Another step in a great journey

After more than a decade as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill, Heather Munroe-Blum will be stepping down on June 30. Recently she spoke with the McGill Reporter and reflected upon her ten years of service leading the University on the road to success.
"I feel a sense of happiness and unbelievable appreciation at having had the opportunity to serve more than I have regrets about finishing the term, which feels just right," says Heather Munroe-Blum. / Photo: Owen Egan
“I feel a sense of happiness and unbelievable appreciation at having had the opportunity to serve more than I have regrets about finishing the term, which feels just right,” says Heather Munroe-Blum. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Jacquie Rourke and Doug Sweet

It has been a decade, and a little more. Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum was named to the post in 2002, arrived on a cold winter morning in January 2003 and is preparing to leave as Principal at the end of June. When she sat down to speak with the Reporter for a special end-of-term videotaped interview that can be seen here, Prof. Munroe-Blum said it seems as if the time has gone by in the blink of an eye. Reflecting on a record of accomplishment and progress at McGill, she talked about how much she has appreciated being surrounded by amazing students, brilliant researchers and teachers, and a solid team of administrative support staff – not to mention the opportunities to rub shoulders with the likes of the Dali Lama and Bill Clinton. This is an edited transcript of the interview.

Has the time flown by?

Absolutely. In fact, one of the sensations I’m having in these last weeks and months is how it was Spring of 2002 that my appointment was announced and here we’ve passed Spring of 2013 and it feels like the blink of an eye.

You’re leaving an impressive legacy. You’ve maintained McGill’s position as top Canadian university, two major task forces, a massive renewal of faculty, what appears to be a very successful campaign and many more accomplishments. What stands out for you as the most important achievement?

Well, first of all, let me say, and I couldn’t feel more sincerely how true this is that any achievements of the last decade – and I think there have been significant achievements – reflect an extraordinary team right across the University and out into our alumni community around the world. I would guess that, for me, is what stands out most; it’s the people of McGill. This place is different. The themes of this great research-intensive university are like those of other great research-intensive universities, particularly in the public sphere, but the quality of the people at McGill and the engagement of our people – our students, our wonderful colleagues, our alumni, our volunteers, our governors – is really unique in my experience for the collaborative sensibility they bring to what they do and for the unified commitment toward the wellbeing and success of the University.

On the student side, McGill seems to have made considerable progress in terms of accessibility in many ways – accessibility in terms of cutting red tape, improving student aid, making the University itself more physically accessible – there have been a lot of changes for students over the last decade.

Well thank you for that, I think it’s true. One in four of our students today is the first in their family to go to university. That’s a source of pride for McGill. At the same time, we’d like it to be higher than that. When I came to McGill in 2003, I made a commitment that every qualified student would be able to come to McGill independent of their financial means and we’ve made great, great progress in that regard, we’ve increased over 500 per cent financial support for our students at the undergraduate and graduate level. That being said, there’s still a bit of a gap and we are working very hard to close that gap and I feel confident that in a year, two years ahead, that will happen. …

Of course in a place that is research-intensive, graduate-student intensive and large … you always need to think about what are the many mechanisms we can have to have people feel we know about them as individuals, we care about how they’re faring at the individual level. And that takes a very broad commitment in every part of the University to being respectful and warm to those around us. It’s certainly been my experience over this decade that that’s in the fabric of McGill, to care about those in our community and to care about the wellbeing of the place.

You mentioned McGill as a research-intensive university. How have you seen that role of McGill evolve over the past decade in terms of global reach and innovation?

McGill’s known around the world for the quality of its professors and the research contributions, the impact of our research. The decade we’ve just been through has witnessed a transformation in the way scholarship and research takes place, moving from what has, for a couple of hundred years, been dominantly an individual, professor-led undertaking to a notion of research platforms, scholarly teams, collaboration and, I think, around that, interdisciplinarity.

And so, if I look at the last 10 years, I think of the tremendous collaborations in fields as far-ranging as neurosciences – which now has, I think, four or five faculties involved, a new graduate program and new undergraduate emphases, and research taking place that involves music and psychology, music and engineering, biology, medicine, on and on, as one example – to the way the teams have come together around neurosciences research. And then I think a great example of the extent to which we have developed global research networks of high impact and outstanding quality – collaborations with ÉTS; in Switzerland, the University of Zurich; Oxford; Imperial College; and, of course, many collaborations in the United States with a strong focus on green chemistry and pain. Again, cross-disciplinary, cross-campus for us, with Macdonald and the Department of Chemisty, the Faculties of Science and Engineering on our downtown campus. And then reaching into, for example, the wonderful collaboration with the Riken Institute in that domain, but also moving into the biology and medicine-related areas of stem-cell research and that whole field. …

Another area that visibly has changed at McGill is the area of sustainability. You see it everywhere. The University as a whole seems to include sustainability in its decision-making. Can you comment on that whole effort?

Maybe I can begin to talk about sustainability by going back to my very first day as Principal – a very cold, dark winter morning, I think it was Jan. 3, 2003 – walking through the Roddick Gates up towards the triangle in front of the Arts Building, where McGill’s remains rest, and having a terrific snow/ice sculpture created by a bunch of students that said, “Welcome, Heather” in snow and some amazing configuration of objects, “come see us – sustainability students of McGill.” And we met shortly thereafter; in fact it was the first group of students I met with as Principal.

I tell this story because it reflects how important our students have been in driving the sustainability initiative at McGill, which now has an enormous number of jobs associated with it, improvements in the way we manage our use of energy, new programs that are a kind of values and community expression of the wonderful research and teaching that goes on in the broad array of disciplines that contribute to environmental sustainability, understanding of our world and our planet and how to build it as a place that will be healthy for generations to come. …

Universities are facing dramatic changes, currently and going forward, in the way they teach, in how communication affects the way they teach. You’ve seen a lot of changes in your term here at McGill and also in your years prior at the University of Toronto. How do you see universities moving forward in the next decades? Say 10 years from now. How do you see McGill?

First of all, I believe fundamentally that the University will be here longstanding and will play a central role in society longstanding. McGill’s been here for 200 years and it will be still. What encourages me is the extent to which change is taking place, both in incremental ways, in natural ways if you will, but also in some leapfrog ways. We have professors who were out in front in putting their courses online, have been doing this for well over a decade, and we’ve had a wonderful collaboration and exploration, particularly in the last year, of how best to express ourselves in this new world of MOOCs, how to bring technology systematically, not episodically, to enhancing the quality of our on-campus learning.

And, somewhat like sustainability, our students are also leading, modeling, demanding that we change. Our new, our young professors – you know we have both professors and students who are digitally born – they are just moving differently, acting differently, teaching and exploring the world in different ways. So I think that this is going to be somewhere in between the incremental steps and real transformation, moving beyond incrementally to take the best of technology, bring it together with our constant learning about how to teach and how to learn effectively. The participation in edX allows us a great network and platform for experimenting and doing that and I’m delighted that we’ve got philanthropy supporting that. We could always use more, so we will be seeking more of that.

So I think we’re well positioned to not just participate in but lead some of these great changes. …

Of course, going forward, we’re also looking at, in the immediate future, funding challenges. What do you see for Quebec universities, for McGill, across Canada in those terms?

Look, universities across North America are struggling with the downturn in the economy, the growth dominantly of health-care spending in the public forum, and maybe some complacency about how well education is doing in Canada, in the United States and I think even in Europe and more broadly.

We at McGill are certainly taking very tough measures right now to make sure that we have a funding base that is supportable, that we can continue to build on our academic, research, scholarly priorities and continue to support this large enterprise at the same time. And there are tough moments in that, without question. But there is a strong community engagement on how we do this, how we deal with the downturn in the economic context in Quebec, and lack of growth in the economy in North America. And it’s not easy, but I believe fundamentally that we will get through this, we’ll get through this in a sensitive and empathic way, and we will come out with McGill stronger and well positioned to continue to do what it does in meeting its mission going forward.

And I’m very, very grateful to all of the community engaging with us and thinking through how best to take the tough decisions that we’re taking right now. …

Are we listening to our youth to the extent that we should? We lived through the Printemps érable and it suggests there’s possibly a generation gap in terms of perceptions and ideals that might not have been bridged by the recent Education Summit in Quebec.

Without question, young people today are living in a different context than any of us born in the Baby Boom generation, whether you’re in the first third, the middle third or the last third. We all had a sense of there being a place for us. We were coming into a demographic deficit.

And young people today have this large Baby Boom cohort out in front of them, staying in jobs a long time. I’ve seen a culture change in the way people think about youth across sectors – I think of government, industry, academe – where, you know, I wouldn’t be in the job I’m in if people hadn’t in my 20s and 30s given me leadership roles, in fact roles I was surprised at being offered. I felt that right across my cohort; all of us had that experience. There’s more and more questioning (on the part of the older generation) about whether someone in their 20s or early 30s can take on a major leadership role. Because there’s such a long distance for those who are in their 50s and 60s from who they were in their 20s and 30s.

So I think we have to, as a generation of Baby Boomers, really think about how to create room for those who are coming up now….

And for me the Printemps érable really didn’t give a voice to youth. I think it was a very mixed event that had as much to do with changes in the economy for older people as well as younger people, with political themes that are out there, with the role the media played and how that was expressed. …

You know, many people take democracy for granted, take our liberties and freedoms for granted, and so I was encouraged that our students came out in large numbers to vote during the winter/spring of 2012, to assert their voice at McGill, at the centre of a city that was in a state of political disruption. And that just reaffirmed for me that democracy works and that youth have confidence. …

Speaking of new people coming in, you’ve spoken very positively of your successor, Suzanne Fortier. You seem to be very confident that as you end your term, you’re leaving the University in very good hands.

I’m delighted, I have to say, at the choice of Suzanne Fortier. I can’t think of another person better suited to come and lead McGill at this moment in time, a moment where we have reasserted our research leadership at the global level, we have this great scientist who knows global science, who comes out of Quebec, who has had a dominant part of her career in Ontario, Canada’s largest province, has an experience of our capital city, of working in government.

Suzanne and I met each other back in the early ’90s when we were both vice-presidents for research at other research-intensive Canadian universities and we had an immediate rapport and sense of common engagement, worked together on some important and tough files and experienced success together, and as Principal, not knowing where her future would lead her, I just felt so proud when I would be in Washington and meeting with the President of the National Science Foundation there and he’d say, “How’s my friend, Suzanne?” Or over at the Royal Society of London and the President there asking about Suzanne Fortier. She has a global network and global reach. Enormous passion for McGill, a two-time McGill alumna.

She’s extraordinary. And, yes, I take a little bit of pride in the fact that, given that she’s the exceptional person she is, the exceptional leader she is, that two women in a row are going to lead McGill is pretty wonderful, and it’s a pretty great message about the opportunities for people. …

Looking back, how did the job live up to your expectations and, conversely, what surprised you about it?

You know, when I think back on this 10 years and think of the financial constraints and some of the other challenges that McGill’s faced, not just in the last decade, but for almost 200 years, the fact that we come out ranked among the best universities, public and private, in the world, I think that we have a strong lead position as Canada’s great public research-intensive university – and I say that with huge respect for the research universities in Quebec and Canada broadly, and frankly the whole system of universities – but McGill is very special in that regard. … And I know that Suzanne feels the treasure of that and the stewardship responsibility that comes with that. And that’s a great comfort to know, you know, that you’re passing a torch in a relay race in these leadership positions that the torch is going to a great person. …

You come into this office and it’s a grand office with James McGill, James McGill’s desk, the extraordinary paintings that have been donated by McGill benefactors over the years, and it took me a few days to reflect on that and to realize that when you serve in this role, what the community is telling you is that it is a very special responsibility, that there is a sacred trust, if I can put it that way. That you come into these positions and you’d better think every day about how you can leave the place better than you found it. And that is exceptional. …

What will you miss the most?

When I was offered the job, I was offered the standard five-year term for Principal and Vice-Chancellor, and I accepted it enthusiastically, but saying I was making a 10-year commitment because I saw it as a 10-year job. And, having served 10 ½ years in order to smooth transition, it feels exactly right. You know there’s an interesting thing. I’m very imperfect as a person and Heaven knows there are many things I might have done better and differently as Principal. But I feel somehow the fit has been right, for me with McGill and I feel that that 10 years, 10 ½ years and a couple of months to prepare for the job, has been just right. So I don’t feel “oh, my gosh, it’s over, I wish it was longer.” I feel that it’s just exactly right.

But I will miss for sure the day in, day out work with the wonderful people I get to interact with, day-by-day and often hour-by-hour: my boss, my two bosses, the current Chair of the Board, Kip Cobbett, Robert Rabinovitch who was my first chair, our Chancellors, Arnold Steinberg and Dick Pound. Just that sense of being hand in glove with the Deans and the V-Ps and my office team, that’s been wonderful and I will truly miss that.

After such a big challenge, what’s next for you?

I’ve been invited to go as a fellow in residence at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, so I’m going off to do that in the year ahead, and Len is coming with me and he’s going to have his own pursuits while we’re there and then we’ll be back a year from now in Montreal and keeping our home here and keeping McGill as our cause.

But I will also stay connected. McGill is my university and, for both Len and myself, we feel that this is our place, and our university, going forward. So I feel a sense of happiness and unbelievable appreciation at having had the opportunity to serve more than I have regrets about finishing the term, which feels just right and feels so much more right because Suzanne will be my successor.