News | New principal sits down with The Daily

Suzanne Fortier talks budget cuts, feminism, and McGill's role in Quebec

This Wednesday, McGill’s new principal Suzanne Fortier sat down with The Daily for a 20-minute interview on her new role at the University. McGill’s Director of Internal Communications Doug Sweet also added comments in the interview.

The McGill Daily: Last interview, we asked our former principal [Heather Munroe-Blum] if she considered herself to be a feminist. Do you?

Suzanne Fortier: Yes, well I consider myself to be very committed to equality among genders. If that’s a definition of feminism, then yes, I am. I also think that cultural changes are important and they take some time. I think it’s as important when we [want] to make significant changes in society – as we have in the whole topic of equality of men and women – that we know that it’s not going to happen overnight, and that’s there’s a certain level of tolerance and understanding. But I certainly believe in the equality of men and women.

MD: You’ve stated that you would be taking a lower paycheck than the previous principal. Are administrators also taking a lower salary?

SF: Yes, other administrators have all taken a 3 per cent cut and also freeze. And as long as the freeze is on, their salary will be frozen.

MD: Is yours also a 3 per cent salary cut?

SF: My contract is not finalized yet, not because there’s any disagreement, but because there’s some technicalities that have to occur. […] As soon as it is finalized and signed, it will be made public. […] What I can tell you is that in the details it is significantly different, because we wanted to make it a more simplified document.

MD: McGill has recently slipped in international rankings, which has obviously prompted concern from some members of McGill and the post-secondary community. How do you feel about this slip in rankings, and do you feel that it shines light on a bigger problem at McGill?

SF: As you know, I’m a scientist, so I can tell you that these rankings are, of course, not a scientific exercise. There’s a very large margin of error. And so a slip from 18 to 21 is not very significant. […] However, we certainly know which direction we’d like to move, and it’s certainly not this direction. […] What I feel is that these rankings, while not highly accurate, nevertheless help you. They help you in particular with a lot of very good data, not necessarily very precise, but nevertheless data that you can mine, and start to learn, not only about yourself, but about the current environment of higher education – this incredible race for talent that we’re seeing all over the world. So we need to be aware of that and see the trends and learn from them.

There’s a perverse side to the rankings, and that is that they could lead to all universities being clones of each other, which is not a good environment for higher education. A good higher education sector should offer different opportunities – different environments for their students. I do think that McGill has some pretty unique characteristics, and we want to protect those. That’s what is at the foundation of our strengths, those unique characteristics. So, we must be careful not to, as they say, “study for the exam,” but really take advantage of the data to learn about how the whole higher education system is evolving around the world.

MD: But regardless, people are nervous about that slip.

SF: Yes, yes, yes, I know people may be nervous, even though it’s not significant. It’s out there, and most people don’t have the time to do a more thorough analysis, so the first impression is that it has slipped. […] Our “total mark” is the same as last year. So we haven’t slipped at all in the total mark. It’s just that a few others have gotten a little bit ahead of us. I think it is actually a good representation of the environment we’re in. It is a very competitive environment at the global level. […]

MD: You’ve previously expressed concern about the poor faculty-to-student ratio at McGill. With budget cuts, and with recent cuts to Arts courses that will see smaller courses, such as seminars, cut, how do you plan on improving this ratio?

SF: […] Across Canadian universities, they’re seeing an increase in student-faculty ratio. And that includes McGill, although McGill continues to have one of the lower student-faculty ratios across the country. It’s a difficult issue for us, because as you probably know […] we’ve had to absorb [budget cuts] on a very short notice, and there’s been a freeze [on] hiring. But I think that one thing that we need to remember is that, in the past, the focus at McGill was to increase the number of faculty members, and substantial gains have been made. So for us, I think the question is when we will be able, financially, to return to what was and still is a very important goal for this university.

MD: But how do you plan actually improving that ratio – do you have a tangible plan of action?

SF: Well, you know, there’s not a whole lot of ways to do that but to hire more professors. […] If we continue to grow, and [McGill has grown] in terms of the students who are studying here, of course that will continue to increase that ratio. And unfortunately, I would say, but that’s a reality, the only way you can do it is through investment. We’ve been through a tough period.

I should say, I come from outside of Montreal, and I hear a lot of the concerns about the financial cuts and so on. People should remember that it’s not unique to McGill; it’s not unique to this province. Across the country – across the world – we have seen substantial cuts. We are not yet out of this terrible financial crisis that started in 2008. […] I think that we’re starting to see signs that the economy will be recovering, so we hope that once that happens – the commitment that I’ve seen in this country, in this province, to higher education and research, will translate into additional investments. But through the crisis, it’s been very hard for any government to make those kinds of investments.

MD: One of the bigger problems stemming from the budget cuts has involved the restructuring and slashing of library services. Students have lost 24-hour access to the libraries, the laptop lending program, and of course, the Life Sciences Library has now moved to the Schulich Library of Science and Engineering. Can students expect to regain some of these services?

SF: I should say at the outset that one of the particular circumstances of these cuts is that we did not have a lot of time to plan. The cuts were announced [around] two-thirds into the financial year. They were not expected by most universities, so this came as a surprise. And then, here, in order to deal with the cuts we had a voluntary retirement program. […] This is a transition period right now, people have left and reorganization will have to take place. There will be, or there already is, consultation with the students. We want to know where are the pressure points, what are the areas that we need to attend to as soon as possible. The Deputy Provost [Student Life and Learning] and the Dean of Graduate Studies will be involved. […] But this certainly is a transition period that we will hopefully get out of as soon as possible. But it is inevitable.

MD: I would wager that one of those issues would be 24-hour access.

SF: Yes, I have heard about this, and I know students would like to have that. Of course, I’m new, as you know, so I don’t know all the details. I can imagine that involves more than the staff in the library to offer the service, but also some level of security. So it’s not just a small group of people here, you need to offer access to the library in a safe and secure environment.

MD: That actually leads into my next question, which is that closing 24-hour library access has a lot to do with saving money on support staff, like cleaning and security who are typically there during the night. Combined with the wage and hiring freeze for non-unionized workers, which isn’t really good news for employees, how has the administration accommodated non-academic staff in the wake of budget cuts?

SF: There are many different groups in the non-academic staff. Some of them have seen their wages frozen, other groups [haven’t], so we can’t put them all in the same group. […] No one had a reduction but it was a salary freeze, they have been affected by the higher number of people who had to take voluntary retirement, I believe, although I’m not 100 per cent sure of that. So it is different, there are different groups of employees on campus.

Doug Sweet: It might be worth noting that we were able to avoid collective dismissals. There were no layoffs.

SF: Yes, yes, that was what was looming. Without the voluntary retirement, we would have had collective dismissals.

MD: The new bike gates have been criticized for making campus more inaccessible and, quite frankly, failing to deter bikers. Why won’t the University put in bike lanes?

SF: I can’t say I know the answer to that [chuckles]. You know, I’ve had to learn a lot about McGill and bike lanes – [which] while important are not at the top of my learning agenda. But that is a good question. I’m not sure, to be honest. I walked a lot on campus in the summer months. I’m not sure that many of the paths I have taken would be able to accommodate bike lanes. But I can’t tell you for sure, because I haven’t thought of it in that way.

MD: What is your biggest project for the university?

SF: Well, at the moment, my biggest project is to really work [on becoming] a part of this community, because I think the biggest project for this university will come from the inspiration of its members – from the students, the faculty, the staff members, and alumni. I’m not coming here, and after five days, declaring what it is that we need to do. [chuckles]

I think that my role is to crystallize these goals and aspirations and visions of the different parts of our community. But I think it would disrespectful – I would use as strong of a word as disrespectful – to come here from outside and declare what should the goal should be, you know, from the outside without having a chance to learn from the community [what] their aspirations are, and then work as hard as I can to make that happen. I think that is what I am here for.

MD: One of the large parts of your role is that of the university’s official spokesperson. How do you think the university’s image has been damaged in recent years? And do you see the university’s image as that of a “brand”?

SF: I think McGill has an incredible brand. […] I don’t think that it’s been damaged; in Canada and around the world, it’s extremely strong. I think part of my own personal goal is to make that brand even stronger here at home, because I know that among the French population, McGill is still viewed not as their own university. I think it’s very important that the French part of the population sees McGill as their own, that they have the pride and the joy of having such an institution here – in Montreal, in their province. And they’ve had a role to play in that, even if they didn’t come to the university. It grew here. Its history is anchored in Quebec. […] I’m hoping that the brand of McGill, particularly among the French population, will increase, and they’ll see it as an incredible bridge and launching pad to connecting with the world. Because McGill is connected to the world.

MD: How do you see your role, then, as a francophone and a native Quebecoise, here at McGill? What do you think you can bring to the table?

SF: Yes, well you know, I wasn’t hired just because I’m a francophone. [laughs] But I think that part of my role, as I said, is to increase the brand and the visibility of McGill amongst the French population – to increase the sense of ownership and pride in this university. To increase a sense of accessibility to this university, for all people of Quebec. […]

MD: What about vice-versa – for McGill students who are in Quebec, and who may feel distanced from Quebec culture?

SF: Well, you know, I think that [there’s] always an incredible richness to learn about other cultures. I’m hoping that students who come here from everywhere in the world will be able to take advantage of this incredible city, where you have two major cultures living side-by-side – sometimes with some little friction, but really two different cultures that have learned well, I think, to live together, to appreciate each other. There’s a lot of enjoyment in learning about a culture. And of course Montreal is a city of many cultures; that is also a thrill. I’m hoping that students will take advantage of this incredible environment, and again be open to the cultural diversity that our whole world represents. […]

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.