Commentary | Let us democratically elect McGill’s next principal

The Board of Governors should not be able to work behind closed doors

There was nothing new or controversial for our community in the recently presented “Recommendations of the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement.” At the beginning, this task force looked like a public relations exercise without substance, but after audible and active support of our community, a clear mandate was established.

Now it contains a collection of respected opinions about the common problems of universities in reflecting and readjusting to current sociological, technological, and political challenges. Everything written in the 46 pages of this internally-publicized draft seems to be reasonable and acceptable. The fruits of extended discussion provide a logical framework – what could be considered common-sense recommendations – which one would have expect to already be reflected in the work of the McGill administration.

We must secure this framework’s continual and consistent implementation, as in less than two years – according to University regulations – we may have a new principal. The University community should have confidence that the next leader will ensure that the presented recommendations are respected. The situation is a little bit unusual, as at the end of its term the leaving administration presents well-defined strategies for the next leaders, strategies that new administrators typically don’t feel obliged to follow precisely. The good work of our community should be incorporated into this transition framework in order to recognize their efforts in this public relations exercise. This will need a lot of care and attention.

For her part, Heather Munroe-Blum has not seen friction between the Board of Governors (BOG)  and herself – as in the recent case between Concordia’s Board and President – perhaps due to her personally trimming its size from 49 to 25 people a few years ago. At Concordia, the Board of Governors has been strengthening its position against the office of the president since 2005. This has caused friction at Concordia and resulted in the costly departure of their last two presidents. As new presidents, they were simply not strong enough for open debates with the BOG and so the community did not know the details of the strategic differences between the two sides. Now we see an artificial return to the strengthened presidential position and no profound dialogue, which would be enriching this community, in existence. The same scenario could happen at McGill. To avoid this McGill needs to find a strong and willing next principal. I believe the current principal and Board could work to make the transition better and more effective.

The best known way to find strong leaders and create maximally engaged communities – as re-iterated in the task force’s recommendation – are democratic and open elections. My direct suggestion is to consider holding such an election, and I explained this to the Principal at her Town Hall on March 11. Unfortunately, her stance on this was not received. Such a proposal would mean abandoning the present final-stage practice of choosing the principal behind closed doors, including allowing representatives of our community to be pressured by the top executives on the BOG who already know who they have chosen.

What is the disadvantage in starting the search for our new leader now at this opportune time during the extended discussion on of the Principal’s Task Force?  If nothing else, it would validate the task force, and boost the community’s engagement, if their main recommendations were in the minds of the emerging candidates for the principal’s job.

We need to organize a project to ensure the eventual realization of an open election for the next principal. Town Hall meetings were good, but now it is time to see more engagement in our community discussions with the candidates for the top administrative position when discussing their answers for the challenging Latin question: Quo Vadis McGill? The Principal’s Task Force provides an excellent platform for launching such a campaign, and naturally extends the community’s active participation.

Slawomir Poplawski is a former technician in McGill’s department of Mining and Material Engineering. He can be reached at