Social scientist named new VP of research

Matthias Ruth wants to be catalyst in fostering a deeper culture of interdisciplinarity and engagement.


A social scientist with a PhD in geography who was also trained as an economist, studied physics, biology and engineering along the way, and has an appointment in a civil engineering department, was named the new vice-president of research at the University of Alberta today.

Matthias Ruth, professor and director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University in Boston, will begin his new duties May 1.

“Matthias Ruth comes with an impressive record of research excellence—a fundamental quality of any vice-president (research),” said David H. Turpin, president of the U of A. “In addition, the committee was struck by his collaborative approach in particular. I am very confident the U of A will benefit enormously from his extensive experience working across diverse groups and disciplines, especially as we continue the development of interdisciplinary areas of excellence.”

Ruth says his main objective will be to help foster a deeper culture of engagement at the U of A, one that integrates research and education more fully, and that brings together people from different disciplines around themes and projects more effectively.

“I think universities now have much more of a social mandate to help contribute to solving some of the major problems that society faces,” he said, adding that doesn’t mean focusing on applied research at the expense of fundamental research.

“It’s all part of a continuum, and the university here is strong on both ends of that continuum. Making that transition from fundamental to applied research—and from the disciplinary to the interdisciplinary—more natural will be an interesting challenge,” he said.

Ruth is also hoping to use engagement as a tool to bolster the connection between the university’s research mandate and its educational mandate.

“I think of engagement as creating a seamless integration of research and education, with an eye on what’s happening outside the academic world. It’s not outreach, it’s not consulting, it’s not advising; it’s true engagement, two-way relationships with the rest of the world,” he said.

“If we’re able to enhance a culture that values this, I think the research will be more effective and fruitful, the education mission of the university will be elevated, and the relationship to practitioner communities in the public, private and non-profit sectors will be strengthened.”

Achieving the vision will also require creating an enhanced environment of trust and collaboration in which people feel empowered to do what they want to do and what they are good at.

In this endeavour, Ruth sees himself as a catalyst, figuring out what brings people together and then harnessing that collective energy.

“It may end up being about creating large-scale research initiatives, creating centres and institutes, but also creating proposals and projects at smaller scales,” he said.

His first order of business, as he familiarizes himself with the Canadian academic system, will be to do a deep dive into what’s happening in the university’s 18 faculties and various networks, centres and institutes.

He plans on visiting every corner of the campus and engaging fully with students, faculty and staff.

“I want to hear from all members of our community, and learn with them,” he said. “There are lots of great insights you can get from being out there and listening.”

He’s convinced the university is well positioned to seize the opportunity to create an enhanced culture of engagement given the excellent research that is already going on in many areas, and the external economic and social pressures that will be imposed on the university.

“These two factors provide a wonderful opportunity (for the university),” he said. “What is it that we need to do today to better position ourselves in five, 10, 20, even 50 years?”

He noted the strategic plan, For the Public Good, lays out a very clear and powerful way of thinking about next decade and beyond.

“I think it’s a wonderful vehicle to create a common ownership of the university’s future,” he said.