News  Heather Munroe-Blum meets with student press

McGill Principal fields questions on years’ events and her legacy

Correction appended April 1

This Tuesday, McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum sat down for an hour-long interview with reporters from The Daily, Le Délit, and The Tribune in the Macdonald Engineering building. While the interview was officially with Munroe-Blum, McGill Vice-Principal (External Relations) Olivier Marcil and Director of Media Relations Doug Sweet also sat in on the interview, occasionally adding their own comments.


The McGill Tribune: Next year will be your last year as principal of McGill. What are your goals for your last term, and what do you hope your legacy will be?

Heather Munroe-Blum: It’s a good time to be thinking about that. Certainly my goals for the coming year are the major planning initiatives that we have underway – the response to the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement; the completion of the next round of academic planning known as the ASAP Paper; and integrated with that and parallel to it the development of the Strategic Research Plan. Those are the places where we, I think, really stand to now take measures, commit ourselves to them and have some targets that we’ll be reporting back on. And in that regard, the Task Force on Diversity, Excellence, and Community Engagement is really important for me. The other piece, of course, is the follow-up to the Task Force in my first term, on student life and learning, and although we’ve made progress, I think there’s still a ways to go in that. And I guess the other part that’s very important is McGill not just being in Quebec, but of Quebec. You know, we’ve just celebrated our 190th anniversary. We were here before Quebec was a province or Canada was a country, so all the great things about McGill are not just related to what happens within the institution, but where we are. So celebrating that, framing up the ways we’ll express that over the next 25 and 50 years, and at the same time doing the same in the international context. One of the assets that we bring to those who are here – to our students and our professors, but also that we bring to the broader community through McGill – is all the bridges that we create to the rest of the world. So those are some themes.

The McGill Daily: So, it’s been quite the year at McGill…

HMB: Yes, it has.

MD: How do you think the many events of this year have affected McGill’s brand?

HMB: Brand is a very commercial term, and I know it’s the term that’s out there. I think of it as our reputation and our reach, so maybe that’s another way of saying brand. Our reputation and reach have never been stronger. We have way more opportunities that are offered to us than we can respond to, in terms of partnerships, in terms of the wonderful people who want to come here, both students and professors.

MD: As for students who come on campus – to tour the campus and see events going on – do you think that has an effect on them?

HMB: I’ve been talking to them, and their parents may be asking more questions than they are, but the students who come are pretty focused on the mission of the University and their own experience. Even last week, it was interesting that would-be students and parents were communicating with me, and I was saying look, you may want to stay away. The day of [March] 22, you know there was a big citywide demonstration planned, and people just said, well we’ll just readjust our plans, no question about it.

Le Délit: For MUNACA, why has a collective agreement not been signed?

HMB: You know everything that I know about it. I understand there’s a meeting planned for tomorrow evening, and that people are working through the outstanding issues. And let me just say as Principal my hope and my goal is to have this signed and to move on. And certainly for our employees to have access to their compensation.

MT: Following some events this semester, some people have been worried that McGill is a “consequence-free environment.” How would you respond to those people?

HMB: I would say it’s not a consequence-free environment. We’re working very hard to find the right balance between making sure that our core activities are protected, that people are able to do their work, whether it’s students or professors or admin and support staff. And we balance that with the ability for people to express themselves freely, and to demonstrate peaceably. Clearly, there are limits to the latter, and there should not be limits on the ability for people to do their work and carry out their responsibilities here. So there are consequences, and I think we’ve seen some of them in the last week. You know, we’re doing our best to balance this. But I know there’s a concern about this, so you can imagine we’re quite preoccupied with it.

MD: With regards to the recent disciplinary action taken against students participating in strike action, including students being banned from campus, can you comment on that?

HMB: I don’t comment on disciplinary actions, but I think you would see with the banning of students from campus that there are consequences.

MD: Has this measure been taken before?

HMB: I don’t know. What happens from a disciplinary point of view is not normally in a public lens. The University functions, it’s a huge place, we have approximately 50,000 people who make up the daily community on our two campuses, and then more out into the affiliated teaching hospitals. Much of what happens in all respects happens at the local level of the University, so I think what’s happening right now in terms of the issues that you’ve raised, and then the issue of discipline, is having a much more public focus than typically would be the case. So I’m not involved in the day-to-day of disciplinary action.

LD: About the provisional protocol regarding campus protests – when will it end or is it supposed to keep going next year?

HMB: Well, Dean Manfredi’s reporting back in the fall on the outcome of his forums, and also the academic meeting that’s being planned on this matter. There will certainly be some repositioning in the fall.

MT: This year we’ve seen some tension, and I’m sure Dean Manfredi’s open forums are a way of allowing people to express themselves. But also last semester you had a live webcast where you answered questions, and you had a blog.

HMB: Yes, in fact, we’re actually planning some more webcasting. This is something that we’ve had a lot of feedback on, and I seek your guidance too if you have suggestions. Again, with the big community, and then a broader community of family members of our students around the world, alumni around the world, it’s really a challenge to think about how to communicate regularly, not just when there’s something that happens that makes people worried, but all the good things happening too. And it does seem the webcast is a good way to do that, both on a regular basis, probably, so we’re doing one in April, and then I think the plan is again in the fall and the winter to do them.

You all saw one of the reactions to the fall [webcast]…was far more students than ever in my experience saying, ‘Well what about me? What about my voice, what about my interests and concerns?’ And what we don’t want is an extreme to dominate, whatever that extreme is. I mean, the extreme in some years could be partying, and simply partying and not thinking about other issues. It could be just athletics, as many of the American universities find. We have a very diverse student body, smart, able, dedicated, but a whole lot of range of interests and activities. And so the leadership of the University is very distributed, the elected leadership of the constituent members of the University is very distributed, and we need to very actively continue to pursue how best to have a good alignment of that, that allows for and celebrates diversity, while respecting the place and the mission of the University.   

MD: What is McGill doing to investigate McGillLeaks, and will the findings be made public?

HMB: We’re pursuing it fully, so as has been communicated we have very, very deep forensic auditing going on. We have the police involved. And it is unlikely that the results of much of this will be made public, because it’s a security issue. It is interesting how we’ve received [comments] from other institutions commending the way that we’ve handled it… I think overall we feel we’re taking every measure we can to protect people’s privacy, and there will be consequences for those who have been involved in this.

LD: Why did McGill threaten the Daily Publications Society when it is legal under Quebec law to use information that is in public space, even if it is illegally obtained?

HMB: Because it’s a breach of the privacy laws to use that information.

LD: But not for journalists to use that information.

HMB: Well that would be tested in the courts.

Olivier Marcil: We have asked, not only to The Daily, but everybody that has published those documents that have been stolen from the University, to remove the link from their site. Everyone has agreed. It’s not a threat to The Daily.

HMB: It’s our responsibility to protect the privacy of people who work with us and who are part of the community. I would think you would respect that, and I think as part of good journalism you would respect the privacy of people too. It’s your judgement, and it’s your choice. It was a very serious breach… Everybody [received a similar letter], anyone who published anything, and as I said, not just media outlets.

MT: The response of the investigation into Professor McDonald’s asbestos research were to be released at senate last week. Are you able to provide any sort of update?

HMB: The Dean [of Medicine David Eidelman] provided an update at the Board meeting, I think the week before last, and says he will now have received the report from the person who is conducting the investigation. He is now reviewing the report, and he will come out with something in the near future.

MT: Will that information be released?

HMB: Yes, when he comes up with his findings, they will be made public. You remember, it was done decades ago, this research, so it was done in a very different context. And our Dean is a respirologist himself, and has a deep concern about the issues, but the fundamental issue is that of the quality of the research, and that’s being investigated very thoroughly.

MD: Can you tell us when your potential successors for next year will be announced, and what that process will involve?

HMB: The process is underway, which is why it’s announced quite far in advance. It’s an advisory process to the Chair of the Board, who takes a recommendation to the Board of Governors. There’s a broad representation of the University constituents on the advisory committee: students, admin and support staff, faculty, and alumni. And then they look for the best candidate. All of our leadership searches – for deans, for vice principals, for the principal – are done at the international level, looking for the best candidate.

LD: Is anybody else from the McGill administration leaving next year?

HMB: I’m not leaving the University, I’m a professor in medicine, so I’m stepping down as principal at the end of June 2013. The Deputy Provost term finishes around the same time, but he’s a professor in psychology, so we’re not leaving.

LD: Are you sad to leave as principal in this climate?

HMB: Look, I feel very proud of the place and the people across the University, but in the senior team as well, and in our senior volunteer leadership. I’m not leaving the principalship yet, I’ve got well over a year left and I have a big agenda – as we’ve described – between now and then. But today, I think the University is a great place, its reputation has never been stronger, its people have never been more talented, its ability to contribute to society has never been stronger than it is today. I’m very proud.

MT: In the past few months, the portfolio of the Deputy Provost Student Life and Learning has been under review. So far, what will be the main changes to the portfolio?

HMB: I don’t think the Provost has decided yet. He’s doing that review, and of course the Deputy Provost is contributing, as are many, many people across our two campuses. The position of Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) came out of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, and I launched that task force because up until that time there was no one with a VP level role whose only preoccupation was students. And in a University that is so known for its research, as McGill is, and has such a breadth of research, having people at the senior table, who for whatever decision we’re making, whatever it’s about…having someone there who’s an advocate and an ambassador for students is really important, and has been embraced by the Provost as well. And Professor Mendelson has diligently done that, so he doesn’t ever let us think about other issues without thinking about the effects on students and the ability to reach out to students, and understand also how different student needs are, whether you’re part time or you’re in a professional program, or you’re an undergraduate or you’re graduate… I think it remains to be seen whether or not there will be a major restructuring, and then there will be very big shoes to fill in finding a successor to Professor Mendelson.

MD: The Quebec budget was recently released and there are no plans, despite student action, to stop the tuition increases. Is McGill still in the same position of supporting the tuition increases?

HMB: Yes, we are. But I absolutely am committed to not talking about tuition without talking about student aid. So the reality is, and you know the facts, but let me just state them very, very simply, that in the year 2016-17, Quebec under this new rise in tuition will be at the average of Canada last year, not this year, but last year. You also know, as students, that there is a shortfall on our resources to do the things that we need to do – support students.

When I became principal, one of the recommendations I took to the Board that they approved, was that for every net new dollar of tuition that comes into McGill, we would take thirty cents and put it into student support, over and above whatever Quebec does. And our advice to Quebec has always been, don’t raise fees unrealistically, raise them realistically, but ensure that there’s student aid for those who can’t afford to pay. And so over the eight years or so that our own McGill policy has been in place, we’ve increased by 500 per cent the amount of student aid available to students at McGill. And with the unfreezing of tuition, we’ve moved only very modestly in terms of students paying a meaningful percentage of the education they receive, even those who can afford to pay more.

I want to say that I don’t support the tuition fees south of the boarder, even in the public universities – they are too high. Even in the public universities, they are too high. If you look at the quality that we deliver on our underfunded basis, what we’re looking for is the average of Canada, notwithstanding that we aim to compete with the best in the world.

MD: It’s been quite hectic in James Admin this year. Is there administrative work that is being moved outside of the building?

HMB: There are about 300 people who work in the James building, they’ve been working very hard to keep up with the workload. During the strike, some of it was moved out. During the occupations, there was a total disruption to work, but nonetheless employees work very hard to keep up with their own responsibilities.

MD: So it’s just business as usual?

HMB: It would be crazy to say its not different coming into a place that is now locked, or [requiring] card access. But I think the system that we’ve put in place, I hope we’re smarter today than we were September 1 with respect to how to protect the safety and security of people on our campus, and allow work to go on without having an undue presence of security. If you think of most public buildings, they have something like the reception desk that we’ve put into the James Building, so it’s actually been much smoother, and I think easier for people to get in and out.

There are three hundred people who come in and work really hard, are in in the morning, stay late at night, who felt completely unsafe in the building, had their space intruded, some of them [felt] physically very threatened. So there’s an aftermath to that. So the new measures I think are allowing access for those who have work in the building, meetings that go on in the building, but added a sense of security for the people who work there and are doing their utmost to serve the University.

MD: Are they permanent measures?

HMB: I don’t know. I think the fall will be a good time to revisit what makes sense, but one of the things we’ve learned – and just looking at what other Universities do, and what other public institutions do – is having a reception desk, and a sign in for visitors is a very normal procedure… Those kinds of standard procedures simply were never considered.

LD: What are the strategies to increase the number of classes offered in French?

HMB: There is opportunity to take French lessons now, for students who don’t speak French.

LD: But it’s really hard.

HMB: It is really hard, it is really hard, and it’s hard in a couple of ways. One, it’s not free for everybody, and two, there are pretty heavy course loads. So, one of the things I know is happening is a consultation about how to do that, and frankly, it’s an issue for our employees too. When I say that we’ve hired over a thousand new professors, over half of them from outside the country, almost all of our new professors are bilingual or trilingual, they don’t all have English or French. I’ve been very happy at how successful its been, hiring so many people from outside of Quebec and having them come with their families, and the majority of them have settled in well, and their children are learning French, and are bilingual. But, there is an issue, and it’s different in different faculties. So Engineering, for example, you know the course requirements leave very little degrees of freedom. The Provost and the Deputy Provost and I just met with the Engineering undergraduate students two weeks ago, and one of the things they were saying is there’s always wonderful other courses to take, but we can’t do it. So I asked, how many of you would be willing to take five years instead of four to get your degree, and the majority of them put up their hands. That was sort of a surprise to us. But maybe there really are ways of moving into a more flexible ways of taking courses that allow those that want to take a bit longer and learn French, or do some other things, take another kind of program in addition to their major, they could do that as well.

I know people don’t like talking about money, in fact people would rather talk about their sex lives than their financial circumstances. But the reality is, when we’re underfunded it means something, and part of what it means is we can’t just choose to do a whole lot of things that we would like to do without getting more resources. If you look at the budget of last week, it doesn’t have much margin to move. New revenues will come with more students, that’s how provinces work. It’s a head count funding basis, it’s not a mission-specific basis, it’s not a quality specific basis per se, so we work to get quality in the context of our funding, and that means some things have to either be paid for on an elective basis – that people chose to pay for them – or we need some help from the government to do that. And I would say French language exposure should be a high priority for the government, I would hope it would be a high priority for students too.

An earlier version of this article quoted Munroe-Blum as saying, “We’ve moved only very modestly in terms of students paying a meaningful percentage of the education they receive, even those who can’t afford to pay more.” In fact, she said “those who can afford to pay more.” The Daily regrets the error.