UC vice-chancellor Deep Saini to leave Australia for Canada

At the University of Canberra, vice-chancellor Deep Saini is hoping to pull off a disappearing act.

In a shock resignation on Friday, Saini announced he will leave the university by Christmas for a new post at the helm of Dalhousie University in Canada.

"I've always believed that a good leader should be able to disappear and not have [their] absence felt," he said.

"I'm working on it."

Deep Saini will become vice-chancellor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia next year. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Deep Saini will become vice-chancellor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia next year. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

The decision to bow out of his five-year contract early was an intensely personal one for Saini, who has lived most of his life in Canada after immigrating from India in 1982 and forging a career as a plant scientist.

"The last few months have been challenging for us for family reasons," he said.

Saini landed in Canberra in September 2016 - the first non-Anglo vice-chancellor in Australia's history - with big plans for UC.

But almost all his family, including two daughters and now two granddaughters, remained in the great white north. In recent months, he and his wife have also felt an increasing need to be home with Saini's elderly mother-in-law.

"Then this opportunity came along [at Dalhousie]."

University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor, Deep Saini resigns. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor, Deep Saini resigns. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Speaking to The Canberra Times just hours after making the announcement, Saini admitted he was still feeling a little stunned. He couldn't bring himself to make his usual morning pilgrimage out of his office for coffee.

"I'm a bit sad about having to face my colleagues, I love them...We've been absolutely smitten with this city."

Canberra, as it turned out, was not unlike Canada, only with less snow and more snakes, he laughed.

In my native Punjab, there's a saying, which means 'one eye is smiling while the other is crying'. I have that feeling today.

Deep Saini

During his time at UC, the relatively young 28-year-old university has climbed up the global rankings, thanks largely to its research output, and forged ahead with an ambitious campus redevelopment.

Saini has also signed agreements with three Indian universities as UC looks to pull in more students from overseas.

But concerns about staff workloads have hung over the campus, which saw strikes for the first time in more than a decade last year.

On Friday morning, Saini was delighted to hear staff had voted through a new enterprise agreement, having "wholly rejected" the university's first offer five months earlier.

An independent review has also begun into UC's controversial assistant professor scheme, which senior academics claim could be exploiting the young academics it seeks to fast-track. Saini has vowed to implement all the review's recommendations before he leaves.

"After talking more with staff I discovered things [with the scheme] that I felt genuinely in my heart need fixing," he said.

"A lot of people have done well under it but I also heard a lot [isn't working] with how it's implemented."

His own journey to the vice-chancellorship of a university began "by total chance" in a remote village in northern India.

His father, part of a large but very poor family, ran into a teacher on the road who had just set up a one-room school in a temple.

The man paid for his tuition and before long his father had proved himself a brilliant student, winning a scholarship and going on to become a senior civil servant.

"If it wasn't for that one moment, I could have still been in that village," Saini said.

"That's the power of education."

Opening doors for others has been a key part of his legacy at UC, including supporting students of refugee background.

He said he would be returning to check on the university's "phenomenal" rise - and keep an eye on his favourite basketball team, the UC Capitals.

Having spoken out against Australian university cuts, he now will find a friendlier funding climate in Canada.

"Research is the engine of the economy," he said. "Our future depends on it."

Dalhousie University said Saini was their "unanimous choice" for vice-chancellor.

At the National Tertiary Union, Rachel Bahl said she was surprised to hear of Saini's early resignation, but said UC's new enterprise agreement made good progress on all areas of concern for staff.

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