By Chris Chipello
While McGill once again tops the Maclean’s magazine rankings of Canadian universities in its class (see below) and continues to score well in high-profile global ratings, the University can’t be satisfied with the status quo, warns Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum.
“Our pre-eminence is not assured,” she said in an interview with The Reporter. “Our ability to offer top-flight services, the availability and quality of facilities and our capacity to succeed in offering high quality research and scholarly contexts (are) all vulnerable” – a reality underscored by the widening resource gap between McGill and peer universities outside Quebec.
Now, to ensure McGill is addressing those challenges as effectively as possible, Munroe-Blum has launched a senior administration project known as the “Strategic Reframing Initiative,” or SRI.
Designed to bring “greater focus” and “accelerate progress” on the University’s strategic priorities, the SRI aims to boost “our capacity to improve the quality and contributions of McGill and to achieve even higher levels of academic performance and excellence consistent with our mission.
“It is really about reframing the way we’re working on current priorities; so it is not an initiative to take us in brand new strategic directions, but rather to reframe and recalibrate our approach to the areas that we’ve identified as being important to us and to our future as a leading university … Are there new services and supports, but also new creative approaches that we should be pursuing to make sure that we’re best moving forward?”
While the recent rankings are testament to McGill’s continuing strengths, Munroe-Blum is intent on shoring up the University’s performance in areas where it has become vulnerable.
“One very strong signal about that vulnerability … is that where for decades McGill was a front-runner with respect to overshooting our market share of competitively allocated research funding and academic research and scholarly awards, we’re now being squeezed not just by bigger universities like Toronto and UBC, which are significantly bigger than us, but more recently by smaller universities” – such as the universities of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Guelph and Victoria – that are “competing aggressively in national competitions – and in recruiting and retaining top talent.”
The SRI is spearheaded by senior administrators who lead working groups focusing on five core themes: Transformative Research Scholarship and Innovation; Student Enrolment; Philanthropy; Cost Efficiencies; and Performance Management. Each group has a Chair and a Team Leader.
In an emailed message to staff and students across the University last month, Munroe-Blum outlined some of the strategic questions these working groups will be tackling. A few examples:
• Is our enrolment mix of students progressive and optimal in support of our mission?
• How do we attract more research funding to the University, and lead in research and scholarly quality, innovation, dissemination and societal impact?
• How do we build a sustainable and stable fund-raising culture that will generate high performance well into the future?
• Are we doing all we can to leverage the dollars that we have in support of our academic mission?
• Are we doing all that we can to understand, manage and measure performance throughout our complex organization?
“The McGill community will be hearing more from me, as well as other members of the teams – the chairs or the team leaders – on a regular basis; and, of course, we’ll look for other ways of getting input and ideas from the community at large,” Munroe-Blum told The Reporter.
The first stage of the SRI involves “really getting the data on the table, doing some benchmarking of practices in peer universities elsewhere. If you take something like Transformative Research and Innovation, there are two areas we’ve identified where we’re not doing as well as we wish to. Our leadership in research is at risk when we don’t have a meaningful share of success in the major, multidisciplinary collaborative research programs … On the innovation side, we know that we under-collaborate with industry and foundations. We under-engage in innovative ways of bringing the outcomes of our research and scholarship out into the public where these can make a difference. So, we want to really look at those peer North American universities that are performing at the highest level in these areas.”
For now, the SRI’s work is concentrated on fact-finding and benchmarking. In December or January, the working groups will move to consider ideas, options and opportunities in each of the five core areas. By the end of January or early February, “we hope to have identified and fully assessed key opportunities and actions that might allow us to make significant gains.
“I anticipate that when the annual budget comes forward in the spring, it will include an action plan, including resource implications and timing for implementation,” Munroe-Blum said. “But we will have ongoing consultation as we roll out into the next semester. … And, of course, should our work lead to any suggested changes to policies or practices that relate to our governance processes, these will go forward to Senate and Board (of Governors), as appropriate.”
Since the SRI is still in its early stages, it is difficult to forecast tangible outcomes for faculties and departments across the University, Munroe-Blum said. As a hypothetical example, however, the research and innovation working group “may well propose better ways to identify, structure and successfully present McGill’s high-quality, outstanding interdisciplinary areas of research and scholarship, so that these can be successfully advanced into integrated-team grant proposals within the context of the major public programs.”
Two McGill alumni from McKinsey & Co., one of the world’s leading consulting companies, have made their expertise available to the SRI on a pro bono basis.
At least three fellow member universities of the Association of American Universities have been through similar review exercises “and found great benefits” Munroe-Blum said, “in the ability to provide more effective and streamlined administrative services and supports, in generating new revenues and in using revenues for greatest impact.
“I’m very optimistic” that McGill will reap similar benefits from the initiative, she said. “I’ve been associated, as an adult, with six different research-intensive universities, and I’ve never seen one where there is as much care and concern for the reputation and impact of the university as a whole as there is on the part of all the constituencies of McGill …
“If there are meaningful ways to better position McGill for success and for contribution, I’m very confident that the community will embrace these, and that’s certainly what I’m seeing in these early days.”