University of Toronto Department of Political Science
Spotlight: Richard Simeon
Richard Simeon is committed to learning from those to whom he offers leadership
Much of Professor Richard Simeon’s current work is driven by the question of how, in deeply divided societies, long-term arrangements conducive to minimizing conflict can be established without undermining democracy or social justice.
The United Kingdom-born professor of Political Science and Law has been working overseas for more than a decade, mostly in Africa, examining the prospects and promise of federalism as a solution for deeply divided, post-conflict nations.
His work, however, began with a focus on the Canadian experience after completing an Honours BA from the University of British Columbia, followed by an MA and PhD from Yale University. His dissertation became his first published book, Federal-Provincial Diplomacy, in 1972, and later was awarded the Martha Derthick Award for “a book of lasting significance to federalism and intergovernmental relations” by the American Science Association in 2005.
In 1976 Simeon was named Director of the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations at Queen’s University, where he had been teaching. “When I started in this position I had no idea what I was going to do, and then I became one of the few people outside of Quebec who was delighted when the PQ was elected in November 1976 because all of a sudden I became very busy,” he recalls. With a focus on Canadian politics and federalism, Simeon worked as an advisor to a number of Ontario’s premiers and was deeply involved in the Meech Lake Accord. “I believe Canada, on the whole, managed things pretty well,” he says. “We were able to have a serious debate about secession without putting each other in jail and I believe that’s an achievement.”
Simeon realized that perhaps Canada’s experiences could provide lessons to other countries. “Around this time, the world started to become more interested in Canada and Canada became more interested in the world,” he says. In 1995, Simeon went to South Africa for the first time. The country had recently completed its constitution and had established a “sort-of federal system” with nine distinct provinces. “They were going through a democratic transition and it was an extraordinary time,” he says. “I got hooked on South Africa in a way.”
Called upon by one of Canada’s pre-eminent public servants, Al Johnson, Simeon spent his first two weeks in the country traveling to these newly-established provinces, holding workshops on federalism and progressive democracy. “Though there are still questions about the quality of democracy in South Africa, I tend to consider myself an Afro-optimist.”
Simeon returned to South Africa many times throughout the following decade. He continues to work closely with a colleague at the University of Cape Town, with whom he has co-taught a number of courses in both Toronto and Cape Town.
Most recently, Simeon has been focusing his work on Sudan, where he leads a team that works closely with university professors in the region, helping them to think about federalism as a post-conflict solution. This work is based in Khartoum, the country’s capital, but continued violence and political unrest in southern Sudan makes it a discouraging case for Simeon. “The big question is, given the all the intense differences in this region, how optimistic can you really be that these things are going to make much of a difference?” he asks. “But the choice is to either face a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure or make some small attempt to turn things around, and hopefully help a few people along the way.”
“Khartoum, being a highly religious Islamic city, doesn’t have a movie theatre or a bar,” Simeon explains. “So, you can’t say that it’s a whole lot of fun going there. Sometimes you feel as though you’re working in a bubble, cooped up inside a fancy hotel when you know what’s really going on around you.” However, it’s not all hotel meeting rooms and hard work. His most recent trip to Sudan allowed Simeon the opportunity to experience the bustling, organized-chaos of the local Camel Market followed by the stunning dance-cum-worship ceremony of the Sufi Whirling Dervishes.
Simeon draws upon these global political and cultural experiences in his scholarly research, marrying his two passions. He is involved in a five-year SSHRC collaborative research initiative entitled Ethnicity and Democratic Governance. “A very big part of this program is to involve graduate students and provide them with invaluable contacts, funding and intellectual stimulation.”
Simeon’s close work with both undergraduate and graduate students continues to be one of the most rewarding aspects of his career. “One of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that a fair number of my publications have been co-authored with graduate students,” he says. In 1990 he developed and taught a first-year Political Science course, entitled Canada and Comparative Perspectives, and says this experience helped teach him a lot about himself. “Teaching these big classes, you have to be a bit of an actor,” he says. “I enjoyed the challenge.”
Learning from his experiences both in the classroom and in real life, has contributed to Simeon’s success. “When I’m abroad speaking to a group in Sudan or Iraq, for example, I often begin by saying: ‘I’m going to learn more from you and you are from me,’” he says. “Though this may be a soft opening line, there is a huge element of truth to it.”
One of the most important lessons he has learned: always maintain humility when giving advice. “When people show up as international consultants and say, ‘this is the way you should do it,’ it almost always leads to disaster,” he says. “The obligation of the advisor is to listen and adapt solutions that are specific to each country’s needs, while always being respectful of their history and culture.”Last modified on Tuesday, April 20, 2010 by William Kurth