Photo by David Stobbe
Ilene Busch-Vishniac—our ninth president—built a career in the field of sound, clarifying what people want to hear and quieting what they don’t.
By Kris Foster
“We think of sound in three stages: there is the source, the path and the receiver. The sound is created, it takes a path but it does no good whatsoever unless someone hears it,” explained Busch-Vishniac, who officially started at the U of S on July 1.
Given her expertise, it’s not surprising she said that her first job as president “is to listen.”
Busch-Vishniac was born in 1955 and raised in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, a small town less than an hour outside of Philadelphia.
Fairless Hills was developed in the early 1950s with a loan from U.S. Steel and named after Benjamin Fairless, U.S. Steel’s president at the time. Needless to say, many of the residents were employed at the huge steel plant, a career path that many of Busch-Vishniac’s high school classmates followed upon graduation. That wasn’t her path.
Her parents hoped she would choose law school, but she loved music and decided to move to Rochester, New York, where she studied piano at the Eastman School of Music and took classes at the University of Rochester.
“I marvel that a one-time music student from Philadelphia somehow managed to navigate a winding path, ending up here as the president of the University of Saskatchewan,” said Busch-Vishniac.
Indeed, the path Busch-Vishniac took to the U of S had its share of twists and turns.
Midway through her first semester at the University of Rochester, Busch-Vishniac realized she had a problem—one that derailed her career as a musician.
“My problem was that I have lots and lots of interests. I was interested in music and discovered that to be a successful musician you need to commit every fibre of your being. Everything you do must revolve around music to be successful, and I realized I had too many interests and not enough talent to make that true,” explained Busch-Vishniac.
“But I still loved music, so I sort of went into the science of music and shifted from music into acoustics, trying to understand how we generate sound.”
A freshman class on the physics of music piqued her interest, and she switched into physics and mathematics for her undergraduate degree. After her senior year in 1976, she married Ethan Vishniac, a fellow physics student.
The couple set off for Cambridge, Massachusetts, for graduate school; Ethan at Harvard to study astronomy and Ilene at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she earned her Master of Science and PhD in mechanical engineering.
From there, both her research and administrative careers took off. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Bell Labs, she landed at the University of Texas (Austin) in 1982 as assistant professor of mechanical engineering, eventually becoming associate chair of the department. While in Austin, her research examined how to create more efficient and less expensive sound barriers for highways.
“We lived in Texas for 16 years. In Texas, it was big sky country; in Saskatchewan, it is the Land of Living Skies. I am used to big skies, quick changes in weather and blowing wind, though it tends to be cooler here,” she said, with a slight laugh.
Following their stay in big sky country—during which time Ilene and Ethan welcomed their daughters Cady and Miriam, now 26 and 24, respectively—Busch-Vishniac took up the post of dean of engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. This position gave her a chance to walk the halls of one of the world’s great medical centres, Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Because of the proximity to the medical institution, she became interested in hospital acoustics. Just as in Austin, her research remained focused on reducing the sounds we don’t want to hear. “My research has largely been on noise control. I’m interested in sounds that we would rather not have. And under various situations, how we get rid of those sounds. Hospital noise turns out to be the number one complaint of visitors and patients and in the top three for staff.”
The reason for this, Busch-Vishniac continued, is that materials typically used for noise reduction—like fibrous ceiling panels—are not adequate for hospitals because they are too difficult to clean and end up trapping bacteria, making them a serious health risk.
“For me the question was, ‘What can we do in a hospital to introduce sound absorbing materials that are antiseptic and appropriate for the environment?’ Since we began this research, there are two companies in North America that are in various stages of producing sound absorption materials for use in hospitals.”
In 2007, an opportunity a little further north was calling her. From Baltimore, Busch-Vishniac became provost and vicepresident academic at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. She completed a five-year term, but declined a second one. She was ready to take on the challenges that come with being president of a university.
The U of S community first heard from Busch-Vishniac on an unusually mild day in December 2011, when it was announced she would be the next U of S president.
Since that introduction was made to a packed Convocation Hall, many members of the U of S community have had the chance to get to know the new president.
She is warm and engaging. She smiles and laughs easily. She loves dark chocolate and murder mysteries. She is smart, but also disarming; she makes you feel comfortable. She still has a piano and a 10-inch reach in her hand to span an octave plus a note, “but to say I am still regularly playing would be a stretch.”
She is committed to the university; her new Toyota is even the same shade of green found on the U of S shield.
And she has been warmly received by the university community.
“To some extent we need to take centre stage. I think the correct expression for Saskatchewan is that the university hides its light under the bushel basket.”
“I can’t go anywhere since the announcement without being stopped by people from Saskatchewan who may be scattered all over the world. Everyone I have met at the U of S and beyond has been as nice as they could possibly be. They have been warm, engaging and helpful. It is just wonderful.”
She and Ethan moved to Saskatoon in May and have been getting to know their new home. “The more I see, the more I feel I made the right choice and the more I am falling in love with the university, the city and the province.”
Her first priority was “to transition from being an outsider to an insider, so I am reading everything I can get my hands on and talking to everyone I can,” she said. “I am wandering around talking to strangers, introducing myself on the street and asking, ‘So, what is it the university does well and what is it the university does not do so well?’ I am trying to understand our culture, what we must preserve and what we must change.”
Some of the feedback she has heard notes the university’s strong relationships with government and business, the uniqueness of its facilities, and the integrated planning process, which Busch-Vishniac sees as critically important as the U of S is in the midst of permanent budget adjustments to the tune of $44.5 million over the next four years.
The university, through its third integrated plan, she explained, has laid out appropriate goals for the four years ahead. “What we know is that we cannot be everything to everyone. It is, if anything, more important that we pursue our goals in times of fiscal constraint because it is more important that we be focused.”
Busch-Vishniac also wants to see more focus on student retention at the U of S. “I think it is clear that we are not retaining students to graduation at the same rate as some of our peers. It is an area that we must clearly understand.”
Improved retention rates lead to a better student experience and can also strengthen alumni engagement. Universities and colleges in the U.S., she explained, have a long tradition of building relationships with their students from the moment they set foot on campus or even ask for application forms; in the U.S., alumni are active boosters, not just names on a list.
“The universities that manage those relationships best realize every interaction is building an alumni relationship. So it’s really very thoughtful and they engage students at every step along the way because they know that when students graduate they will be tomorrow’s alumni, and they have a tremendous amount to offer the university in terms of history, guidance, institutional memory and, of course, philanthropy. Do I think the U of S can do this? Yes, but I think it does require a cultural change to move in that direction. It means changing how we think about and interact with our students.”
Busch-Vishniac also heard, and agrees, that the U of S is not as visible nationally or internationally as it should be given its areas of research excellence and breadth and quality of education offerings.
“To some extent we need to take centre stage. I think the correct expression for Saskatchewan is that the university hides its light under the bushel basket. The history and mission of this institution centres on serving the province. What we need is a little, a rather modest, cultural transition that understands we can better serve the province by taking a perspective that is more national and international,” she said.
“Does a university president feel pressure,” she asked while laughing. “I don’t feel pressured; I feel challenged. I like challenges. The distinction is that I would feel pressured if there weren’t this entire team of people with tremendous talent advising me on decisions and implementation. I am challenged because I think the options, opportunities and demands facing universities are more numerous and more difficult than they have been in the past.”
There is a lot to learn and even more to do as a new president. “It’s true that university presidents eat, sleep and breathe their university. It takes every fibre of your being, but it’s not the same as sitting down for two days and doing scales and arpeggios because universities, especially this university, are incredibly rich mixes of people, experiences, places and disciplines.”
Sounds like a perfect place for someone with so many interests to make a little noise.