Even running one of the world’s best programs, Carolyn McLeod sees the challenges clearly.
The Department of Philosophy ranks among the Top 50 programs in the world, and among the top two in the country, behind only the University of Toronto, according to the 2019 QS World University Subject Rankings. It is a lofty standing Western has enjoyed for the last five or six years.
Known not only for the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, the department also benefitted from a broad base of research strengths, including being one of the foremost departments in North America in feminist philosophy.
But times are changing in Philosophy departments across the country and around the world.
That didn’t stop McLeod from seeking its leadership post.
“We’ve had challenges – and, yes, there were times during those challenges where I thought there was no way I’d take this on,” said McLeod, who will assume the Department Chair role July 1. “I’ve always felt chair is a responsibility I should take on at some point.”
In her 17th year at Western, McLeod points to fewer faculty members – down almost a third to 24 today – as creating a different type of environment. “You can have more of a community feeling when it’s smaller, like we are all in it together to create this great department, as long as you have the people you need to run the programs you want to run.”
As she sets down her goals, she has already targeted a couple of “at-risk” areas – Feminist Philosophy and History of Philosophy, among them.
“People have either retired or left these. A lot of the hiring we’ve done relatively recently has been more related to Philosophy of Science and the Rotman Institute (of Philosophy). Those have been great hires of great people. But we need to think of other areas too,” McLeod said.
That said, the faculty remains committed to maintaining its areas strength – one way or another, she explained.
“There are ways to re-establish certain areas,” she said. “We can create new programs, collaborate more with other units. In History of Philosophy, for instance, we have ideas of creating an interdisciplinary MA, which would allow students to use the resources of other units in Arts & Humanities or even outside the faculty.
“There are ways to do it without hiring – but hiring would be good.”
Additionally, McLeod is “certainly going to fight as hard as I can” for Canada Research Chairs (CRC), as part of a push by the university to introduce diversity among those ranks. It is a desire to solve an issue akin to one in her department, as well.
Last week, Western announced it has opened the CRC application process in a special call for candidates who demonstrate research excellence and who meet equity, diversity and inclusion criteria. The federal CRC program funds the work of approximately 2,000 of the country’s most innovative, world-changing researchers, including 43 at Western.
This newest search is aimed specifically at recruiting researchers who are members of groups currently under-represented among Western CRCs: women, Indigenous persons and persons with a disability.
“Philosophy has always had a diversity issue. Historically, it is like engineering and math in terms of the number of women,” she said. “In our department, we have three full-time women and three jointly appointed women out of 24 people. That’s low.”
“But it’s not just women; it’s also people of colour, for example. We have one person who identifies as a person of colour in our faculty. It’s certainly something I’m concerned about. Students will often say if they have a professor who is a women or person of colour or person with a disability, and they themselves are, too, it has a role-modeling effect.
“You don’t think you can do something because everyone you see doing it looks the same – and it doesn’t look like you. It’s a significant issue.”
During her three-year stint as chair, McLeod hopes to further strengthen the relationship with the Rotman Institute; raise the profile of the Centre for Digital Philosophy – “an under-recognized area”; and explore deeper connections with other units. She also wants to see how she can give the students opportunities they might not get elsewhere, through interdisciplinary work and even interdisciplinary degrees or programs.
“We have to be really creative. We need to think of the long game. When this period (of uncertainty) ends, where do we want to be positioned at that point?” she said. “But, at the same time, it’s about the short game of what can we do to preserve the strengths we have now.”
McLeod follows Philosophy and Western Law professor Andrew Botterell to the post.