Fortier outlines vision to Senate

As a prelude to her major address to the McGill community coming this Friday, Principal Suzanne Fortier outlined to Senate last week where she feels the University should be headed, based on the six months she has spent talking with people in all corners of McGill.
Photo: Owen Egan.
Photo: Owen Egan.

By Doug Sweet

As a prelude to her major address to the McGill community coming this Friday, Principal Suzanne Fortier outlined to Senate last week where she feels the University should be headed, based on the six months she has spent talking with people in all corners of McGill.

She made a similar presentation the next day to Management Forum.

While Friday’s event, from noon to 1 p.m., is now sold out, you can watch the live webcast here.

At Senate, Fortier outlined five priorities she sees as essential to moving McGill forward to meet stiff competition from abroad and providing the kind of education students need for a rapidly changing world.

She said she was happy to see, upon arriving at McGill last September, that much of the groundwork for long-term planning has already be done, citing the ASAP Plan for achieving academic priorities, the Strategic Research Plan and Strategic Enrolment Plan among others.

Three of the priorities, she said, are centred around McGill’s mission.

“What does it mean today at McGill to have a very rich, dynamic learning environment for our students?” she asked. “What are we prepared to commit to our students in terms of a McGill education?”

Developing better ways to provide experiential learning and opportunities for internships as adjuncts to classroom learning will be an important element in this, she said.

The second priority has to do with research, “to make sure we continue to have on this campus what has been a very strong part of McGill’s reputation, to have research that is going over untouched ground, to promote spirit of curiosity. I think this is hugely important.”

A number of companies, she said, have abandoned curiosity-driven research, including the National Research Council, and it is up to universities to explore new frontiers of knowledge. To do that properly, researchers need to be able to take risks and feel they are supported in that risk-taking.

Being a good partner and pursuing partnerships with others, including other universities, businesses and government, is vital to future growth, Fortier said.

“We cannot do what we want to do alone. I think it is increasingly important that we demonstrate to others that we are a good partner.”

But for all of this to happen, she said, “we need to be more agile and efficient. People at McGill want that. It’s the processes that are underneath those people that often stand in their way, that stand in our way. We need to get to that. We’re just wasting time that is so valuable. It’s a problem with processes.

“And I’ve committed to start in my own office and in the central offices of the University.”

Finally, she said, the state of our campus needs to be addressed, and not just the physical state of the buildings. “There’s deferred maintenance in our physical structure and in our digital infrastructure,” she said and McGill needs the kind of digital culture available elsewhere.

Fortier also mention the looming issue of what to do with the soon-to-be-vacant Royal Victoria Hospital. “We feel a responsibility to consider this opportunity, but to consider it with a very high sense of responsibility. This could be an incredible asset for McGill, a very inspiring project for McGill, but need to do it carefully.”

McGill cannot be afraid to say No if the essential conditions are not met in terms of adding the Royal Vic to the campus. “We need to be absolutely clear about what needs to happen and what the conditions are that would allow us to do that.”

The Principal noted that McGill has been through a very difficult financial crisis and it isn’t over; it isn’t over in Quebec.

Large investments in education in the next decade are probably unlikely, she said, given that increasing health-care costs will be squeezing the provincial treasury. She was pleased to observe, however, that some substantial new investments are beginning to flow out of Ottawa in terms of supporting research.

I think we’re seeing some light or some real reasons to be hopeful from Ottawa, some quite substantial new investments.

“What we do,” Fortier said, “that was once viewed as peripheral, is now viewed as central. We’re all about knowledge, advancing knowledge. Increasingly, what we do will be viewed as central to society. It is great for universities. What we do matters and it matters greatly.”

Questions from Senators tended to be in search of more details, which are expected to be soon in coming. Mentorships and advising were raised as areas where McGill could improve.

Fortier said she deliberately left out “quantitative” details, saying she needs to know first “if you are prepared to go on this trip. If you’re not prepared, then there’s no point in getting into the details.

“We need to measure with benchmarks and targets and timelines. That level of information and detail is absolutely important. If the community rallies around these five priorities, then we will move right away to that next level.

“I am hoping that by the end of spring we will have concrete actions and start to work on them.”

You can find the Principal’s entire presentation to Senate here.