Getting to know the next rector

Daniel Jutras

Daniel Jutras

Credit: Amélie Philibert

In 5 seconds

Daniel Jutras will take over as the 12th rector of UdeM on June 1. Here, he introduces himself.

On June 1, Daniel Jutras will become the 12th rector of Université de Montréal. After 35 years of teaching at McGill University's Faculty of Law, where he was dean from 2009 to 2016, he returns to his alma mater, where his academic career began. To learn more about the career path of UdeM's next leader, UdeMNouvelles met with Mr. Jutras a week after his appointment was announced.

At the turn of the 1980s, you were a student at the Faculty of Law of Université de Montréal. Why did you choose this field of study? And this university?

When I finished my college studies in the social sciences and humanities, I became very interested in constitutional issues. It must be said that we had just entered a period of great political turmoil. My plan to study law wasn't very well thought out, and I went down that road without thinking too much about it, but I quickly realized that I loved this discipline. As for Université de Montréal, it was a natural choice for me. It was the only university that was already part of my universe, even since childhood. I remember, at the age of six or seven, coming to an open house and being impressed by Dr. Hans Selye's stress laboratory.

What do you remember from your time at Université de Montréal?

As a first-generation student, I entered the world of ideas with great pleasure. I was fortunate to have some remarkable professors, many of whom were mentors. I think of François Chevrette, André Morel, Pierre-André Côté and Didier Lluelles, who took me under their wing and transformed the person I was. They allowed me to attain the highly coveted position of research assistant at the Supreme Court of Canada. Then they supported me in my efforts to get into Harvard University. I certainly wouldn't have considered an academic career if I hadn't met those professors. As I spent time with them and assisted them in their research, I realized how much freedom there was in their work. This freedom is a fundamental value of the university, a value that I have made my own.

You have a reputation as a passionate teacher. You have taken an interest in educational innovations and in 2006 you received an award for excellence in teaching. What do you think makes a good teacher?

The secret is wanting to be in the classroom, really needing to be there. For me, it's never time stolen from research. On the contrary, it's a tremendous source of energy and inspiration. When students feel the passion that drives the teacher, the magic happens: we enter into a productive relationship in terms of the transmission of knowledge. It has always been a great joy for me to see them advance in their careers: some have become professors, others are now leaders in their firms on a national or even global scale.

Your legal career has led you to argue before the Supreme Court of Canada. Tell us about that experience.

I was already quite well known at the Supreme Court, having taken a leave of absence from McGill University between 2002 and 2005 to work as a senior advisor to the Chief Justice, the Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin. At the Court's invitation, I argued two separate and highly complex cases: Senate reform, as proposed by Stephen Harper's government, and, a few years later, the issue of the power of the courts to review decisions rendered by administrative tribunals such as Quebec's Commission des normes, de l'équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail and the Régie du logement. Neither of these cases fell within my field of expertise. I am a private-law specialist first and foremost, I am interested in contract law, civil liability and comparative private law. In my opinion, the Court was looking for jurists who had not previously expressed an opinion on these subjects and who could thus synthesize the various visions presented and take a fresh look at them. This is an experience that few jurists have the chance to experience and it was a very great honour for me.

In addition to your duties as dean, you have sat on independent audit committees at Harvard University and HEC Paris, among others. From this wider point of view, what do you see as the main challenge facing universities today?

There are many challenges, but if I had to choose one, I would say that the main issue is relevance. As an institution, universities have existed for eight centuries and their  fundamental mission has always remained the same: the creation of knowledge, its preservation and its transmission. It is a mission of the utmost importance, especially at a time when we are witnessing the fragmentation of knowledge, the decline in the authority of experts and even a certain rejection of science. For me, it is essential to reaffirm loud and clear the university's mission and to obtain the means to carry it out. More than ever, universities must stand as bulwarks of rationality and remind decision-makers and the general public that it is on their campuses that verifiable solutions to the most pressing problems of our world are sought.

Your appointment as rector was announced a week ago. How are you experiencing this new reality?

With a lot of emotion. My father, who passed away just a year ago, would have been very proud. When I embarked on my academic career, he was very hopeful that I would one day work at Université de Montréal. Well, here I am, Dad! Having said that, I know I have a lot of work ahead of me. Before I take office on June 1, I have to build my team and get up to speed on the issues specific to Université de Montréal. I'm very much looking forward to starting to work with all members of the university community.

What kind of rector do you want to be?

I want to be a caring rector, one who cares about the well-being of the university community, a unifying leader who seeks to create a stimulating and inspiring work environment, the kind of atmosphere that makes students want to come to campus in the morning and that ensures that staff and faculty members come to work with a sense of pride in contributing to the building of society. For me, a rector must also be the admirer-in-chief of his or her university, a super-fan of all those who make the institution successful; I know there are many of them. My role will be to showcase their successes and their work here in Quebec, in Canada and on the international scene.

In your spare time, what do you do to relax and take your mind off things?

I've always been a bit hyperactive and I'm lucky to live with an extraordinary woman who loves the great outdoors. So we spend a lot of time outdoors. We ski in the winter and sail and bike in the summer. And don't be surprised to see me come to work on my motorcycle from time to time!

What is it that drives your career?

What gets me up in the morning is, first and foremost, curiosity. Every day I hope to learn something new. That's why I became an academic: to be immersed in an environment where you are immediately and intensely confronted with new knowledge and new ideas. As a professor, I have had the chance to pass on this curiosity to hundreds of students. As rector, I will have the incredible opportunity to continue to do so on a very large scale, at a very large university. And I'm very excited about that.