Interview with Bettina B. Cenerelli, the Foundation's new interim President & CEO

On May 1st, Dr. Bettina B. Cenerelli assumed office as new President & CEO (pro tem). In a brief interview, she discussed her motivations and presented aspects of her journey that have prepared her for the challenges to come. 


Could you share some insights into your background and how it has helped you prepare for this role?

Similar to the paths of many of our Scholars, mine is also somewhat unusual: as a first-generation immigrant, I completed graduate studies (Dr phil.) and a postdoctoral fellowship in Europe, studying in Berlin, Paris, and Siegen, among others. I have worked in the field of editing in Switzerland and in Quebec. I also cumulate experience in university teaching across three Canadian provinces and served as Director in various universities for over a decade. My most recent position was Senior Director in the Dean's Office of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

From this journey, I have gained a deep understanding of the experiences and paths of graduate students, both in Canada and elsewhere. I have also had the privilege of being a Scholar myself with organizations that share a similar mission to that of the Foundation, such as the Studienstiftung (Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes). A prominent German foundation that provides support to students, facilitate exchanges, and play a crucial role in the advancement of exceptionally talented young researchers.


Having previously served at the Foundation from 2004 to 2011, primarily in the role of Program Director, what personal reasons drove your decision to return and take on the challenge of becoming President & CEO (pro tem)?

My main drive comes from a firm belief in the significance of independent, non-partisan organizations like the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation in supporting research in the social sciences and humanities. The Foundation acts as a catalyst for passionate young researchers delving into complex issues using multidisciplinary approaches. However, despite offering a more comprehensive perspective, this approach may encounter difficulties in gaining acknowledgment from traditional funding organizations.

I strongly believe that providing our Scholars with opportunities to expand their networks will also broaden their perspectives on their research fields. Thus, we must create more avenues for them to connect with Fellows, Mentors, peers from different cohorts, as well as with policymakers, academics, artists, and business leaders. My personal journey, both at the Foundation and in academic environments, has convinced me that we truly contribute to the personal growth of these talented young researchers, and most importantly, that they, in turn, make a significant impact on our society.


How do you approach your new role?

The words that come to my mind are humility, transparency, and impact.

I see my role primarily as that of a facilitator. I am lucky to have the full support of a renewed, dedicated Board of Directors, a competent team, an academic network that acknowledges the Foundation's impact (we received nearly 500 Scholarship applications this year again), and an engaged community that stands by us whenever needed. Essentially, my role is to ensure that all these individuals, who have the Foundation's best interests at heart, collaborate respectfully and critically, asking the challenging questions that others may shy away from.

We must also acknowledge the privilege we had, as a foundation, to be endowed with significant funding from the House of Commons when the Foundation was established in 2001. This collective trust from Canadians comes with significant responsibilities including ensuring that we spend the funds that we were entrusted with wisely and that we uphold the highest standards of transparency. Rather than avoiding public discourse, I advocate for the Foundation to enhance its openness and facilitate exchanges among researchers, the public, universities, research institutions, and society as a whole. It is crucial not to isolate researchers in ivory towers or limit their interactions to peers only. I firmly believe in the role and responsibility of intellectuals in the public domain and the significance of public engagement.

Finally, I believe it is time to shift the spotlight to those who are the true reason for the Foundation's existence: our community members. One of my goals is to give greater visibility to the exceptional contributions to society made by all Foundation members, Fellows, Mentors, as well as our Scholars. This includes not only research but also advocacy efforts and personal dedication.


What are the main challenges you foresee encountering in your new position, and how do you intend to address them? 

The main challenge, which can also be seen as a privilege, is undoubtedly the revision of the Foundation's strategic planning. We are always mindful of transparency and sound governance, and we bear the responsibility of regularly reassessing our programs and ensure they effectively meet the needs of the research community and fulfill our entrusted mission. Strategic planning is an opportunity to seize opportunities for improvement. It will be a chance to assess our Leadership Program, including Institutes, our Public Events Program, collaboration among Members to name a few.

Finally, I intend to give particular focus to my new team, the Foundation’s staff. I want to make sure that they can perform their duties effectively and I commit to acknowledging their contributions to the Foundation's daily operations. This is my top priority.


How about we give you the final word to address the Foundation community?

I am both deeply honoured to be able to contribute to the Foundation and excited to return to serve such an exceptional community made up of brilliant individuals with diverse perspectives and horizons. I look forward to working with all members to further showcase the significance of the Foundation's role, particularly its community, in advancing research and public engagement in Canada. 


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Bettina B. Cenerelli

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Dr. Bettina B. Cenerelli is President & CEO (pro tem) of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.