With Heather Munroe-Blum, Principal and Vice-Chancellor

In her annual year-end interview with the McGill Reporter, Munroe-Blum focuses on both the past and the future as she evaluates the year that was and looks ahead to the coming year – including plans for McGill’s 190th anniversary celebrations.
“I’m inspired daily by James McGill’s vision of having a secular university on this continent in the late 1700s,” says Heather Munroe-Blum. / Photo: Owen Egan

“Our future is shaped by where we come from”

By Neale McDevitt

As renowned as she is for her work ethic, Heather Munroe-Blum also knows that there is a time and a place for celebration. That time is now and that place is at McGill’s Convocation ceremonies that have been taking place at the Macdonald and downtown campuses. “This is my favourite time of year,” says the University’s 16th Principal, nearing the end of her eighth year in office, “because it combines the rich traditions and history of McGill with an incredible optimism for the future.”

In her year-end interview with the McGill Reporter, Munroe-Blum focused on both the past and the future as she evaluated the year that was and looked ahead to the coming year – including plans for McGill’s 190th anniversary celebrations.

What kind of year was 2010-2011 for the University?

It has been another full and rich year at McGill. We hired more than 60 new professors, and welcomed some wonderful new recruits like Mark Lathrop who has come to head the McGill University and Génome Québec Innovation Centre.

From athletics to academics our students have once again shone – including the wonderful successes of both our men’s and women’s hockey teams.

What events stood out?

We hosted a number of important events, but I must say I was delighted with our McGill Institute for the Study of Canada [MISC] conference on Canada-U.S. Relations. It was an extraordinary way for Professor Antonia Maioni to cap her wonderful run as Director of MISC. We had a great turnout and the focus was on the incredible expertise McGill brings in disciplines from political science to economics to Canada-U.S. relations. It was a real highlight in terms of the intellectual public place of the University.

Where do things stand with your Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement?

The Task Force brought together a terrific group of students, alumni, professors and administrative support staff to reflect on how we can more fully  integrate our great range of intellectual diversity into the life of the University. Are we drawing on a full talent pool as we recruit for various positions at the University? What are some things we can do to attract qualified students that come from backgrounds where, for example, other members of the family haven’t been to university? How do we open up that sense that this is a place where excellence is represented and served by people from very diverse backgrounds.

The group was superb and worked for well over a year to put together some 25 recommendations on both how to strengthen the excellence and understand the range of what excellence is.

Those recommendations have now gone forward to the Provost and I anticipate we will have a draft administrative response to them by the end of the fall semester, outlining what commitments the Administration will make to advance excellence, diversity and community engagement within the University.

How is McGill doing financially?

We’re facing a very tough financial situation and it’s not because we are not increasing the University’s revenues. Every year, our research dollars go up, our support from various levels of government go up.

Indeed, last year tuition fees were reframed in the Quebec context to allow us to have a more appropriate balance between what the public purse and the University supports, and what the students and their families contribute where they are able.

Notwithstanding all of that, we continue to have serious growth in our debt and our deficit. In particular, our expenditures on the compensation side are outrunning the revenues we have coming in.

How is this being addressed?

We’re looking at a number of ways of making McGill lighter on its feet while, at the same time, making it a better place. We want to reduce bureaucracy while increasing services.

A broad administrative project called the Strategic Reframing Initiative (SRI) has been undertaken to benchmark our administrative practices against top peers in North America in order to identify how to improve efficiencies and get better service results.

Looking forward, what can we expect in 2011-2012?

The big news is that it is our 190th anniversary, and like many public institutions, we’re going to take the luxury of celebrating it over 18 months [laughing]. One of the highlights will be the installation of the Governor General [and former Principal of McGill], David Johnston, as McGill’s Visitor this October.

How much does McGill’s past resonate with you?

I’m not a historian but I believe fundamentally that our future is shaped by where we come from – and that’s particularly good if you come from a very good place like McGill.

I’m inspired daily by James McGill’s vision of having a secular university on this continent in the late 1700s – a university that would help build this country and also be open to the world. It’s pretty remarkable when you put it into historical context and not a bad model for the next 100-200 years.

Convocation seems to be a particularly star-studded affair this year. How much fun is that?

One of the great privileges that comes with this job is to meet with leaders across fields, from heads of government and industry to community leaders and a wide range of other areas.

To me, it is wonderful that we bring in people and honour them, but at the end of the day, the most important people – and the real stars – are the students and their families. They’re the main event. As Principal, I always say, our students get in to McGill on their own steam and merit, but we do help them leave in style.

And on that note, we talk about the students and we talk about the professors and we talk about our alumni. But at this time of year, as in November and the middle of February, I am so aware of the people who make McGill so beautiful, who keep it safe, who take pride in the campuses. I feel a great debt of thanks to them for everything they do. In the end McGill is what it is because of our people. All of them.

You frequently stress to students the importance of public service. Is this message only reinforced by the recent election of five current McGill students to Parliament?

How fantastic was that [laughing]? When we think about the great challenges the world faces, one of the things that gives me great hope is the creativity and community engagement of our students.

No matter what they are studying, they care about the environment and they care about international development. They feel as close to people on the other side of the world as they do with people who are experiencing hardships just next door.

In my opinion, there is no crisper symbol of the dedication and leadership of our students than the fact that five of them have just been elected into Parliament. In a way, it is a one-shot deal that this many students got elected this time around, but if you look right across Parliament at the numbers of McGill alums who were re-elected, and those who are coming in for the first time along with these five students, it’s a pretty significant statement of the level of commitment McGillians have to the community, the nation and the world.