McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum

“We continue to have aspirations to compete at the top of the country field by field,” says Heather Munroe-Blum when asked about McGill’s priorities for 2010. / Photo: Owen Egan
“We continue to have aspirations to compete at the top of the country field by field,” says Heather Munroe-Blum when asked about McGill’s priorities for 2010. / Photo: Owen Egan

“This is a moment when, as an entire University community, we must pull together”

by Neale McDevitt

Heather Munroe-Blum makes no bones about it, she loves Convocation.

“It is the most exciting time on campus,” said the Principal and Vice-Chancellor. “One of my favorite times in Convocation is the private moment with every single student who crosses the stage. The joy in their face, the sense of excitement, everything is in front of them.”

It is a nice way for Heather Munroe-Blum to end the 2008-09 academic year; perhaps one of the more challenging since becoming Principal in 2003. Talking to the McGill Reporter in a brief interview wedged

between Convocation ceremonies, she discussed the good, the bad and the ugly of the past 12 months and gave us a glimpse of what might lie in store for 2010.

What are your recollections of Convocation as a student?

I got my first degree in the early ’70s and the ’70s in Canada were like the ’60s in the U.S. It was a time of rejection of all ritual and authority on the campuses. So I didn’t go to Convocation for my Bachelor of Arts or my Bachelor of Social Work. I can’t remember if I went to my Masters of Social Work ceremony. The only one I went to was when I got my PhD. Maybe I felt like I worked harder for that last one [laughing] and I felt like I should celebrate.

Today, we have the highest turnouts for Convocation that we’ve had in decades – and it’s growing. I think, at a younger age, students appreciate what they have achieved. It is a milestone moment in your life and

the ability to share it with family and community is important.

I love seeing people embrace it and I do regret that I didn’t when I was younger.

And how do you view Convocation now as Principal?

It really is the culmination of the year and a time when we celebrate our graduating students and our  professors receiving teaching awards. We’re also seeing our last cohort of professors who will get what is

McGill’s distinguished achievement award for lifetime contribution, our Professor Emeritus award which moves into a different program next year. So it’s a particularly poignant season.

Outgoing Chancellor Dick Pound– what has his contribution meant to McGill?

Dick is one of a kind. Our Chancellor has literally served the University since coming here as a student-athlete in the late 1950s through to today. And he will continue to serve the University as he moves into

other roles. He’s a McGill icon, a Canadian icon.

That he’s been so devoted to McGill over all these years at the same time he’s been a major player with the international Olympic movement, carried out a distinguished legal career and published numerous books –

well, it’s nothing short of spectacular. He’s set a high bar for all of us.

What has been the biggest surprise of the past academic year?

Certainly the world situation is one that we cannot escape grappling with at a local level. To the extent that over the last decade there have been problems with security, social unrest and instability and economic

uncertainty, these things now affect us all.

It has created a greater sense of seriousness to the context in which we work and chose our priorities. And this is a moment when, as an entire University community, we must pull together. Not just on the budget

side. The budget is an instrument to position the University for success going forward, but it is just an instrument. At the end of the day, the way we use our resources, budgetary and otherwise, to advance our highest priorities – in research and scholarship, in teaching and the service we offer – is what will predict our success. We are absolutely determined to be as great in 50 years as we are now, and as we were 50 or more years ago.

What is McGill doing to weather this economic storm?

In spite of the fact that we have had momentum in generating new revenues and we have had momentum in increasing our total resources year over year, our spending had outgrown the growth in resources that we

were bringing in.

So six years ago we brought in a multi-year budget framework that allowed us to invest up front in the academic planning priorities such as the renewal of the professoriate and the development of our physical infrastructure while also starting to grapple with our deferred maintenance. But we can’t do that without balancing our budget at least in every a five-year cycle – and next year is the year.

So these next two years will see us getting back into a balanced budget and start taking down our accumulated deficit. That means everyone has a role to play in thinking about how we do things smarter.

How then, in these tough times,can McGill afford to buy a hotel?

In fact, our residences are self-funded initiatives and they work on a different budget framework.

Purchasing the Four Points Hotel was absolutely a part of our commitment to student life and learning.

When I came to the University six and a half years ago, we could not guarantee a spot in residence to every student coming in – even in their first year. That didn’t seem right for a university that is so disproportionately pan-Canadian and international. But we purchased the hotel on Parc Ave. to meet the need to guarantee a spot in residence for first-year students. With the demand for residences is ever-growing, buying Four Points was the right thing to do. It creates an opportunity for Montreal-based students as well as our pan-Canadian and international students to have the experience of living in residence with students who come from elsewhere.

We took out a bond issue some years ago with the understanding that we would use it to purchase infrastructure and property where we could generate revenue to repay the debt. We’re successful in that model, given that we run our residences as successful self-funded initiatives.

What kind of year has it been for our researchers and professors?

Our professors won three out of five Killam Prizes; they’ve won Steacies and Sloanes; we’ve had a wonderful new group of colleagues admitted to the Royal Society of Canada as members; and field by field we are garnering great prizes.

As we’ve made a special effort to nominate our professors for national prizes, we also want to move a more rigorous nomination of our colleagues for the great international prizes.

And it’s been a great year for our students, too. It is so wonderful that the hockey Martlets won again, too. It is fantastic to see our students come across the platform at Convocation and seeing the Governor General’s

medals and the extraordinary array of national and international prizes and the wonderful scholarships that have been created by our alumni and friends to recognize the intellectual and social contributions of our students.

What are McGill’s top priorities in 2010?

[Laughing] Well, nothing’s slowing down, that’s for sure. We continue to have enormous aspirations to compete at the top of the country field by field, as well as to compete on the international stage.

We have put a number of fundamentals in place with the renewal of the professoriate –over 900 professors hired in less than a decade; and building up of the support for graduate students so that we attract the

best from Canada and around the world. We are building terrific interdisciplinary programs and now it is really the time to focus and look at what quality and excellence means in those programs.

And it’s not lip service to say that we want to rank in a sustainable fashion as No.1 in the country and in the top quartile internationally. It’s not a marketing issue, it is a substance issue. So the goal for the next year, and for several years ahead, is to work with our new professors, our professors of long standing, our academic leadership and our partners, to do everything we can to be at the lead from the progressive

point of view and from an interdisciplinary point of view as measured against the best international standards.

One of the pathways to that is how we collaborate, not just with sister institutions, which we do fairly well, but also in choosing quite strategically on the international stage, which partner inst i tut ions those will be and then working with foundations and with industry in a much more concerted way.

In the past, we’ve underleveraged our relationship and contributions to industry, to the private sector and to community building and I’m very excited about the Principal’s Task Force that I’m launching next month on diversity, excellence and community engagement. This will be one mechanism for really looking systematically at what McGill ought to be doing in the next decade in those areas and bringing them together.