With Heather Munroe-Blum, Principal and Vice-Chancellor

As she always does at this time of year, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum sat down with The Reporter to reflect on the past year and look ahead to the future – for both the University and its graduating students.
Principal Heather Munroe-Blum reflects on a lively year at Mcgill and looks ahead to seeing the implementation of some major projects and reports this fall. / Photo: Owen Egan

Refresh your McGill networks right away, Principal urges grads

By McGill Reporter Staff

As she always does at this time of year, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum sat down with The Reporter to reflect on the past year and look ahead to the future – for both the University and its graduating students.

You’ve just come back from Brazil on the largest mission on higher education ever organized by Canada. What were your impressions?

They say the key to success in international travel is to do your homework before and your follow-up when you get back. This was the best-planned mission I have ever been on, involving multiple universities, government and industry under the leadership of His Excellency the Governor General and former Principal of McGill, David Johnston. We were very well prepared. We were following up on both the missions lead by Prime Minister Harper and Premier Charest. Brazil is now the world’s sixth-largest economy and McGill has to position itself to take advantage of the opportunities offered by emerging countries. Of course, McGill is already deeply international. There’s not a professor who doesn’t have international collaborations, many of our students come from abroad and, of course, many of our students have international experience as part of their time here.

What came out of the mission?

It’s very exciting to report that the president of Brazil has created 100,000 scholarships to send Brazilians abroad, with 12,000 of those going to Canada. McGill is extraordinarily well placed to have Brazilians come to our University. We are now looking to create the scholarships and fellowships to send our Canadian students and students from elsewhere to Brazil in an exchange.

We have a new strategic development with the state of Sao Paulo, which is the most research-intensive state in Brazil. We identified a couple of thematic areas – bioenergy, neurosciences, food safety and food security, and some interest in green chemistry – that we will collaborate on.

 What does the announcement of a new Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) on biofuels led by Don Smith mean to McGill and to Canada?

First of all, big kudos to Don Smith. Most people don’t know the years that he has put into building this collaboration that crosses the country and, indeed, moves into several countries internationally as well. It is research into an area that has social, economic and national value. To have Don lead a McGill-based NCE that received roughly $25 million in federal grant money certainly is cause for celebration.

But also it shows that our investments and efforts deployed over the last years to better support our professors in these major grant application have started to pay back. Which is good news for our researchers and the future of research at McGill.

Now in the home stretch, how would you characterize Campaign McGill?

We’ve surpassed the $700-million mark and, of course, we want to go over our target, which is $750 million. And we expect to do that notwithstanding the downturn in the economy. Enormous credit has to go to our donors. We’ve had well over 80,000 people contribute to Campaign McGill in the last seven years. It just shows the enormous enthusiasm people have for the things we do – and we do it on a very lean budget.

How do we maintain this momentum?

What’s been important in the campaign is to re-launch in a contemporary fashion our alumni and development activities and to tie those to our academic and research priorities. We need to really engage our community of friends and alumni around the world.

What’s wonderful about having our strategic plans aligned with our Campaign is that we can match something like [Don Smith’s] NCE award to philanthropy and to our own investments in professors and students and the infrastructure. It means we can really make high impact contributions to this important field.

Students have been big beneficiaries of the campaign. We have created almost 500 new scholarships and fellowships out of this – and that was a priority of the campaign. We have also created 40 faculty chairs and we’ve received nearly $100 million in gifts for new or upgraded infrastructure to support the academic mission through the campaign.

What do you see for the coming year at McGill?

Well, there’s one obvious change [Laughing at the prospect of stepping down as Principal and Vice-Chancellor next June].

Believe me, I’m not finished, and there are a lot of things I want to do in the coming year. We will have completed the second phase of academic planning and integrated our new academic plan within the strategic research priorities plan. We separate them a little bit because the research plan is demanded by the federal government and also, our research enterprise and successes and support to our professors and their research activities, benefit from digging deep into what research and scholarly activities need by way of support and services from the University.

I am also focusing on completing Campaign McGill, the implementation of the SRI and the recommendations from the Jutras and Manfredi reports on free speech and peaceful assembly and to build on what we have learned as a community this year.

 It was a tumultuous year at McGill. What were some of the positives that came out of it?

Meeting more regularly with student groups, professors and staff was certainly a silver lining both during the MUNACA strike and the unrest in the winter. One of the real pleasures of this past year was having virtually not a day go by in which I wasn’t meeting with students, professors or staff across the University and I plan to continue to do so this year.

Are you happy with the results from Deans Manfredi and Jutras’ initiatives?

We have been extraordinarily well served by both Deans Manfredi and Jutras. We’ll await Dean Manfredi’s report in the fall but the fora and the symposium were great elements in what was a broadly distributed process across our campuses and across the University in dealing with the disruptions that we had. We certainly had more expression of free speech, demonstrations and diversity of view than we’ve ever had [laughing]. The idea that debate doesn’t take place here has been contradicted every day since September 1, and long before that.

I must say that the day the Undergraduate Arts students came out and lined up right down to Sherbrooke to assert their views and vote on whether to join the student boycott was a wonderful day for democracy. We had heard so much about student apathy and cynicism toward the power of the vote, that to see our students line up across campus into the night to vote was really moving.

Any advice for graduating students?

I hope what graduating students take away from here is the hallmark of the McGill experience, that is the education and the dimension of the “living and learning” experience. Given the tremendous geographical diversity of our students and professors, I hope they’ll feel a sense that they not only have a degree that is respected and revered around the world but also a network of people that will enrich their lives for the rest of their days as well.

My advice to graduates is to go out of their way in the next four or five months to reconnect with anyone who impressed them while they were here. It is the beginning of a new chapter when you graduate and you’re thinking ahead to a new beginning. But these ties bind us and support us. Refresh them quickly and they will serve you well going forward.