Donald Ainslie has filled all and sundry roles in his 15-odd years at U of T. He jokes that he started out teaching and researching, and then all of a sudden, had to administer. As he was getting the hang of that, it was “okay, now decorate—‘which carpet do you want? Which accent colours?’”

Ainslie will be embarking on a new role this summer, as Principal of University College.

“This will be a new set of challenges,” said Ainslie, who has been chair of the Department of Philosophy for the past eight years. “UC has about 4,000 students, about 800 residence students, there are four academic programs—Health Studies, Canadian Studies, Sexual Diversity Studies, and Drama Studies, there is the University of Toronto art collection at UC, there is the library, so the principal’s role is to manage all of that, to set a strategic direction, and work on ensuring we have the resources necessary to fulfill that direction.”

Ainslie brings a very diverse range of experiences to the position. He grew up in Toronto and attended the University of Toronto Schools for high school and Queens for undergrad. “I went to Queens and I was amazed how uninterested in learning the vast majority of the students were—they wanted to dye themselves purple and have a good time, and I’m not against having a good time but I liked ideas, so Queens wasn’t really my kind of scene.”

Ainslie initially studied mathematics, which he still loves: “the way you get to use your mind in such a highly focused way […] in mathematics, you think about a very narrowly constrained domain with incredible intensity, and it’s amazing, it really is amazing. But I’m interested in lots of thing and in philosophy you get to think about lots of things in a highly disciplined way.”

Ainslie went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, where he “just got interested in lots of stuff,” ultimately writing his dissertation on David Hume.

He sees significant overlap between the two disciplines: “in both of them, you sit at your desk and you think really hard about how things have to be,” he said.
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His graduate experience, however, was different than most. In the midst of graduate school, Ainslie took a year off and returned to Toronto, where he worked at a housing program for people with HIV/AIDS and special needs.

He describes the experience as eye-opening: “Being with these people as they were struggling with life-and-death issues, it was tragic, and it was a huge learning experience for me. One guy who died as I was there, he was coping with his death and trying to make sense of his death with his community. He was a First Nations person and he was very connected with the First Nations community, and learning from them about how they approach the kind of spirituality involved in living and dying…I don’t want it to sound voyeuristic; I benefited from being with these people, and I hope I offered them something.”

Doing this work, Ainslie became “interested in what philosophers were saying about the AIDS epidemic,” which led to an interest in bioethics, “philosophical and theoretical reflection on the moral problems posed by healthcare, and our susceptibility to disease and illness.” He ultimately did a second master’s degree in the field, and now teaches a course on it.

His work calls attention to what he calls “the bioethics of everyday life…the questions that we face, as human beings subject to disease and illness,” arguing that much of bioethics focuses on questions of what the health professional or the state should do in certain situations, as opposed to “taking seriously what I believe to be the complimentary questions of what each of us should do.”

This area of scholarship ties Ainslie doubly to UC, both to its Health Studies and Sexual Diversity Studies programs.

In his work as chair, one of Ainslie’s goals was to maximize opportunity for smaller group discussion. “So much of philosophy involves actually interacting with one another, challenging one another’s ideas … You want someone to moderate the conversation who’s a bit more informed, so it’s productive but it really is a central part of philosophical learning and we just hadn’t been doing enough of that when I started as chair.”

Given finite resources, Ainslie shifted class sizes and tutorial components across years such that there were smaller third-year classes, so that students could get to know their professors, and adding tutorials in the larger first and second year courses.

The Socrates Project was vital to this plan. The thing that Ainslie is “most proud of,” the program hires senior undergrads as T.A.s for Introductory Philosophy, allowing the department to expand its tutorial offerings in second year and maintaining a discussion element while increasing class size, which in turn made possible smaller third-year courses.

Ainslie will continue to champion small group discussions in his work at UC. He will be picking up on the current UC principal Sylvia Bashevkin’s work on the UC One program, which begins next year. As UC was historically the non-denominational college within the increasingly diverse Toronto, Ainslie says the program will “focus on justice, and being the college at U of T that was for the whole city.”