Principal talks Deans, funding and freedom of speech at Town Hall

Principal Munroe-Blum: Quality of McGill's people is key. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Neale McDevitt

You’ve got to be quick on your feet for one of these things.

In Tuesday’s semi-annual Town Hall meeting, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum fielded questions ranging from H1N1 policies and infrastructure renewal to international student tuition fees and the revenue-generating potential of our sports teams. She even plugged her annual skating party.

Held in the New Music Building’s Tanna Schulich Hall at lunchtime, Town Hall looked as though it would be the shortest on record when questions from the audience stalled after two. “Being reticent is not what McGill is known for,” said the Principal in an effort to encourage participants.

That seemed to do the trick, as members of the audience – staff, faculty and students – posed enough questions to push the event past its allotted time of 60 minutes.

In addressing a question regarding job descriptions of McGill’s Deans – five will be up for review in 2010 – Munroe-Blum discussed the changing role of academic administrators. “Any of our Deans would be quick to tell you that the job of the Dean 10 to 15 years ago is very different from the job it is today. It is both being the leader of the faculty with respect to the [academic] standards… and for working with senior administration, our alumni and the government to do everything we can to raise the level of support to one that allows us to fulfill [McGill’s] very glorious mission.

“We end up – sometimes too often, in my view – talking about money, not because it is the goal or the end, but because, as good as we are at doing with less and succeeding to high standards, we could do better if we had an effective, sustained base of funding that allowed us to compare ourselves – on a funding basis – with our public peers in Canada and the U.S.”

Munroe-Blum expanded on McGill’s ability to do more with less when she was asked why McGill is able to maintain such high standards. “Without any hesitation, it is the quality of our people,” she said. “The quality of our students, our administration and support staff and our faculty.”

The topic of underfunding continued when the Principal was asked about the numerous construction projects under way at the University. “One of the things people say is, ‘How can you say you’re underfunded when you rank so well and you do so well on the academic side?’ Clearly our [aging] infrastructure is one of the expressions of this underfunding.”

The Principal also drew laughs when she stumbled trying to describe the service-tunnel work in front of the James Building. “I’m an epidemiologist, not an engineer,” she said with a chuckle.

One of the more compelling moments came near end, with a question about recent incidents in which two sanctioned events on campus were shut down by student protesters. Munroe-Blum didn’t mince words. “I was really disappointed…that student demonstrations interfered with freedom of speech. If a university doesn’t stand for freedom of speech, I don’t know what it does stand for…We must have people in a democratic, civil society who have the right to explore ideas and pursue them unfettered.

“We believe that this is a place where difference and debate and the ability to hear things that you don’t associate yourself with is actually a celebration of democratic society.”