On March 21, McGill’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Suzanne Fortier, met with campus media for the Principal’s annual recap of both the University’s high points, and the improvements needed for the upcoming year.
Fortier opened with what she believed were McGill’s current strengths, such as the University’s level of alumni retention, its relative size to other universities in Canada, and its location in the heart of culturally diverse downtown Montreal.
She argued that the University must set a few priorities for further improvement: namely, the creation of an intellectually engaging environment, a connected community, and an improved physical campus structure.
The McGill Daily (MD): Recently, Demilitarize McGill has finally obtained a response from McGill about their access to information (ATI) requests, and the documents have been heavily redacted. There has also been a lot of controversy over labs at McGill and McGill’s conduct with respect to research funded by the military. What are your views on this? Do you think that it is a contradiction to say that research done with the military funding might not be for military purposes?
Suzanne Fortier (SF): No, I don’t think it is a contradiction at all. [...] There’s a lot of research you would do with the military that is extremely important research, and I don’t think there’s any problem in doing research for [the Department of National Defence]. If there is a problem, it’s in the specific intent of the research. A very telling test that you would do is – is this research going to be published in the public domain or is it research that is confidential? I believe that in the case that you mentioned, [the] research is totally public, there’s no research here that is proprietary or confidential.
The documents you’re referring to – that’s a different story. We’re not talking about the outcome of research here. There are laws in Canada that govern us in terms of privacy protection and access to information, two principles that often challenge one another. My understanding is that – and I have of course been seeing those requests for information for many years – the redaction is often done to follow the law with respect to privacy.
Le Délit français* (DF): During your mandate, we have seen a good evolution of the place of French on campus, for example, conferences entirely in French, the creation of the French theatre [Franc-Jeu], so many student initiatives. On your side, being francophone, how have you led this evolution within your administration?
SF: There has been an evolution also within the administration, in the sense that we are increasingly working in both languages. [...] I think we have to give our students the opportunity to learn French, to take advantage of Montreal’s bilingual environment, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for McGill to become a university where instruction is given in French, because we have very good French-language universities in Montreal. That’s why I came here; if I wanted to be taught in French, I would have gone somewhere else. It’s a choice that even French-speaking students have made, and I respect that.
The Bull & Bear (B&B): Regarding administrative issues and technology, is there anything tangible already set in stone or anything that is currently being planned?
SF: Yes, we are planning a number of things. We need to make progress in the number of classes that are well-equipped digitally and in terms of our library. We already have specific actions that we’d like to put in place. At the moment, because we are entering an election, we don’t have a budget yet from the provincial government and are unlikely to have one soon.
The McGill Tribune (MT): With the government’s planned reinvestment in universities in the coming year, what are the priorities for where the money would go?
SF: A lot of it has to do with improvement to the learning environment in the area of student advising, because that’s an area that the community feels that we need to have more human resources in. We were working on an agreement with government, but with the election, nothing has been confirmed. So we will have to wait to see if, indeed, we get the money as was anticipated. [...] Not a single university in the province has a signed agreement at this point. We’ll have to wait until after the elections. We don’t know at this point – c’est la vie.
B&B: Given the political situation that’s going on right now, how do you see that affecting our school?
SF: I believe that McGill will always see that as an important part of who we are – not only to be welcoming, but to be promoting cultural diversity on campus. From the very beginning, when we started to have conversations, when we spoke about the Charter of Values, we shared the views of the McGill community, fairly and strongly, and that will always be quite important.
MD: One of the big stories this year at McGill was the sexual assault case that the Montreal Gazette broke. Do you think that the University has to do more to combat rape culture, and what is your opinion on the slow and poor response to the sexual assault case?
SF: I don’t want to refer to that specific case, because it’s a very complex case, but generally there certainly is a need in society, not just on campuses of universities, to make people more sensitive to these issues. We’ve evolved as a society [since the 1980s], and that whole thing has evolved as well. [...] I must say, I find it very courageous of people to address those issues which are incredibly difficult. [...] The attribution of guilt and so on, that gets very complicated when you have individuals who are not in the best situation in terms of judgement. I think it is important that we talk about it very openly, but it is hard.
DF: We’ve heard a lot of talk about divestment from fossil fuels. SSMU has already chosen to renounce these investments, the many actions by Divest McGill, the incident that occurred during the Petrocultures conference. Do you think these events have had an impact on McGill? Is the University on the path to divestment?
SF: Firstly, yes, there has certainly been an impact. We were at the moment of the review of the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility’s terms of reference, and for the first time in history, we decided to consult the larger community. [...] People from Divest McGill have asked us to integrate an element of research in the process, so that decisions can be made on the basis of solid data. [...] It was well-received by the members of the Committee; we’ll be taking a new look at the process.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
— Compiled by Emma Noradounkian and Igor Sadikov, with files from Drew Wolfson Bell
*Questions from, and responses to, Le Délit français have been translated from French.