A Generous Intellect: Remembering Rod Dobell

remembering rod
Photo credit: Dean Kalyan & Joe Neidhardt

We are deeply saddened by the news of the passing of our colleague and friend, Dr. Rod Dobell. At the Centre for Global Studies, we are feeling grief and gratitude. Grief because of the huge loss of intellect, guidance, eldership and friendship. Gratitude because we were blessed to have known and been shaped by such an incredibly kind and generous human being. Our thoughts and love go out to Rod’s family and to all of you who share in this loss. 

A.R. (Rod) Dobell was born in Vancouver, BC and took BA and MA degrees at the University of British Columbia in economics and mathematics before going on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for his PhD in economics. After a five-year appointment as Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard University, he returned to Canada as Associate Professor of Mathematics and Political Economy, and subsequently Professor of Political Economy, at the University of Toronto. There he served as a member of the founding faculty of the Institute for Policy Analysis, directed a research project that analyzed and recommended a system for financing post-secondary education in which students' loan repayments depended on their future earnings, and developed some of the first working models for longitudinal microsimulation methods in the analysis of social policy.  

Rod then alternated between academic work and public policy, with six years in the Government of Canada (including appointments as Special Advisor to the Deputy Minister of Finance for long-range economic planning and as Deputy Secretary for Planning in the Treasury Board Secretariat). This was followed by two years (1976-78) at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as Director of the General Economics Branch, seven years as Director of the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria, and a seven-year term as President of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. He returned to the University of Victoria in 1991 to take up the first appointment to the Francis G. Winspear Chair for Research in Public Policy, an appointment he held until 1997. In fact, he was among the founding faculty at the UVic School of Public Administration, serving as its director from 1977-1984. He was also an advisor to the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance since its beginnings in 2000, a role he continued until 2022. 

In the early 1980s Rod served as Director of Research for Parliamentary Task Forces on Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements (the Bureau Task Force) and on Pension Reform (the Frith Task Force). He was the founding President for NAMI-Canada, the Canadian section of the North American Institute, exploring the emerging structures of a North American community. In 1992 Rod was awarded the Governor-General's Canada 125 medal for service to the country. He was a founding member of the Board of the trinational Environmental Education and Training Institute of North America and served as a member of the Research Committee for the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. From 1995 to 1999, Rod served on an inter-disciplinary Panel on Marine Resources for the Canadian Global Change Program of the Royal Society of Canada. He was also a longstanding member of the National Statistics Council, which he joined at the invitation of the Minister Responsible for Statistics Canada in 1989.

“Rod was one of the first to use the term social capital; one of the first to embrace the need for a research program concerning human dimensions; one of the first to recognize the importance of the Earth Charter because it addressed intergenerational equity.”  

—Her Honour, The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, OC, OOnt, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario 

Over the course of his extensive academic career—interspersed with numerous forays into policy work—Dobell developed his specific research interests in the philosophy and processes of public administration and policy formation, including the way in which collective decisions are influenced by changing views of scientific evidence and democracy, as well as in changing structures for consultation and public participation. His most recent work looked at social capital, social cohesion and social learning in the management of global environmental risks and in the stewardship of cultural and natural capital. 

Everyone—from undergraduate interns to visiting Governors General—who has passed through the halls at the Centre for Global Studies has experienced Rod’s generous intellect. Many academic careers have been started, advanced or enriched by interaction with his boundary-less yet rigorous curiosity. His scholarly openness expanded horizons and drew connections for the broader community.  

“Rod Dobell has been a champion of the CFGS since its beginning in the 1990s. His impact on the Centre cannot be overestimated. Rod was a driving force behind the initial Challenge Campaign, and he has been a greatly valued mentor and researcher at the CFGS over the past decades. Entire generations of fellows could testify that the CFGS would not be the inspiring place for impactful research without Rod’s indefatigable engagement.”   

—Oliver Schmidtke, Director, Centre for Global Studies and Professor, Departments of History and Political Science, University of Victoria 

Rod was largely responsible for creating a centre where the work of all academic disciplines could be knit together in a coherent way to address major problems of global social, technological, and environmental change. He committed much of his career to the outreach, engagement, and success of the centre. 

So many colleagues, distinguished scholars and policy-makers have counted Dr. Dobell as one of their most important mentors and collaborators. In their own exploration of pressing questions, they would often discover that Rod had already put intellectual energy into the same challenge with wisdom and elegant writing.  

Following his retirement in 2002, Rod remained actively involved both on and off the UVic campus as Professor Emeritus of Public Policy. Further, he remained an active member of the Centre’s strategy team as our Senior Research Associate. In fact, he only handed in his keys in August 2023.  

In 2011, a symposium was organized in Rod’s honour, which resulted in the published volume A Subtle Balance: Expertise, Evidence, and Democracy in Public Policy and Governance, 1970-2010 (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015).

“In quality, breadth, diversity of his contributions, Rod is a model of a phenomenon too rare in Canadian public life—of distinguished scholar and thinker, also willing to move into the fray in positions where one has to grapple with practice, with process, with responsibility for the real power that public decisions wield.”  

—Edward A. (Ted) Parson, Distinguished Dan and Rae Emmett Professor of Environmental Law and Faculty Director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, LA  

“He believed people are both capable and interested in being involved in things that matter.”  

—Justin Longo, Assistant Professor, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina

Rod has generously shared his intellect and passion to absolutely everyone who has stepped through the Centre’s halls and has linked many individuals to networks that have shaped their lives and careers. He will be greatly missed. 

We invite you to sign a condolence board for his family and to serve as a reminder to us all of the impact he had. And, that our loss is felt far and wide. 

“There are very few people that impact the lives of almost everyone they meet. From enabling them on their career path to discovering new ways of understanding something, to being appreciated for their personal contributions (intellectual or otherwise), Rod offered genuine interest and counsel. While I know that Rod’s guidance is one of the main reasons I have the career I have today, I know that I am among many who can say the same thing. He has truly influenced the direction in my life and shaped who I am in the world. I am blessed to have been given the gift of his time and of his friendship.”  

—Jodie Walsh, Operations Director, Research Coordinator CFGS 


In Rod’s own words, from a speech he gave in June 2022: 

When I was a child, I spoke as a child—in the confident language of dynamic optimization models and micro-simulation techniques. 

When I became a man, I tried to speak as a man—like Martin Bunton or Oliver Schmidtke, 

in the language of scholars commenting responsibly on human affairs more generally. 

But now I am become a fossil, and I know not how to speak. 

Now there are so many ways of seeing, of knowing, of speaking.  

So many ways of being, and belonging. Words fail.  

So thank you all very much again. Please have a glass, and sail off to the winds of the weekend, 

and a great future for CFGS. 

Stay well, all.


Submitted by Oliver Schmidtke, Martin Bunton, Jodie Walsh and colleagues at the Centre for Global Studies.