Communicating within our community and beyond
By Neale McDevitt
When Olivier Marcil joined McGill as Vice-Principal (External Relations) he was looking forward to immersing himself in a little collegiality. Marcil had, after all, spent the previous eight years in the turbulent, often adversarial, milieu of Quebec politics where, among other posts, he had served as an advisor to Premier Jean Charest and Chief of Staff to Ministers Benoît Pelletier and Clément Gignac. “I had the expectations that, coming to the university setting things would be very calm,” he says with a laugh. “No such luck.”
Instead, Marcil’s introduction to his new position would be a trial by fire that included, among other things, the MUNACA strike, the Nov. 10 clash between students and Montreal police on campus and, finally, the five-day occupation of sixth-floor offices of the James Building by students in February.
Recently, the Reporter sat down with Marcil to talk about his busy first seven months on the job and what he sees for the future of McGill communications.
What’s your background?
I have a Bachelor’s in History from the Université de Sherbrooke and a Master’s in Political History from the Université de Montréal. I had actually applied to McGill but I was refused.
When the opportunity to come to McGill presented itself this time round, I felt very fortunate. This is like my second chance.
It was a tough way to start that second chance though.Don’t forget, I was coming from the political forum so I felt very at home [laughing].
But in all seriousness, even with the tensions of the past few months, McGill is such a vibrant place. Every day surprises me because, surrounded by all these incredibly smart people – students, professors, deans – I feel like I’m learning every day.
Your immediate priorities?
We need to better promote McGill to the outside world – especially within Quebec. It’s important that Quebecers appreciate the jewel that they have here.
We also want to focus on and improve communications between the Administration and the rest of the McGill community.
How do we convey to the public the important role universities play in the world?
This is the right question to ask at this moment. Right now there is a huge debate going on in Quebec on the very nature of higher education. You can frame that discussion however you want – within the context of tuition or accessibility – but the core of the debate is the importance of universities in society and the importance for people to get university training.
Some say universities are disconnected from society.
The discoveries being made at universities have a direct benefit to the world at large. Look at the medical research being done here – this is where we fight disease and improve public health.
The challenge for us is to do a better job of promoting McGill and what we do here and, in a larger context, to better promote universities in general.
Will there be changes in Public Affairs?
I would say we are making adjustments rather than making wholesale changes. Public Affairs has done a great job over the last few years but I think we need to tweak a few things.
Communication within the community has to be improved. Take the McGill Reporter, for instance. Here is a great tool that contains a lot of very important news but I want to give people a better opportunity to read it. We’re still finalizing all the details but one of the things we are going to do is make the Reporter online only.
First, it is the environmentally responsible thing to do. Each year, we use more than 11,000 pounds of newsprint putting the paper out. This will significantly reduce our carbon footprint.
We think that it will actually increase readership. We have to adjust the way we manage the website and we will have to refresh the content more regularly. But we are hoping to be able to include video as well. It is what people are looking for in terms of their online papers now.
We will do some special printed issues each semester, for Convocation, for example. But the reality of the 21st century is that all papers – from La Presse to The New York Times – are moving progressively online.
The Administration is sometimes criticized for being biased in its communications.
Of course we have to be as balanced as possible in our communications but people have to understand that the communications coming from the Administration will obviously express the Administration’s point of view. We are delivering the University’s official position on issues.
One of our priorities is to improve the flow of communication to the community and hone our ability to inform the community in a clear and timely fashion.
How would you characterize the relationship between government and McGill?
Governments have their own – not always accurate – perception on how universities work, I know this firsthand.
And McGill has a particular history and unique status. People want to compare McGill with other universities in Quebec, but we’re one of the top universities in the world. Our competitors aren’t here in Quebec, they are found outside Quebec. We have to be compared with other major North American universities.
My job is to promote McGill to the government and give officials a better understanding of both the vital work being done here and the unique challenges we face.
But the contrary is also true. McGill doesn’t always understand what are the political realities faced by the government. On campus, the most pressing issue is higher education, but for politicians, it is only one important issue that they must manage along with things like healthcare, infrastructure, etc.
Can this relationship be strengthened?
Absolutely. I am very pleased that with the last budget, the government started to address the big infrastructure program, which is always a huge issue at McGill. We received funding for work on Wilson Hall. This is great news for us and I think it is a signal that the government is beginning to understand the issues facing McGill in terms of infrastructure.
Since your arrival, what has surprised you the most?
When I first got here I kept hearing people say that there’s no debate any more on campus. But I think the last six months have proven the opposite.
Of course, all this debate can be tricky for a communicator [laughing]. It’s much easier when you have one person with one message and everyone follows along. But on a personal level I think it is great – this type of dynamic is at the very heart of a healthy university. It’s an essential part of an innovative culture. We need a certain degree of effervescence and a clash of ideologies.
But there is a difference between healthy debate and rancorous bickering.
Debate is an essential part of university life and I think we will find new ways to debate in a more respectful way on campus. The conversation that we’ve had for the last six or seven months around free expression and peaceful assembly was long overdue and it’s important that we finish this conversation and everyone moves forward with a common understanding of how we can have free expression and debate on campus in a way that benefits everyone.