Principal to McGill community: “Openness to change will determine our future success”

Principal Suzanne Fortier addressed the McGill community at noon on Friday, March 28. Fortier outlined the vision and priorities for McGill in the coming years. Here she shares her thoughts on those priorities, which have been developed following discussions with people and leadership groups from across the University.
Photo: John Kelsey
Photo: John Kelsey

Principal Suzanne Fortier addressed the McGill community at noon on Friday, March 28. Fortier outlined the vision and priorities for McGill in the coming years. Here she shares her thoughts on those priorities, which have been developed following discussions with people and leadership groups from across the University.

I want to share with you a vision for McGill that comes from this community and belongs to this community. Since arriving on campus, I have had the opportunity to meet with many of you and participate in many activities. This has helped me crystallize the hopes, the goals and the ambitions of this community.

In my installation address last fall, I mentioned Professor Henry Mintzberg’s notion of “communities of engagement,” organizations guided not by hierarchies of authority but by mutual respect. It is in this spirit that I use the word community. There are as many different McGill experiences as there are people at McGill. But we are united by shared values and goals:

• the joy we have in learning, in creativity, in discovery;

• our commitment to excellence and our love of challenge;

• a sense of responsibility to better our society through the work that we do.

And we are united by the privilege of being part of a great and unique university in one of the world’s most creative cities. It is my hope, and my job, to build communities of engagement here at McGill.

For us at McGill, I believe our engagement centres on a common vision for our University. We want McGill to be open, connected and purposeful:

• A university open to new ideas, other ways of looking at the world; open to cultural and human diversity; open to new ways of doing things.

• A university connected to its local and global community; connected across disciplines, boundaries of geography and sectors.

• A university with a clear sense of purpose, because what we do – learning, using and advancing knowledge, exploring new paths in knowledge – has never mattered more to our community and our world.

The mission of all universities centres on three main elements: teaching and learning, research, and service to society. The vision for our University is an expression of how we see our mission today at McGill, building on our strengths and identity and in the context of the 21st century, a time when the world has never been more open and connected or changing faster.

Since arriving at McGill last September, I have had the pleasure of re-discovering my University and its strong sense of identity and purpose. I have also been able to see the tremendous amount of work that has been done here to shape the future of our University. McGill’s community has engaged in several important strategic planning exercises. Only a few years ago, McGill developed and adopted new academic and research strategic plans. As well, the University has engaged in substantial discussions and work around important topics, topics such as our commitment and promotion of diversity, community engagement and sustainability.

Based on this foundation, I want to propose to you five priorities on which we can mobilize our energy, effort and resources and continue to build an open, connected and purposeful McGill. These priorities have emerged from conversations and consultations with many of you and the constructive and wise advice you have generously offered.

The first three priorities relate to our mission and stem from the important questions we need to ask ourselves.

Student Life and Learning

What should a 21st-century “McGill experience” look like?

How do we create a rich learning environment for a new generation of students who are ready to be active participants in their own education, eager to start using in concrete ways what they learn in the classroom, and ready to be connected both locally and globally? How can we embrace the rapid changes, cultural and technological, in the university landscape, while strengthening McGill’s core essence?

By integrating student life and learning in the portfolio of the Deputy Provost in 2006, McGill was ahead of its time. Our aim now should be to combine life and learning into a distinctive, pioneering and enriching higher education experience for all McGill students. Our vision is to create “the McGill commitment” as a truly unique, McGill-specific expression of our mission.

Translated into action, the McGill commitment means:

• Offering McGill undergraduate students a greater opportunity to challenge themselves through experiential learning, whether through an internship, co-op placement, international exchange, or undergraduate research experience.

• Giving graduate students and post-doctoral fellows an opportunity to take a graduate certificate in either management or teaching for higher education, depending on where their career ambitions lie. We will help prepare them for that future through deep disciplinary grounding and strong supervision.

• Increasing the use of technology as an educational aid, adding more smart classrooms and supporting all professors who use this technology.

• Developing for all students a comprehensive suite of advising, mentoring and support services to help in all aspects of learning.


Where will the greatest leaps in knowledge come from and how can we nurture an environment in which game-changing questions are asked? I believe that great research starts with curious minds, minds that are open to challenging the conventional wisdom. McGill’s environment has shown itself uniquely suited to nurturing discovery research and scholarship. We have great strengths across the disciplines, a diverse population with many different cultural and societal backgrounds and an international home city that bursts with creativity. Most importantly, McGill has always focused on meeting the highest level of quality on a global scale.

As the former president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, I know that sustaining a world-class research program takes a lot of hard work and determination, and a local environment that is supportive and stimulating.

To ensure that we maintain such an environment at McGill over the next several years, we will:

• Develop a McGill Seed Fund that supports early-stage, curiosity-driven research and scholarship. The fund’s goal is to foster innovation and risk-taking.

• Provide “proximity support” to researchers on-site in their faculties, to make grant and contract administration easier and more effective.

• Support McGill researchers so that they can assume leadership of major collaborative research projects, both at home and internationally.


The final element of our mission is our engagement with society. What are the responsibilities of universities in our knowledge-based society and how can they engage and collaborate with other partners so that society achieves greater benefit from the intersection of their expertise and knowledge? I believe that McGill needs to increase its effort in establishing itself as a valued collaborator with our many partners:

• Our alumni, students, parents and friends

• Academic and medical institutions

• Industry, not-for-profit, social and public organizations

• Media

• The community at large

Developing meaningful connections with those outside McGill will deepen academic excellence, stimulating our curiosity and creativity, challenging us to ask game-changing questions and encouraging us to collaborate across disciplines.

Over the next few years, we will work on building mutually beneficial partnerships:

• Alumni are McGill’s most loyal friends – valued supporters, advocates and advisors. We will deepen our connection with McGill alumni to help us broaden off-campus learning opportunities, and to develop networks that support recent graduates in their careers.

• We will support innovation writ large – social, cultural, scientific, technical and medical – to benefit our communities through a new Innovation Fund and entrepreneurship training.

• We will provide a one-stop shop for business partners, to help them navigate the complex environment of McGill.

• We will reach and engage external partners locally, nationally and globally by increasing McGill’s visibility as a welcoming, open place.

The foundational priorities

The last two priorities focus on strengthening our workplace, and our physical and virtual campus. Both are essential elements for us to achieve our mission.

A learning organization

I have had many discussions with people who work at McGill since arriving last September. I have seen their commitment to the University and to providing the best services possible so that McGill can continue to flourish. This is a great foundation on which to create a workplace culture to make McGill a more agile and effective organization, a learning organization. It is not simply a matter of improving a few processes, or reorganizing units, or moving around budgets when times are tough financially. It is about building communities of engagement, where every person at every level takes advantage of opportunities to learn, where people feel connected to their jobs and their colleagues, and where people feel a sense of purpose and ownership.

We can become more agile by developing a culture in which great ideas outrank hierarchy and our aspiration to do better upends our comfortable way of doing things.

Over the next few years, we will:

• Ask people to identify opportunities for greater efficiency, simplification and process improvement. My colleagues and I, in the central offices at the University, give you our commitment to start right away to work with our teams to make our work processes more efficient.

• Better align our resources to needs and priorities.

• Identify measures to ensure that hiring of new administrative staff is done strategically.

• Incorporate technological tools as we move forward, to make our operations more efficient. But we will also invest in people. We will ensure that employees are well trained for the jobs they do, and we will develop more ways for them to learn from each other.

In short, we will encourage a culture that embraces changes and welcomes new ideas.


When we picture McGill, we see its iconic architecture and green campuses. Challenges, however, come along with the beauty of our physical spaces. Historic buildings cost much more to maintain than do younger buildings, and they are often difficult to adapt for modern learning and research. The Quebec government puts McGill’s space deficit at 65,000 square metres. However, the location of our main campus in the dense urban core makes it very difficult for McGill to grow.

Our vision is for a transformed environment, for teaching and learning and for conducting research and scholarship, an environment that is sustainable, accessible, state-of-the-art and healthy.

Our priorities include:

• Formulating a campus space plan for the next 10 to 15 years.

• Continuing to green our campus, including new student social spaces and east-west pedestrian corridors.

• Carrying out major upgrades to our classrooms and teaching labs.

A special opportunity is emerging to meet our space deficit. Our neighbour, the Royal Victoria Hospital, whose towers lie between the downtown campus and Mount Royal, will be vacated in a few years. McGill University and the Royal Vic share a history, an architectural heritage, and a public purpose.

McGill, in close consultation with the City of Montreal, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Canada, and other partners, is exploring the possibility of acquiring the Royal Vic Hospital site. Our vision of the Royal Vic is as a carrefour, a meeting place that connects Quebec and the world. Architecturally, the vision is to open up the Royal Vic to make it a gateway to the Mount Royal. We plan to increase public access, expand green space, preserve heritage buildings, and open the skyline. In this and all other future development, we will be guided by the principles of McGill’s Master Plan.

This project is in its very early stages. A lot of work remains before any decision is made. I am excited by its potential and I look forward to discussing it with you as it evolves.

There you have it: five priorities to shape a more open, connected and purposeful university. This vision is ambitious, particularly with McGill facing leaner budgets. We cannot ignore our financial challenges, but we cannot let them define us. This is a lesson we have learned from our past. For example, following significant cuts in the 1990s, McGill went on to lead Canada in research performance. Our drive, our talent – and our engagement with each other and the community – will allow us to succeed.

In our global, highly networked and rapidly changing world, ways of learning and knowing are transforming, day by day. We will need to hold fast to our strengths and we will need to embrace change. We will need to evolve while preserving what makes McGill, McGill. Our openness to change, I believe, will determine our future success.

I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I look forward to working alongside you to help this vision take shape.