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Suzanne Fortier elected as McGill’s new principal

The Daily talks with the Principal-Designate

Suzanne Fortier was chosen to be McGill’s new Principal and Vice-Chancellor, effective September 2013. The decision was made public today, after a months-long search.

Fortier will replace Heather Munroe-Blum, who has been leading the University since 2003, and who will be stepping down June 30, 2013. An Acting Principal will be appointed to serve from July until September.

Fortier, a McGill alumna, has been serving since 2006 as the president for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), a government agency that provides research grants in the natural sciences and engineering fields.

Fortier left her post yesterday to adopt the new role as principal in six months, in accordance with the Conflict of Interest Act.

A 14-person advisory committee was formed to narrow down the pool of candidates. The final list was presented to the Board of Governors (BoG) for a final decision.

In searching for a new Principal, the University hired the services of the international headhunting firm Odgers and Berndtson. According to invoices filed to the University and posted to McGilliLeaked, the price tag for that search for a four month period between June 2012 and September 2012 was $178,690.

SSMU VP University Affairs Haley Dinel took part in the selection process as the only undergraduate student on the advisory board.

“Her skills as a leader are what McGill needs. She’s bilingual, which is great, she’s from Quebec, which is even better. She’s worked in government now for almost ten years, you can’t survive there without a lot of grit, and she’s got a nice balance of that, with passion for education and McGill,” Dinel said.

Fortier will come to McGill at a time of financial uncertainty. Following the retroactive budget cuts imposed upon universities by the provincial government, McGill has to contend with an unexpected loss of $19 million this year alone.

In an interview with The Daily, Fortier addressed McGill’s financial challenges and her experience in dealing with budget cuts.

“I have experience with dealing with some sort of financial constraints in periods where institutions have to make cuts. That was part of the situation when I was at Queen’s [University]… And then of course in the job I just left at NSERC, although the budget for research and grants was totally protected, our internal budget was not,” Fortier said. “We were […] establishing the principles and priorities, our values, making sure that we could be clear on what needed to be preserved, in future benefit of the organization, where we could take a cut, where we could tighten our belt. This is a difficult exercise but I think that it is important that it is done in a team spirit and with the community.”

Fortier’s appointment also comes a year after the beginning of the student strike. When asked whether she believed students should play a bigger role in funding universities, Fortier pointed to focusing on the quality of education.

“To me, the more important question has to do with the quality of education, the quality of the experience of learning in our great institution. Accessibility, the tuition fees are just a small fraction of the total cost of attending universities. The bigger costs are with lodging and food and so on, so I think that looking at the bigger question in terms of what university education and the kinds of doors it opens for you, the quality, the experience that you need to have,” she said.

“This is what I’d look to focus on initially. The tuition fees, or funding, are a means to achieving those goals. I always prefer to start with what is it that we wanna do? What are goals? What are our values? Once we define that, we ask, how are we going to be able to achieve that?” Fortier added.

Fortier also told The Daily that the conclusions reached during the education summit were “a step” in a process that will continue in the next months.

“The summit was just one beginning element, if you want, in the exercise that will happen in Quebec in looking at the whole post-secondary sector and looking at the role of the sector and what we need to do in the province,” Fortier said.

McGill’s administration has also had tense relations with labour unions on campus in the past few years. Following the six-month long MUNACA strike, AGSEM recently staged a walk-out from a meeting with senior administrators as a result of the cuts to course lecturer positions in the Faculty of Arts.

Fortier touched upon previous experience in negotiating collective agreements in her interview with The Daily.

“When I was at Queens, my last responsibility there as VP Academic was in fact at the bargaining table. […] I have quite a bit of experience in labour negotiation, and I have learned a lot from that experience… When you look at organizations, such as universities, it is absolutely the case that the best assets is your people and that this is something you have to keep in mind all the time,” she said.

“The most important thing you learn is the values and principles that you bring to the table, and how important it is to have those very well anchored,” she added.

Fortier expressed that her time at NSERC will help bring to McGill the “experience of partnership and collaboration.”

“At NSERC I was very much part of the world of research and innovation, which is extremely linked to the world of education in our country. I had the opportunity to see how this world has evolved. In the recent years there have been incredible transformations. We now live in a world that is absolutely open, without borders, in these areas of education, research, and innovation,” she said.

Dinel echoed those sentiments, stating that Fortier’s experience at NSERC would be useful because “it has a similar budget to McGill’s, it’s about 1 billion dollars that she oversees the allocation of.”

“She gets research from both sides, so she understands it from being the person giving out the money, but also as the professor and the researcher applying to it,” Dinel said.

Fortier, however, stressed that her most recent experience in research will not deter her from developing teaching at McGill.

“My most recent experience was with the NSERC, but before that I was for 25 years a member of Queen’s University, I was there as a professor in the school of graduate studies, Vice-Principal  (Research) and Vice-Principal (Academic). And what I learned through these wonderful experiences at Queen’s is that you have to connect all of these. Research is increasingly connected with the learning experience and they are not separate or competing priorities but ones that are very much interestingly linked,” Fortier said.