We need to look at the role of the university in society, Fortier says

McGill’s new Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Suzanne Fortier, officially begins duties today, Sept. 5. She took time from a busy preparatory period to meet The Reporter and talk about herself, her experience at university and some of the issues McGill will face in the years ahead.
"McGill is a bridge; McGill is a launching pad to connect with the global world," says Principal Suzanne Fortier. / Photo: Owen Egan.
“McGill is a bridge; McGill is a launching pad to connect with the global world,” says Principal Suzanne Fortier. / Photo: Owen Egan.

New Principal delighted to be back at her alma mater and living in Montreal

McGill’s new Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Suzanne Fortier, officially begins duties today, Sept. 5. She took time from a busy preparatory period to meet The Reporter and talk about herself, her experience at university and some of the issues McGill will face in the years ahead. A video version of this interview can be seen here.

By Jacquie Rourke and Doug Sweet

Welcome, Professor Fortier and congratulations on your appointment.

Thank you, merci beaucoup.

How does it feel for you, as a two-time graduate of McGill, to be returning to the University as its 17th Principal, and only the third Principal to have been a graduate of the University? That must be very special.

Yes, it is, it is very special. McGill is my alma mater and it’s my home, and so I care very deeply about this institution. And I’m very proud of it, so it is very, very special. I know, and I’ve seen it, talking to people at the University, that all Principals feel that way about this University and have grown really passionate about it. I would say that, maybe for me, this is something that’s already there. It’s in my blood. I get a head start.

What went through your mind just now as you were walking through the campus knowing that you walk through it now as the Principal, not just as a student, not just an alumna, but the Principal?

Oh, I’m just so excited to be here, but watching what is happening on campus, there’s so much going on. It’s great to see the new students arriving, all the events on campus, and, of course, you can’t help but remember when you were here, just starting as a new student – how exciting it was, and you get that vibe now and see that the students are just as excited as I was when I first arrived here.

What are your fondest memories from having been a student here at McGill?

Oh, there are so many. … One really fond memory is arriving here on campus. I was so ready to learn about a new world and so eager – and then I realized it was so much more than I had imagined. Because I was surrounded by students from all over the world, professors from all over the world, so the discoveries were even bigger than I had imagined.

And certainly my first experiment. I was very lucky. I was hired to do research in the summer in my third year, and it is extraordinary the impact it has on you. You know, when you think, ‘What I’ve just found is something that people did not know before’ – even if it’s extremely small – you just feel so great about that.

And, of course, also, when I realized that I was studying with people who were the pioneers and the giants in my field. And were connected to that world. When we had a Nobel Prize laureate – Dorothy Hodgkin came to campus and sat down with me and asked me what I was doing in my research. I mean, this was extraordinary. You never imagine that you would have these kinds of experiences in your life. It was a great, great atmosphere also with students, my friends – we were all pretty much excited by the opportunities we had here.

One could say it’s a long way from St-Timothée where you grew up on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River. What were some of the landmarks along the path that brought you from St-Timothée to McGill?

I think I was very fortunate in that I had a lot of people who supported me. I was very, very curious. This is something that was in my genes, I guess, but I was extremely curious. I wanted to find out about everything – the world, science, the arts, literature. And I always had teachers and professors who nurtured that in me. Of course at McGill, I think that my joy of learning was nurtured here. And for me, I think learning is probably the most exciting thing that you can do. It’s still gives me the greatest pleasure and I am absolutely convinced that I’ll learn every day until I die. That comes very much from those people who see that interest in you and nurture it and support it.

You’ve said in the past that one thing that makes Canada so special is the opportunities that are afforded to its youth, much of that being in its excellent network of universities. Youth who may not have the socio-economic means elsewhere can still achieve a university degree here in Canada. How does your student experience at McGill exemplify that spirit?

You know, I came here, I was from a small village in Quebec, I was the first in my very extended family to go to university. I came from an environment where people worked really, really hard to make a living, sometimes in very difficult conditions. I grew up in a small Quebec hotel, an environment that is very far from the academic environment. But that never mattered. I was always welcome here and supported. And, you know, I never even thought about it, because I thought that was normal. It was only later in life, when I worked with people from other countries and I lived in other countries that I realized how important and how precious that is, that you truly have in this country, equality of opportunity. This is something that we want as Canadians and I certainly had that myself. I’m very grateful for it.

Would you tell us about your academic background, the kind of research that you’ve done and what inspired you to pursue that field?

I’ll tell you first about what inspired me. As a student in science, I participated in the science fair and I came to the provincial science fair here in Montreal. A professor from McGill came to see my little exhibit and said, ‘Well, if you’re interested in this’ – and it was about the diffraction of sound waves – ‘then you would really be interested in crystallography,’ which was his discipline. So he invited me to come to McGill and visit the lab. It took one visit. I was totally, totally enchanted by this science that had the precision of mathematics and a large experimental foundation behind it, and the beauty of crystals – I was just blown away.

I thought, ‘This is great, I’m going to do this.’ … Most people ask me, ‘What is this crystallography? Do you predict the future, do you read in crystal balls?’ And of course not. That’s not what it’s about. Crystallography is the study of the architecture of matter. That’s what it is. And there’s something great about anything that is along the lines of design or architecture … there’s a fundamental principle that is followed and that is: form follows function. So if you can see how a molecule, for example, is arranged, at a very detailed and accurate level, how the atoms are arranged in the molecule, you can start to understand how it works, its function. … It’s fascinating because the understanding that you get is truly fundamental to understanding how matter works.

I have to tell you, because this was exciting for me, I was working with giants in the field – I was able as a young student to meet all the really, really important people in my field, and in fact, when I left McGill, I went to do a post-doctoral internship with a person who later won a Nobel Prize. And what is important here … was to see, through his eyes, the excitement, of being at the frontier, of being at the leading edge and of working really, really hard to learn something important that would serve us well. That was absolutely fantastic.

Of course, your career hasn’t been strictly in research, it led to some senior administrative roles – at Queen’s University and most recently at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. What lessons did you learn there that you’re going to bring with you as you take on the role of Principal of McGill?

First, let me tell you that I’ve really been very fortunate to work with some absolutely outstanding people and mentors. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that you have to have very clear principles, values and goals that will guide whatever you do. And everything you do, in fact. These principles, values and goals are really the roots that bind communities and teams together. I think what is most important for me is that they are a very, very important foundation that allows you then to be creative, to be innovative, to be agile, because you know that there are some important principles and values that you always have to meet so it serves as a grounding that lets you explore with creativity what it is that you can do. That to me is the most important thing I’ve learned.

What would you say is your greatest strength, as you assume a challenging role?

I think, if I had to name one, it would be that I really enjoy working with teams and in teams. I think I’m a good leader. I’m able to recognize talent. I’m able to let talented people exercise their own leadership. I like to work with teams where we can bring together complementary strengths and also complementary points of view. We need to challenge ourselves all the time, so I like to bring the kind of people who will see the world from different perspectives, who will have different points of view, who will challenge us. I’ve been, I think, fortunate, but also able to bring these teams together, to work within these teams in a way that is very open and honest, because we’re able to build the trust and respect that is absolutely essential for that to happen.

You’re arriving at McGill at an interesting time in its history. There are big challenges facing McGill and all universities – attracting sustained funding, the challenge of technology and MOOCs, the massive online open courses – so much is changing in how we teach. What do you see as the big-picture issues that will command your attention initially?

For me the biggest issue is to think about the role of the university in the 21st century. So much has changed in our world. There are so many things we can do now that we couldn’t do before. At the same time, there are challenges that we haven’t faced before. I think we have an opportunity right now to really define what universities do and their role in our society. We truly are – and I think this is one of the important factors in our context – we are truly in a knowledge-based society and economy. And that means that universities have an even more important role to play in the world we live in.

One thing that is always in my mind is that in this country and at this time we cannot afford to waste human talent. We need all the talent that we have and so we need make sure that we provide our students with what they need to really live to their full potential, to be successful in being good contributors to society, creative people, innovative people – that’s the kind of people that we need to nurture in a university. To me, that’s the biggest challenge: how do we do that in the 21st century?

Do you believe universities are as engaged as they need to be with their internal and external communities, and how important is that kind of engagement?

I think that each university engages in a different way, so I cannot tell you, in general, whether universities are as engaged as they should be, but I can tell you that I think it is very important. I think what is important in particular is that that engagement be a two-way road. We need to learn from one another, we need to exchange knowledge, we need to challenge one another. This is very much a two-way interaction.

It seems research is more collaborative than ever before, whether it’s engaging with others inside the University, across the province, across Canada and internationally. What are the main challenges in terms of moving collaborative research forward?

I think it is to recognize that every member of the team brings an important contribution, brings their own perspective, their knowledge, their expertise to the team. We often have in universities a culture where we think of research with a Principal Investigator and everybody around him working underneath that Principal Investigator, if you want, and I think that model is certainly not the model that we see today. We see people who bring very important intellectual contributions, crucial intellectual contributions to the team and are working as equal partners. I think this is a challenge for us, to move from the model of the main author, the Principal Investigator, to a model where we have teams of equals working together bringing their expertise to the team.

Societies and governments today seem to be primarily interested in research that’s considered ‘useful’ or has a short-term economic impact. But where would that leave basic research as well as the arts and humanities? Are they getting short-changed?

Well, I guess I have a different perspective on this question, because I’ve worked in Ottawa for seven years, and really saw the very, very strong support for basic research and discovery research in this country. A lot of the funding of the three granting councils actually goes to basic research. My own view, and I’ve had that view for a long time, is that we need to support the full spectrum of research activities, from discovery all the way to innovation. We need to be prepared to support research where the only outcome that we can possibly see now is the advancement of knowledge, learning something important, for example, about our universe that we don’t know. The Higgs boson, of course, is one of those discoveries that come to mind. The Higgs boson discovery doesn’t have any immediate impact on our economies or on societal issues, but that incredible achievement, in helping us understand our world, our universe, is fantastic.

At the same time I think that we are in a period when knowledge is really important in advancing our world, whether it is societal issues or great discoveries that will lead to new technologies that will better our lives. That is something important, and we need to support it.

When I think of the social sciences and the humanities, I often say and I do believe that they’ve always, from my perspective, made the links between these – the scholarship that they do that then gets to make a contribution to society. I think of some of the great works of philosophy, of ethics within philosophy, of political sciences, that have led to some of the important changes we’ve made in policy making. So they, if anything, are ahead of other researchers in creating that link between the basic research and the impact of that basic research on society.

Of course you’re going to be leading a huge entity, McGill University, 40,000 some people. We’d like to know a little bit more about Suzanne Fortier the person. Tell us a little bit about yourself, what you enjoy doing. If you have down time, how might you spend it? You’ll be having less from now on…

I don’t have that much down time, but I love being around a table with friends and family. I love to cook for them. I love having my friends and family all around the table debating things, talking about what’s happening in the world. I like to take some bain de culture, as much as I can participate in those incredible events. I was at the [Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s] Virée Classique, which was absolutely wonderful. I love to learn and I’m still learning. I’ve been learning Italian and Greek in the last several years, so of course it’s fantastic when I can get myself in an environment where I can practice a little bit and learn about the culture of these people – and there’s so much you learn when you can speak a little bit of the language. It’s really for me a thrill.

What excites you most about moving back to Montreal?

Oh, I adore this city. It’s a city that has so much to offer, particularly in its cultural vibrancy. And it’s a city that excites you, that challenges you. It’s a city that keeps you young. There’s always something new to discover in Montréal. But I’m not, in a way, moving back, because I’ve really connected with Montréal very strongly over the many years between when I left McGill as a student and now returning. So I’ve always kept a strong link with Montréal.

Finally, back to the job for a moment. You’ve had time to let it sink in that you are McGill’s 17th Principal and Vice-Chancellor and you’ve reflected on McGill’s strengths. How might they be enhanced in order to keep McGill moving forward?

To me, one of the biggest strengths of McGill is that it has a strong sense of identity, a very distinct identity, and it also has a very strong character. And this is a pretty amazing foundation on which to continue building the University and enhance it. What I think is really exciting about McGill today is that McGill today is in a very different world than McGill, say 20 years ago… McGill is truly now part of a bigger environment and that’s the global environment. It’s already plugged into this environment. It already has the privilege and the advantage of being recognized and known around the world. What a place to be, what an incredible opportunity as people of this city, this province, this country, to take advantage of what McGill has already done, to be increasingly connected

with that world. McGill is a bridge; McGill is a launching pad to connect with the global world. We already have it, and now we can use it to its full potential. That’s pretty incredible to me, and it is a real advantage that we have in this country, and certainly in this province, city and University.


The following is the video of the interview with Suzanne Fortier.