News | Principal sits down with student media

Asbestos, underfunding, and diversity discussed

Last Friday, McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum met student reporters from The Daily, Le Délit and the McGill Tribune for a 45-minute interview in the James Administration Building.

The McGill Daily (MD): My first question is regarding the asbestos research. A lot of people, including Dr. Colin Soskolne at the University of Alberta, have described the report carried out by Professor Fuks as “self-serving and without transparency.” […] How do you respond to that and to the multiple criticisms of the report?

Heather Munroe-Blum (HMB): In fact, the report has broadly been very well received and followed a good process and in the context of the academic review, which is peer review, we feel very comfortable that a very objective review was done. It was asked as a special request of our integrity officer, so it was outside the normal purview of the research integrity officer, and I certainly feel very comfortable with the conclusions of that report.

MD: Why wasn’t an external report done?

HMB: Because we have processes and procedures that we use. As I say the entire research enterprise is governed on a peer review basis and through the policies and constructs that we have in place.

MD: In 2009, the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement found that students from high-income households were disproportionately represented at McGill, and you have also repeatedly said that tuition does not correlate to accessibility. Do you believe that maybe accessibility for those families from lower-income households is related to tuition?

HMB: Let me just tell from a public policy point of view the dynamic here. Quebec had, for a long time, very low frozen tuition and did right up to the last couple of years. It’s just a few years now that it has been unfrozen to go up at some notion of cost of living increases year over year…It’s very clear that if you come from a background with low financial means, you need more than free tuition. You actually need a bursary for your scholarship or something that pays for housing and transportation, and books, and the cost of being a student. […] So while the values of having low frozen tuition or even no tuition are values we can all relate to, as you can imagine, when I was a student, I might have taken a different position on what intuitively makes sense about getting accessibility. In fact, in a system like Quebec’s where you have low tuition, you have the poor subsidizing those who can afford to pay a reasonable share of their education…Now we’ve had a campaign over the last seven to eight years where building support for students has been one of the three major pillars. We have increased by 500 per cent the amount of student support available. The problem is that we still have a gap between what I’d like to be able to say before the end of this calendar year, that every qualified student can come to McGill independent of financial need.

McGill Tribune (MT): Coming back to the asbestos report, are there plans to adjust the recommendations of that report, for example that the Board of Governors avoid investing in asbestos companies and that McGill hold an academic conference on the issues?

HMB: [Avoiding asbestos investments] is not something you can do without having a formal motion come forward and so forth. That’ll depend on people bringing it forward. We do have a committee of the Board on socially responsible investment. The issue of managing investment portfolios is a complicated one and the goal of the investment committee is to preserve the money that comes in and to invest it so as to grow it over time to the best of our ability in common markets. And so it’s an easy thing to say; it’s very complicated when you understand that a majority of investment tools today are big conglomerate investment tools…we know of no investments that we have currently in asbestos.

MD: After your departure, only five out of 23 senior administrators will be women, and furthermore only 18 per cent of tenure-track professors are female. Do you think that McGill has a problem in terms of equity? Do you think it can be fixed?

HMB: […] I’m happy to speak to the general issue, which is we definitely do. And you’ve read my task force report – we need measures to really encourage women and other underrepresented groups to move into positions that have a possibility for leadership, and it’s a strong theme for me, and you can imagine that it is. And so again, just in terms of what I’ve seen over my lifetime, unless you really pay attention to these issues…there was a very strong movement in North America in the seventies and eighties called “Women’s Lib” and I know there’s just been a weeklong series of events tied to this. Women moved into positions, and in some sectors there are fewer women in the same leadership positions than in the early nineties [which] had seen such progress. So if we’re not attentive, we lose ground and we need to be careful not only to not create disincentives for women and other underrepresented groups to come into these roles but to create incentives for them to. […] Am I concerned about it? Yes, and I’m interested, and it’s actually one of the reasons why Lydia White was given the position that she has [of Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures & Equity)]. That was a direct response to the taskforce’s recommendations. So I’m hoping we’ll make serious progress.

MD: You have mentioned several times that McGill is underfunded, and in the latest budget presented by the Provost there is a deficit in the operating fund. But when we take into account the restricted, the capital, and the endowment funds, would McGill’s financial shape change? Can the movement of money be done across the funds?

HMB: The reality is we have no flexibility. The pension fund is a constrained fund, which you know is very challenged right now. Our endowment, which is just over $900 million right now…we pay out 4.25 per cent a year right now on that. And a vast majority of that money, we don’t accept money for things that we don’t believe are consistent with our mission. […] We make it clear when we’re going after gifts what our priorities are, and those gifts come in with no strings attached…Our donors come in with very precise – you know fellowships in such and such, research support in this area, an endowed chair for a professor in this field – and we have no flexibility at all to move that, and I think one of the things that’s not well understood is when people say, that’s almost a billion dollars in endowment. You know, why don’t you take $700 million of it and fix the infrastructure and put the rest into student aid and solve your problems? We can’t do that legally because it’s to go where it’s to go, and those needs are great and pressing needs…but the other is, we only get… roughly $40 million a year that comes into the budget out of that $900 million plus. And that then is all completely targeted, and dominantly to student and research support, some student services, some fellowships and bursaries allotted in the fellowships and bursaries area and very targeted areas.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.