New dean has broad credentials as teacher, researcher and manager

Winter 2014
Nicell large pic 2 lr

Dean Jim Nicell—Using resources effectively and sustainably for the good of all. (Photo: Owen Egan)

The Faculty of Engineering has a new dean, but one with a familiar face.

Jim Nicell began his five-year term July 1, 2013, bringing with him a broad knowledge of our Faculty, McGill and the wider community.

This Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics professor has been a pioneer from Day One of his 22-year academic career at McGill.

In 1991, it was reported that he was the first Canadian to receive a doctorate in the new field of Environmental Engineering, and, on his arrival at McGill the following year, he established a research agenda that made him a leader in diverse fields, including enzyme catalysis for treating hazardous contaminants, in understanding the degradation and fate of plasticizers in the environment, and in odour-impact assessment. Early on, he was acknowledged as a leader in the new field of Green Chemistry, and his recent focus remains in this strategically important area of research for McGill.

McGill recognized Nicell’s research accomplishments when the University named him a William Dawson Scholar (2002-2006) and then awarded him a James McGill Chair (2007-2013).

Working cheek by jowl with students

Nicell has also excelled as a teacher, winning the Engineering Class of ’51 Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1994 and the Engineering Class of ’44 Award for Outstanding Teaching a decade later.

His interactions with students, however, reach well beyond the classroom. Nicell served as a residence director for five years, living, along with his young family, with 220 undergraduates—mainly first-year students—each year. He says the role gave him invaluable insight into the challenges students from all corners of the world face as they make the transition into a university environment, as well as an appreciation for their boundless enthusiasm and energy.

The experience served him particularly well when he became Associate Dean, Student Affairs (2001-2006), in charge of undergraduate affairs at the Faculty of Engineering.

More recently, Nicell served as McGill’s Associate Vice-Principal (University Services) responsible from 2007-2012 for many of the operations, services, properties and physical infrastructure on both the downtown and Macdonald campuses. In that post Nicell oversaw construction projects with a total value in excess of $500 million and managed a team of more than 600 people with a budget of approximately $60 million per year.

Collaborative solutions to meet societal challenges

During his tenure as Associate Vice-Principal, Nicell also spearheaded McGill’s Sustainability Policy, approved by Senate and the Board of Governors in 2010. He created the McGill Office of Sustainability (MOOS), launched McGill’s broad ranging “Vision 2020: Creating a Sustainable McGill” program and initiated the MOOS’ Catalyst Awards to recognize contributions to sustainability by students and staff.

In recognition of his long-standing commitment to sustainability, Nicell was himself recognized with a Special Catalyst Award for Career Achievement in 2012.

In all of these roles Nicell has always believed adamantly in the necessity of forming greater connections between academia and the larger community that McGill and all universities serve.

“This isn’t some vague motherhood statement or a lure to reel in increased financial backing,” he said. “The new reality is that we all have to work more collaboratively—within academe and without—if we’re going to meet the enormous challenges facing us as individuals and as societies.

“It’s no longer a question of maybe, but rather the clear realization that we have to work together to use our physical, moral and intellectual resources effectively and sustainably for the good of all.”

In part, because of his work to create lasting linkages, the McGill Alumni Association awarded Nicell an Honorary Life Membership in 2011.

With files from Patrick McDonagh

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