‘Only way out was education’

A descendant of nomadic people living along the mountains in southeastern Bangladesh, Amit Chakma never dreamed his future would take him to the presidency of The University of Western Ontario.



Amit Chakma will succeed Paul Davenport as president of The University of Western Ontario. Chakma will begin his term as Western’s 10th president and vice-chancellor July 1.


The announcement was made Dec. 22 at the university, following a unanimous endorsement from the Board of Governors. At the end of June, wrapping up a 15-year term as president, Paul Davenport will hand over the reins to Chakma.



While the 49-year-old Chakma brings an impressive resume and curriculum vitae, his rise has not been easy and he’s the first to admit he could not have done it alone.



Chakma’s father was the only member of his family – he had 10 siblings – to attend school, rather than following the Chakma tribe’s tradition of living off the land.



The foresight in this decision allowed the family to persevere when a hydro-electric dam built in their traditional area submerged the land. While a large segment of the tribe moved to remote areas for a fresh start, Chakma’s father took the family to work in a nearby town, where Chakma was able to enroll in school.


“As I was growing up, it became very clear life was going to be very difficult for us … and the only way out of it was education,” he says. “Early on my parents instilled in me the need to study.”



When Bangladesh (formerly part of Pakistan) became independent in 1971, many students were encouraged to study in allied Russia. Although Chakma was tempted by a scholarship to pursue post-secondary education in Moscow, it was his father who solely supported his decision to attend the Algerian Petroleum Institute, from which he received a Dip. Ing. in Chemical Engineering in 1982.


“That was a fateful decision for me,” he says, adding his fascination with the French language and Algeria’s unique culture, as well as the energy crisis in the 1970s, influenced his choice.



“At the age of 18, it forced me to learn to cope with diversity,” he says.


In spite of an interest in continuing his studies, Chakma – who pursued his undergraduate studies on a scholarship – felt his modest financial upbringing would prevent him from attending graduate school, let alone travel abroad.


But encouragement from professors instilled confidence in his academic abilities and convinced him to apply for graduate studies and scholarships in Canada and the U.S.


In the end, he became smitten with Vancouver and completed a Master of Applied Science (1984) and PhD in chemical engineering (1987) at the University of British Columbia.



Looking back, Chakma says this series of difficult choices and influential people made him what he is today.



Chakma, named among Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 in 1998, is currently the Vice-President, Academic & Provost at the University of Waterloo, as well as a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, with a cross-appointment in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.



At Waterloo, he also acted as chief operating officer, responsible for developing the annual budget of the university. These skills, as well as his life experiences, will be valuable assets as Western forges ahead through many difficult challenges.


“What you find in your life is you are touched and encouraged by a great many individuals … and they have certainly shaped my life.


“Being chosen the president of any university is a great privilege, but being chosen the president of The University of Western Ontario, with all that it has achieved, is a truly great privilege and a unique opportunity in Canada,” he adds.



Facing many economic challenges, which are expected to put strains on the 2009-10 planning and budgeting process and the $500-million fundraising campaign, Chakma plans to keep long-term goals in sight as he approaches short-term challenges.


“These are challenging economic times and universities are not immune,” says the 49-year-old. “While we need to be realistic about the economic challenges, I’ll be encouraging Western to take a long-term view and not to shrink from the opportunities this university is so well positioned to achieve.


“Yes, Western has its problems, but compared to other institutions it is in much better shape,” he adds.



Chakma credited Davenport for laying the groundwork for Western’s transition to the next level of research and international recognition – something he hopes to further develop with research in areas of social policy, child poverty, early childhood education, water and food crises and energy problems.


His goal is to position Western among the top 100 universities in the world, as listed by the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings.


Prior to joining Waterloo in 2001, Chakma served as the Vice-President (Research), International Liaison Officer and NRCan Research Professor of Engineering at the University of Regina. He also served as the Dean of Engineering at Regina and professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Calgary.


His research focus is on natural gas engineering and petroleum waste management and is widely known for his work on gas treating solvents and membrane separation.


Board of Governors chair, Michele Noble, says the selection committee was looking for someone who could continue Western’s quest for international recognition in research and education. 


“We knew going into this international search it was not going to be an easy task to find a new leader who can build on this foundation created by Dr. Davenport’s term,” she says, adding Chakma fulfills the qualities the committee pursued.


In a letter of congratulations, Western Alumni Association president Carol-Lynn Chambers says alumni “look forward to building an effective rapport with Dr. Chakma to further strengthen Western’s national and international reputation.”


Davenport says he will be leaving the university in capable hands.


“He is a man of great personal accomplishment as a researcher … he is also a great collegial leader. He knows how to bring people together,” says Davenport. “He is going to be a wonderful leader for Western.”