The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Ilene Busch-Vishniac, McMaster provost, named ninth U of S president

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Busch-Vishniac addresses her new university for the first time.
Although members of the search committee knew the identity of the next University of Saskatchewan president for about a month, few others in Convocation Hall on Dec. 19 knew the name Ilene Busch-Vishniac.

A slight woman of about five-foot-five, Busch-Vishniac stood at the microphone after being introduced and seemed immediately at home addressing the campus she will soon lead.

“I marvel that a one-time music student from Philadelphia has somehow managed to navigate a winding path ending up here as the president of the University of Saskatchewan,” Busch-Vishniac said.

Busch-Vishniac was born in Philadelphia, Penn. on Jan. 28, 1955. She attended the University of Rochester, originally to study piano, but she did not want to commit her life to it. “Alas, I have only modest musical talent and eventually, my willingness to keep working to become merely average waned,” she wrote in an email.

After her first year, she switched her major to mathematics and physics. She later earned master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering at MIT, focusing on acoustics. Her studies led her to develop tools for noise reduction for such things as highway sound barriers and telephone conference calls. She holds 11 U.S. patents, with about 40 patents to her name internationally.

In 1982, Busch-Vishniac joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin as an engineering professor. In 1998, she became the dean of engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She is currently provost and vice-president academic of McMaster University in Hamilton, a job she has held since 2007.

Although ending up in Saskatoon was clearly not something she had planned, Busch-Vishniac said leaving the United States seemed like an obvious choice.

“I’m not surprised at all that at some point my husband and I decided it would be good to leave the United States,” she said. “Things have not gone well there and we’re quite happy — delighted — to be in Canada and have become quite ardent supporters of this nation.”

Her husband Ethan Vishniac is a physics and astronomy professor, as well as editor of The Astrophysical Journal. 

Asked to explain why she felt the U.S. was in decline, Busch-Vishniac was surprisingly frank.

“I think American society has become very insular. It has always been, in my lifetime, very racist,” she said. “It has become very xenophobic, much more so recently than it used to be. So the principles upon which that nation were founded have been lost in the muddle whereas they are much more accurately reflected here in Canada.”

Busch-Vishniac has applied to become a full Canadian citizen and, coincidentally, her term as president of the U of S begins on Canada Day.

Busch-Vishniac will be the first woman to hold the office, replacing Peter MacKinnon after 13 years as president. After such a long time with MacKinnon at the helm, and “since there’s obviously not a crisis,” she says she will take her time getting to know the school, as well as its students, faculty and staff. But she also says her outsider’s perspective will help.

“I have grown up with the system in the States, I have worked with the system in Ontario. So instead of simply doing things because that’s the way we do it, I will have the opportunity to say, ‘Yes, that may be the way you’ve done it but have you thought about why you do it and are there alternatives that might make sense?’”

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