Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier has completed her first academic year leading McGill. She took some time to sit down with The Reporter to discuss what she has discovered about the University and where it is headed.
Reporter: You’ve been here for a full academic year now, and when you came here, you talked about how you liked to learn every day. So tell us a little bit about what you’ve learned this year, what has surprised you.
SF: I have learned that people here, even more than I expected, are proud, passionate, committed – and that’s true of everyone, including the students, the staff, the alumni, the friends of McGill. It’s amazing to see that all these people want the best for McGill. And those were the people I talked to when reflecting about McGill’s vision and priorities.
I was talking to some alumni at an event a few months ago, and they said “What is McGill? McGill is a bunch of very smart people doing amazing things and delivering results.” That sums up what I have seen since I arrived.
Q: You spoke at a Board of Governors meeting recently about how the students have actually helped us take a fresh look at what we do.
A: I have been very impressed with how our students are committed both to their community and to the larger community to which they belong – Planet Earth. Sustainability is close to their hearts. It’s great to see that. They are vigilant about how we live on campus, what we do to ensure sustainability through Vision 2020 and how we on campus can benefit society, including being rigorous in our assessment of the kind of research we get involved in.
Q: You spoke earlier this year about the vision you have for McGill and you’ve spoken also about how graduates are often asked where they will be in five years. Where do you see McGill in five years?
A: The vision I have – and I really think it is the vision WE have, because it came from talking to a lot of people on campus – is a McGill that is open, connected and purposeful. I think our identity in the next few years will be even more closely related to these qualities.
Open includes how open we are to different views, to diversity. The richness of our campus is in part a result of the diversity of the students we have. At McGill there has always been a willingness to learn about other cultures, to learn new perspectives and ideas, and that is even truer today. McGill is a place where openness means being able to think about ideas not commonly accepted. It means pushing ourselves to really be at the frontiers, whether it is in research or whether it is in the way we think of ourselves as members of this society – to challenge ourselves. What I have seen in so many places and disciplines at McGill, is the courage to look at new areas of research, new ways of expressing the curriculum in the faculties. That is the Open part.
The Connected part talks to McGill’s connections with the larger community, to be anchored locally and to contribute in many areas and activities globally. The vision is for a McGill that is part of the team.
And Purposeful has to do with the importance of knowledge in our world. The acquisition of knowledge, the use of knowledge, is so important to our society nowadays. What I find wonderful in the world of academia nowadays is that whatever you do in research, even if it is in the very early stages of simply following your curiosity, will have an impact in advancing our knowledge and in changing our world.
Q: In terms of engagement and partnership, what else can we do to an extent we haven’t done before?
A: Already McGill has moved in this direction. We know of so many examples where our students are out there in the community: teaching piano in primary schools in neighbourhoods where the children cannot afford lessons; providing dental care to homeless people; encouraging young people to pursue their interest in science. It is one example after another.
What we have to do now is see ourselves as part of a very powerful team: a team that performs extraordinarily well, that can be a winning team. And the team has to include other universities, particularly in Montreal, and people in the private and social sectors who want to renew Montreal and Quebec. I know people see us as a star recruit, which is great. What is important for us is to really WANT to be part of this team and know the role we can play.
Q: And persuading M. et Mme. Tout le Monde that we are important players?
A: Exactly, exactly. I have always said that innovation, whether social or technological, is a team sport. It is not an individual sport. And McGill can be a very important member of teams in Montreal or around the world.
Q: I suppose this sort of leads naturally into one of the other things that you’ve been saying, the need for the University to be more agile and accountable. Things move quickly these days; we need to be able to move quickly, too.
A: We need to be moving quickly, but also to be paying attention to due process and to accountability. The two are not incompatible. In fact, I think sometimes having processes that are too complicated, cumbersome and convoluted actually diminishes accountability. So we need to ask ourselves, “Do we need to do things that way? Is there a better way?” When I talk to staff members, they themselves want to be better equipped to do their job. They have a commitment and desire to do their work well. These are the best people to help us rejuvenate the processes that have gotten a bit out of date. So I am optimistic.
Q: When times are challenging, you do need good staff.
A: Oh, and we have that at McGill! Yes.
Q: You’ve also talked about the need to transform the campus, because of our space deficit, which is recognized by the Quebec government. What are some of the ways that we can deal with this space deficit in the medium term?
A: I would say there are three issues that we have to think about. One is that we do not have a lot of space. We are squeezed in a gorgeous, beautiful campus downtown, and we’ve been growing on the outskirts of the campus, often in buildings that are not really adequate for the function they’re being used for. As well, many of our buildings and facilities are not in good condition. We have a lot of deferred maintenance. And the third issue is that McGill, like most Canadian universities, is not in the 21st century digital age. We have old technology. One example – we still have the old Nortel Meridian phones. Enough said. When you say that, people understand right away.
And it is striking in particular when you see what a good facility can look like these days. Last week, I was at the Arnold and Blema Steinberg Medical Simulation Centre. It is fantastic. You see the facilities that are there to help students learn about delivering medical care. And I’ve been to the acoustic studios in the Schulich School of Music where you can change the sound environment – they are fantastic. When you see what is possible today, then you realize we could be serving our community so much better.
Q: And, of course, there’s the opportunity of the Royal Vic.
A: We are looking at this very, very seriously – and in a very responsible way. The Royal Vic is a very special site for the Montreal community. If we pursue a project there, it cannot be just for McGill. It has to be something that we do for the whole Montreal community. We want to have a site that is very accessible, with green space, that people can enjoy, that is sustainable – and it is with these principles in mind that we would develop a project. McGill is very much “un ami de la montagne.” The mountain is precious to us, too.
Q: What message do you have for this year’s graduating students?
A: Graduation is a period of transition. You have just completed something and you are about to start something else. And, as graduates, we often worry about what the next step will be. My message to graduating students is while it is important to think about WHAT will happen next, it is even more important to think about HOW you will approach whatever is next. And I hope that in their years here at McGill, students have learned about how one can pursue aspirations and can contribute to society and the world with pride and integrity.
Q: What are you doing for the summer?
A: Oh, well! I will be at work. Some people may think that when Convocation ends, our work ends, but that is not at all the case. Like most people, I will have a couple of weeks of vacation, but certainly not the whole summer.
In the work part, I am very happy that we are moving efficiently and quickly from a very strong foundation of strategic planning to addressing specific actions. One of the things I want to do this summer with the community is to create a more detailed action plan so we can implement the priorities. We are ready to go.
And then some vacation also. I have more than I can read for my vacation. I have piles of books! Some of them are written by people from McGill, some of them are books that I have received as gifts from my family that I haven’t had a chance to read. One is a special book, from a Russian author who lives in Paris. His name is Andreï Makine and his books are wonderful. I picked up this book in a second-hand shop in Montreal, and the wonderful thing is that when I opened the book, I saw that he had signed it. Makine is probably the first one I will read.
I am going to stick around quite a bit. I have one week planned for a fun Cape Cod beach vacation. But otherwise, I want to take advantage of les festivals de Montréal. I have tickets for the Jazz Festival, and that’s always great. I want to spend time with my family and friends, having people over for dinner and just having a great time.
Q: Is there a favourite corner of the campus that you like to go to for quiet contemplation?
A: There is a special place I go to. It is not for contemplation or relaxation, it is for getting a big, pure dose of joy – and that is the Wirth opera studio in the Schulich School of Music. I go there quite often to hear the students in the master class. That is pure joy; it is just extraordinary. And my other favourite place – though I do not have as much time as I would like to – is the outdoor space. I think that is truly special about this campus. I wish I had more time to just sit on a bench, lie on the grass like many of our students do, bring my iPad and do a bit of work, maybe have lunch…
Q: Maybe you’ll have time this summer?
A: I would like that a lot. I have not seen any campus that has space that is so appealing, where you just want to be outdoors and chat with a friend. It’s a very special part of McGill.