With Principal Heather Munroe-Blum

“If I were graduating … I would consider taking an internship with an international NGO because it would be a great way to experience a part of the world that I haven’t seen at the same time making a meaningful contribution,” said Heather Munroe-Blum. / Photo: Vincenzo D'Alto
“If I were graduating … I would consider taking an internship with an international NGO because it would be a great way to experience a part of the world that I haven’t seen at the same time making a meaningful contribution,” said Heather Munroe-Blum. / Photo: Vincenzo D'Alto

“At the end of the day, McGill stands for quality.”

By Neale McDevitt

As Convocation ceremonies mark the end of McGill’s 2009-2010 academic year, many McGillians take a moment to reflect upon the year that was. For Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum, a moment is never enough.

Completing her seventh year at the helm of Canada’s top-ranked research-intensive university, Munroe-Blum is constantly evaluating the University’s past performance – from classroom to boardroom and from library to laboratory – in order to chart the best course for its future. Despite her famously hectic schedule – coupled with a complete breakdown of the James Administration Building’s air-conditioning system that left her office little short of a sauna – McGill’s 16th Principal sat down with the Reporter recently to talk about everything from funding to finances to Stanley Cup fever.

How would you categorize McGill’s 2009-2010?

It was a very dynamic year. There was a lot of activity on both campuses – especially with the Knowledge Infrastructure Program and all the renovations and repairs going on. We also saw a lot of interaction with government on policy framework. And, of course, we are in a new phase of the Academic Plan in which we have to deal in a significant way with the economic downturn.

I think that it’s fantastic that we’ve just launched a vehicle-free downtown campus to coincide with the closing off of McTavish to cars. This required a tremendous effort on many people’s part but the real

inspiration behind the project was Robert Rabinovitch, our Board of Governors Chair Emeritus.

You travelled a lot this year. What did you bring back to McGill?

We’ve established some fantastic new partnerships, such as the neuroscience research partnership between McGill and Imperial College London.

Travelling gives me an up close and personal look at what it means to say we’re an international university. It also gives me a wonderful opportunity to meet with our alumni who have such a strong commitment to McGill.

How do you respond to the government’s call for increased accountability for public institutions like universities – specifically through Bills 38 and 100?

We are completely committed to accountability – primarily through our governance and through our administrative procedures within. McGill has been through a very significant exercise to modernize our Board of Governors to the leadership standard of governance of a public institution. In fact, we’re initiating a new administrative key performance indicators exercise that I will report on in my Principal’s Report [in the fall of 2010].

And we have no problem either describing to the public and to the government who sponsors us what it is that we are doing with the investment that takes place here at McGill. We’re quite proud of it, in fact.

Our objection lies in the fact that these governmental initiatives actually undermine our capacity to manage well and to govern effectively. We really are vociferously against government assuming they know how to handle university business better than we do. Our commitment is to work with government to develop performance contracts that talk about the outcomes. Government puts the emphasis on the process while we actually care about things like how many people are graduating and how our research is impacting public health. We are outcome-oriented.

The idea that more laws improve accountability just flies in the face of all the evidence. The evidence is that public institutions do best when they are not over-regulated. Over-regulation leads to more bureaucracy.

Why should McGill stand firm on MBA tuition?

To say that it’s on principal and values may sound a little corny, but principle is at the core of the issue. We have young students – from the ages of 17-20 – who are, either by virtue of government grants or through their own tuition fees, subsidizing students to come into an MBA program where they come in, by definition, with an average of five years work experience and whose average salary is over $50,000. And, within three years of completing the program, these people will be making well over $100,000. It isn’t fair or equitable.

On the issue of accessibility, through re-regulation or de-regulation, we have committed ourselves to taking 30 cents on every net new dollar and putting it into student support. We will be doing that with the incoming cohort of new students and the numbers have shown that the increased tuition will make the program more accessible, rather than less accessible.

At the end of the day, McGill stands for quality – by national and international standards. It is simply impossible to maintain those standards with an under-funded MBA program.

How has Campaign McGill been affected by the economic downturn?

We’re doing very well and are on target. There are two years left in the Campaign and we’re a little over the mark that we should be at. We’ve had nobody cancel on their commitments. Recently, we had a wonderful launch of the Community Campaign and the students, staff and faculty that I spoke to were all very enthusiastic.

The real test will be the year ahead. Can we attract more than $100 million of commitments to the Campaign next year? It will take very strong leadership on the part of everyone from our Deans and Chancellor to the Campaign co-chairs and departmental chairs.

I think the bigger, more ominous question is what will happen to public funding as tax revenues start to feel the impact of the economic downturn? How big an impact will that have on the grants we receive? The Provost and I have taken measures to look at efficiencies and still have some serious decisions to make in the year ahead.

Last month you played tambourine with Faculty of Science Dean Martin Grant and The Diminished Faculties as part of the Campus Community Celebration. How nerve-wracking was that?

I happen to be married to a guy who was in a rock band when we met as high school students. At 5:30 in the morning I had him pull a tambourine out of his magic trunk of musical instruments and show me how to keep rhythm to the Beatles song Money. He coached me – as someone else coached me for my football kickoff. I loved it.

Was it your first time on stage with a band?

No. [Laughing] But it was my first time as a mature adult.

Any progress report on the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement?

It is going terrifically. There is a wonderful group of students and colleagues on five sub-committees who have a deep commitment to this process. A lot of great ideas are coming from the community on how we can make McGill a better place. I’m very excited and optimistic that this time next year we’ll have recommendations before the administration for implementation in 2012.

What does the coming year hold for McGill?

I hope we can stay the course and maintain our momentum. Clearly, we want to break the back on underfunding. We’re all privileged to be at McGill, but from time to time it is frustrating to think what we could be doing if we were funded effective to the levels of the other research-intensive universities in the rest of Canada and closer to those of our public peers in the U.S.

As well, we will complete the next wave of academic planning, build on our research strengths in a powerful way and start implementing some of the strategic international partnerships we’ve built with institutions like Oxford and Imperial College.

If you were graduating what would you be looking to do?

If I were graduating as an undergraduate student, I might be considering going into a graduate program because it is a great time to do that while the markets settle. Or I would consider taking an internship with an international NGO because it would be a great way to experience a part of the world that I haven’t seen while, at the same time, making a meaningful contribution.

Were you following the Habs?

I actually have a very funny story about this. In 2003, I was in an important meeting with the advisory committee in search of McGill’s new Principal. Things were going well until someone said something about the Habs and I said, ‘What are the Habs?’ Then-Chancellor Dick Pound said ‘Madame, you’ve just disqualified yourself for the job.’ [Laughing] I went home and told my husband and, of course, he was mortified.

Fast-forward seven years and I found myself in a hotel in Vancouver for two of the Canadiens’ recent victories and I watched every minute of both games on my own. So needless to say, I am a convert.