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Munroe-Blum talks underfunding, food services

Our jet-setting principal has been spending much of her time fundraising for Campaign McGill. The Daily got a few minutes out of her busy schedule Tuesday to talk to her about composting, hiring, and administrators.

The McGill Daily: You’ve lobbied hard for the unfreezing of tuition, with the understanding that McGill would continue to demand more support for postsecondary education from Quebec City and Ottawa. At a time where students are now being asked to shoulder more of the weight of tuition, could you do be doing more to push the government for a broad re-investment in education?

Heather Munroe-Blum: There’s been an ideological change within Quebec about how funding should come for universities, and we’ve been making very strong representations on that.

We simply are constrained on every front with respect to getting the revenues that we need. It affects our services to students. It affects our infrastructure in a deep way. It affects the salaries we can give our professors, which affects our retention of professors. We’re very proud of having recruited over 800 professors in the last eight years, but if our salaries don’t stay competitive, then that becomes an issue, too. All of these are really deep concerns and they are far and away, other than what happens within the University and what we’re doing to work within the University, my greatest preoccupation.

MD: Last month McGill accepted money from Boeing due to its recent deal with the Canadian government for C-17 planes for Afghanistan. Some have suggested that McGill needs to have a more stringent policy on acceptable sources of funding. Do you think we need that?

HMB: Look, we’ve got a committee that looks already at our investment practices. We have taken one area that – on a principled basis – we will not accept money that comes from tobacco. Other than I think that we’ve got a very healthy framework.

I think we have to say that first of all, we don’t take money for military purposes; we take it for academic purposes, consistent with our priorities. And we believe that doing what universities do is a helpful influence in the world. That’s true for whoever we’re working with.

MD: With this year’s Architecture Café debacle, and the University moving to strip student groups of the use of the McGill name, more than ever it seems McGill is concerned with liability issues. How would you respond to concerns that these are anti-student initiatives?

HMB: There will always be issues; we are a huge organization. There are 45,000 people that make up this community. We’re a little town, in a way.

Our reputation is without question one of our greatest assets, and it’s that and our commitment to the quality of people who are here, our students and our faculty and the research and teaching are what have helped us to prevail in spite of very, very dramatic underfunding against our peers in the rest of Canada and south of the border and much of the Western world. Protecting our reputation is something we must do, and the clubs and societies’ naming issue arose when SSMU itself didn’t want to have its name attached to a Gun Club a couple of years back, just to put things in perspective.

MD: McGill was ranked poorly for food services in a Maclean’s survey this year. Many in the McGill community are calling for more student-run food initiatives. Is this something you would support?

HMB: I see no evidence that student-run initiatives work better on the food, quality, variety, and pricing size. The real question is, how do we determine what kind of food services we have at the University? I think we need a business model that’ll work. We need health and safety regulations followed. The question then is: who are the suppliers? What range of variety do we have on our campuses? What pricing points do we have? I think that those are all up for discussion.

MD: You’ve mentioned in the past that sustainability is something that deserves attention at McGill, and you’ve expressed support for pilot environmental projects. Yet McGill couldn’t foot the bill when it came to starting a pilot project with Gorilla Composting.

HMB: I understand the whole no-Gorilla Composting issue differently. What I understand is that this is an environmental issue and that the environmental damage done by the trucks picking up the compost here and trucking it to Macdonald campus would offset totally the environmental benefits. In fact we have our own composting process on campus here and it’s working quite well.

It seems like all of our social and environmental concerns revolve around preserving the mountain, which is important, but it’s a small part compared to the use of SUVs and recycling and the way we use energy. I’ve seen over five and a half years, a transformation of the University. The fact that we have a professor of Environmental Sciences who is an activist, is himself in charge of our facilities and our garbage and energy use and all that, I feel proud of that, and he’s a terrific person. From what I understand, on composting that was his response and he feels very good about what we’re doing. On projects, he says that, raising the price on parking fees has created a fund of $200,000, which is going to environmental projects and it’s also a disincentive to park on campus. It’s two for one.

MD: There has been hiring of more top administrators from outside the McGill community in the past several years, instead of inside McGill’s ranks of professors. Who best knows how to run a university: professors, or corporate managers from the external sector?

HMB: There’s some talk about us staffing up, sort of how many people there are in James Administration and how many people there are overall. We’re just getting in line with our peer universities. We’ve been under-led in that regard. And, again, when you look at the scale of the operation, our mission, and our aspirations, being well-managed and having very elite academic leaders is what’s good for the University. It’s my job to make sure it works well.

– compiled by Kelly Ebbels and Jennifer Markowitz