering, the Rotman School. It brings an extraordinary agglomeration of talent to bear on global problems in a way that no other university can in this country, simply because of the strength and depth of the University of Toronto.

The Munk School belongs to the whole university. They had to put us in one faculty, reporting to one dean, but it’s a university-wide asset.

Was the Munk School’s entrepreneurial spirit deliberate?

Yes it was. What distinguishes a more entrepreneurial view of the world is permission to fail early and fail often. At the Munk School, we tried to create a culture where it was okay to fail. It wasn’t a failure to try something. And the expectation was that if one out of ten ideas succeeded, that was remarkable. And then you build on that success and attract other people and other ideas and other partners.

What are some of Munk’s successes?

The Citizen Lab, which started as a tiny operation in the basement of 1 Devonshire Place, with a budget of $5,000, is probably our best-known success. It’s now a multi-million dollar lab which was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation as one of the four most innovative programs in North America.

We’ve also had significant success with our innovation policy lab, which is one of the strongest clusters in the world now. We are home to the Lionel Gelber Prize, now endowed at the Munk School, which recognizes excellence in writing on global issues.

I’ve worked with four university presidents and several provosts. One very smart provost said to me “I know exactly what you’re doing. You’re not fooling me, but keep it up.” He said that if the whole university were organized the way we’ve organized the Munk School we would crater in a day, but on the other hand if we don’t have any incubators across the university that do this kind of work, we would really be in trouble. That was probably the wisest remark that anyone made to me during those years.

The Munk School has had an impressive roster of guest speakers and lecturers, including prime ministers, Nobel laureates and political activists. Are there any that really stand out, that you feel really privileged to have met?

There have been so many remarkable people. Desmond Tutu opened the Munk School, the Munk Centre as it was then. It was a privilege really to get to know such a remarkable man. Prime Minister Singh of India was here, and it was fascinating to hear him because this is really the voice of the new India. Those two certainly come to mind. I could go on and on.

Did you ever feel nervous meeting people like Desmond Tutu?

No. It was such a wonderful opportunity to talk to people and to learn from them. I’ve had the privilege of working with some really exceptional people in the last 15 years. What I did feel nervous about was taking the Munk School forward at each stage.

It’s a heavy responsibility because you’re not only responsible for yourself, you’re responsible for first of all the students who are here – that’s a huge responsibility. I worried that we were not providing the opportunities that these young people were entitled to, and ensuring that they had the tools and the analytic skills that they needed in this world.

The decisions we make as university leaders affect other people’s lives. We’re not physicians or nurses who affect people’s lives in a dramatic, immediate way but nevertheless, our decisions have an enormous impact on young people, on their choices and what they want to do in life.

When I look back at what I knew when I started it’s horrifying that the University entrusted this responsibility to me.

You were succeeded as director of the school by Stephen Toope, the former president of the University of British Columbia, in January. How does his leadership differ from yours?

Stephen is a very talented and experienced leader. He’s been dean of a law school, president of a foundation, president of a major research university. I’d be stunned if Stephen were not looking at the chaos here – which I call creative chaos, but he might well use a different word – and want to put more process, a little more institutionalization, without losing the creative spirit. It’s very important in any organization’s history that the founder know when to leave.

President Gertler has appointed you as the senior presidential advisor on international initiatives for a two-year term. What does your new role entail?

I have two years to do this, so the first few months I will listen very hard and then we will form a committee and of course listen very closely to the president too as to what he sees as our international academic priorities. Our colleagues here at U of T have to feel that the University’s role reflects them and their priorities and their interests. Yet if it does so for everybody here, we will not have any focus or definition. This is the challenge.

Besides founding the Munk School, you are known as an expert on the Middle East. Is the current situation there worse than it has been in the past?

We are really at a historically interesting moment in the Middle East because we are seeing the breakdown of the system of borders that was created by the British and the French a hundred years ago. That system is breaking down virtually everywhere you look and where it’s not broken it’s being sustained by authoritarian leaders. So this is a moment of deep transition, which will not end in the short term. The transition is creating chaos, it’s creating dislocation, it’s creating anger, it’s creating violence, and in the era in which we live it’s easy to export that violence to other parts of the world, and that’s what we’re seeing as well. The problems we’re seeing are going to continue for a decade or more, until the system reorganizes itself in a way that fits the local peoples far better than the boundaries that one Englishman and one Frenchman drew up together in sublime ignorance of what the Middle East was.

Terry Lavender is a writer with U of T News.