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Interview with Michael Benarroch

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

📷 University of Manitoba

Journalists: Romina Mahinpei, Kian Kousha

Kian: Hi, I'm Kian.

Romina: And I'm Romina.

Kian: And you're listening to SciSection on 93.3 CFMU.

Romina: We are here today with Dr. Michael Benarroch who served as the Provost and Vice-President of Ryerson University and is now the President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Manitoba. Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Benarroch.

Dr. Benarroch: My pleasure.

Romina: To start, we do have two rapid fire questions for you. Firstly, who's one of your role models in the community?

Dr. Benarroch: So, one of my role models is an academic by the name of Paul Krugman, and he is an individual who started as kind of an international trade economist and now writes op-ed pieces. And one of the reasons is , you know a lot of the work I did in my PhD thesis was modelled after his work, but I think he's taken economics to a (new) point. And my background is economics. He's trying to bring economics to everybody in the public so that it's not just a theoretical concept in people's minds. So, I've always followed him around. He tends to be fairly opinionated and doesn't back down when he's challenged and I've always really looked up to somebody with this kind of, you know, intelligence and experience. He won a Nobel Prize at a very, very young age. So, obviously a lot more brilliant than I am, but I've learned a lot from him.

Kian: That sounds awesome. And what do you think has been one of the most important discoveries of all time?

Dr. Benarroch: Wow, of all time?

Kian: Yes!

Dr. Benarroch: I was going to say electricity because, you know, it completely changed the way we were able to do things. And so, you know, I think that that was one of the most important, but there are so many,

Romina: For sure! There are so many examples, but electricity is a really good one and it's helped us in so many different ways. And now moving on to your profession, could you give us a summary of your educational path and how it led you to where you are today?

Dr. Benarroch: Well, let me just tell you first that my family moved to Canada when I was four-years-old. And so, you know, we came from Morocco and I started with elementary school when my English was not very good. You can see now that I don't speak with an accent, I actually speak my first language with an accent, which is Spanish, with an English accent. But, you know, I started after high school. I actually started at the University of Manitoba, but I switched to the University of Winnipeg after first year. Mostly because it was closer to my home and a friend of mine said, you know, why don't you come to the University of Winnipeg with me? And so, I switched there and I started in sociology, but it was actually in third year, maybe in second, I took an intro economics class, and it really clicked with me. And then, a little further in my undergraduate degree, maybe in my third year, the chair of the department called me in and said, you know, you're doing really well here, you should think of a career. And she said, you know, there's a summer opportunity at a local college. It was kind of a secretarial training college, and they wanted somebody to teach them an economics class. And she said, you know, would you like to do it? And I did it, and that gave me the passion for teaching. And so, from there, I did a Master's degree at the University of Western Ontario and then a PhD at Carlton. And then, I was just lucky again to be hired back in my hometown of Winnipeg and I got a position at the University of Winnipeg where I spent 20 years of my career. So, I think it shows how you find something that you're passionate about. And then, if a faculty member or somebody reaches out to you, it could just change your career and your life.

Kian: That was really inspiring. And your story would definitely be considered a success story. And usually a lot of us students get fascinated by success, personal or professional, but without knowing all the challenges that were faced along the way, I'm sure being at your position right now did not happen easily. So can you tell us about some of the challenges that you've faced along the way?

Dr. Benarroch: Well, there are so many challenges you face in a career. I would say my first challenge was, you know, coming into university and coming from a family where my parents never had the opportunity to go to university. And so where do you turn to when you need help? And at the time, you know, when I look around universities now, I see lots of students that come from other countries, lots of students that come from other backgrounds. But at the time when I looked around university, you know, there weren't that (many). There were mostly students who were from Canada and they were Canadian. And so where do you turn for help when you need that? And I think, I think that those were challenges where, you know, with my children, I've obviously gone to university, my wife has a Master's and so we're able to give them advice. But for me, I didn't have those people to turn to. And so I think some of the challenges were making those choices and sometimes making mistakes along those choices. I would say one of my biggest challenges was the transition to writing my PhD thesis. My advisor came to me after I gave him a draft of a couple of chapters and said, look, if you're going to be a professor, you have to learn how to write better. And I had to actually step back and I found a tutor who helped me learn how to write better. And I do believe that part of my lack of skill of writing was the fact that I didn't come from a family that spoke English. And so, you know, I didn't have that from birth. And I never through high school never took the time and nobody ever connected with me enough to say, okay, here's how you fix it. They would give me lousy marks in English, but they wouldn't say to me, well, let's step aside and try to fix it. And I think that that was a real challenge, and I had to overcome that in order to be able to continue on a degree and to do work in university. You know, we all face those challenges and I think that I got the right kind of help and was committed enough to be able to do that.

Romina: That's really inspiring to hear because I feel like as students, when we face challenges, sometimes we have this tendency to give up. But really, just like yourself, we really need to push through and overcome those challenges because as a person, once you overcome those challenges, you really do grow and you do develop new skills. So hopefully, more students after hearing your response will start to do that.

Dr. Benarroch: I certainly hope so. And you know, I think students look at professors and they think, oh yeah, they were always the smartest person in the class, but that's not always true. We have faced our challenges and we've had to overcome those and we've had to get help when we needed that help.

Romina: Definitely. And with your career today, you must lead a very busy life. So what activities do you rely on to balance your professional life?

Dr. Benarroch: Well, first and foremost, my family. So, taking refuge and family and enjoying time with family and friends is something that I've always done. I've always made time for that during my career and never, you know, never tried to waiver from that even though sometimes I get really busy. I do like to read. I like to watch, I used to say good movies, but now you can watch really good shows on Netflix or whatever. And I've always had a passion and love for basketball. And I love to golf although I don't get out very much because it takes so much time.

Kian: That sounds awesome. So, with the current pandemic going on a lot of the students are not happy with the situation due to the remote learning approach of universities. So, what do you think are some of the benefits and drawbacks of remote learning for students?

Dr. Benarroch: So, let me first say we're all not happy with this and the way that it's been introduced. I think remote learning has a place, in universities but none of us foresaw... I never thought I would start my presidency in this kind of environment. I never thought I would have to help Ryerson University go remote. I think there are things we can do with remote learning that we actually can't do in the classroom. There's an outreach that we can do through remote learning that we're not able to do inside the classroom. There are things we can do with remote learning that we can do outside of the three hours that we normally do in a classroom. And we also have the ability to bring a lot more material into the class. And I think for students, part of what helps them, is an opportunity to kind of break up their time. So, you know, if they don't learn enough in an environment where you go and sit in and just have one opportunity to hear your professor. Now, things may be recorded. You can go back and listen to things again. You can connect with people. And so, I think that there is a really important place for remote learning, and there's a lot of ways in which it can enhance our learning experience. And I think one of the other ways is by bringing technology, one of the things that has forced us all to do is learn those technologies that we've, you know, we've known were out there, but really haven't (used). And I think we're on the cusp of something different, which is that, you know, the companies that develop software are going to learn from this. They're going to learn about what's not working and what's working and what's missing. I think one of the big things that's missing is that individual contact, that interpersonal contact that we all thrive on or that many of us thrive on. And I think that the technology right now doesn't allow for that. So, you know, when you come into a classroom and you sit down next to somebody and you say, hi, how are you doing my name's... And then you have a conversation. We're all missing that right now. And so much of what we learn happens in that kind of interactive way.

Romina: Definitely. And just like you said, it does have benefits. Remote learning does have its benefits, but I feel like the way that we started it was with such a negative mindset that we really focused on the drawbacks rather than the advantages. So hopefully for this upcoming term, we all go into it a little bit more positively and really enjoy those benefits. And hopefully in the long run, as you said, these developments are made just to make the system even better than it already is.

Dr. Benarroch: Right. And, you know, that's a great way of looking at it. It happened so fast. We weren't really able to prepare and really good online learning and virtual learning takes a lot of preparation and a lot of thought. In many ways, a lot more than coming into a regular class because you have to be much more deliberate about things. And so, hopefully coming into September, we'll start to see a bit more richness in the classroom.

Romina: Definitely. And just as one final question, what advice would you give to undergraduate students listening to the show right now?

Dr. Benarroch: I would say follow your passion. It doesn't matter what it is.

Dr. Benarroch: Parents don't want me to say this because they want me to tell you to go into professions that lead to certain jobs. But really, it's the students who become passionate about something that leads to really fulfilling careers and really fulfilling work.

Dr. Benarroch: And so, you know, I think it's really important to follow your passion. Also, you get to do things as an undergraduate student that you'll never have an opportunity to do. When you go to work, you'll have to do a work that is assigned or work that you have to get done for a client or whatever it might be. But in the undergraduate programs, you can explore a little bit. And I've always told students that in an undergraduate program, if there are some courses or some things that you're really interested in, if you can fit them into your degree, do it at that time. That's when to do it and just follow your heart and passion on some of this. I realized at the end of the day, we all want to get a job. And so, there's some things you need to do in order to do that. The last piece I would say is just try to do the best you can. That's kind of what I learned through all of this. The motivation and the effort I put in as an undergraduate paid off later as part of what, you know, part of what I think has been my success is certainly not always my intelligence, but how hard I've always worked and how passionate I've been about the things that I've done. So, that would be my advice.

Kian: Thank you for sharing that. I'm sure a lot of students would appreciate hearing that from you. That does bring us to the end of this interview. Thank you once again, for joining us today and talking to students and inspiring them. For everyone listening, make sure to check out SciSection's podcasts available on global bathrooms for our latest interviews.


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