News  Principal sits down with campus media

High cost of food on campus a surprise for Suzanne Fortier

On November 12, McGill’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier sat down with campus media for an hour-long meeting in the Shatner building. She addressed student journalists’ questions on McGill’s financial situation, accessibility of food and housing, divestment, and research regulations. A lively discussion followed Fortier’s admission of surprise at students’ impression that the food options on campus are not affordable. Fortier was also unaware of the high cost of student housing at McGill, and highlighted McGill’s bursary program as evidence of the University’s accessibility as it continues to lobby for a tuition increase for French students.

The McGill Tribune (MT): About the recent discussion on the bilateral tuition agreement with France – how will McGill go forward with these adjustments? What is the University stance on straying from a long-standing precedent?

Suzanne Fortier (SF): I personally think that the agreement has to be revisited. […] But there’s something that’s extremely important that’s true for every student, not just French students – it’s that we need to make sure that we continue to build on our bursary program. We’re not a university for rich […] international students outside Quebec, we’re a university where we try to bring together people. […] We can be there to help those students financially.

Le Délit (DF)*: Would you maybe think of forming a new partnership with French universities if the partnership with France is cancelled?

SF: Yes, maybe. I have worked a lot in France. […] There are possibilities outside of the government framework to establish partnerships with France. In fact, what we want is to be left a bit more flexibility, so that we can create partnerships […] instead of being imposed a model that, as you know, isn’t used well at all. There are few Quebecois students who go to French universities. […] Already we see that the program isn’t working too well.

The McGill Daily (MD): In 2013, McGill reacted to the Parti Québécois (PQ) cuts to education with strong condemnation. Why has McGill failed to take a similarly strong stance toward the current cuts to the education system, which are comparable if not worse?

SF: I do believe that it is important for this province to put its financial situation in order. I am not as a citizen opposed to a goal of reaching a balanced budget – I think it is important for the long term. […] I understand that it’s not an easy reality, it’s not something that we like to see, cuts after cuts. […] Although I would like more money [flowing] into the university […] fiscally, I’m afraid this is something we got to do in Quebec, so I won’t complain, as long as we’re treated fairly.

MT: Regarding McGill’s financial situation, one of the common concerns that we hear from students is that there are more and more costs that are being shifted to the students in the form of fees. What is the decision-making process for shifting costs? Does the University see these shifts as having an adverse effect on the environment at McGill?

SF: In this province, as in many provinces, auxiliary fees have to go to through a process of a referendum […] so that’s a pretty clear process. Is there an adverse effect? [There is,] particularly for students who do not have the capacity to pay more than what they’re paying now. That’s why it’s important for us, when we can, to keep adding money to our bursary program. That’s where we try to mitigate the negative impact.

DF: At McGill, student housing prices have risen immensely in the past few years. We notice that this is an opposite trend to other universities, which tend to offer less expensive, more accessible housing. Should accessibility of student housing be a priority for McGill?

SF: I must tell you I was not aware of this, so I’ll have to do some research to see if there is a reason for this hike. […] Do we offer residences of better quality than elsewhere? […] I think we have residences where it’s a bit less expensive.

DF: More generally, are you not a little bit afraid that McGill could become a university for rich people?

SF: I’m not afraid that it could become one, in the sense that I know we’ve put in place policies to ensure that this is not the case. We don’t look at a student’s financial situation when we offer a place at McGill; we have a bursary program that, I think, is the best bursary program in Canada per student. […] During McGill’s last fundraising campaign, I think it’s about 50 per cent of the collected money that was collected for student aid. […] We’re right to take an interest in that, however – that’s not what we want to be, and we need to ensure that we put in place the necessary measures.

“Maybe you have bigger appetites. […] I’m surprised that people think that it’s very expensive.”

MD: The replacement of the Tim Hortons with a Première Moisson has generated substantial backlash regarding lack of affordable food options on campus, which has only worsened with the recent cease-and-desist order on sandwich sales against Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) SNAX. What is McGill doing to ensure affordable food and what role does it reserve for student-run initiatives?

SF: The thinking behind the food offering is not price, it is more the quality of food. […] So Première Moisson, I find it interesting. People say it’s very expensive – I went to eat there, I had a wonderful soup, very healthy, and they gave me two pieces of bread with nuts. It cost me $3.50. […] I don’t know what you get at Tim Hortons, but it was a very good meal for the price. […] I eat mostly around the cafeterias on campus myself, but I do think there’s a lot of variety. […] What I see on campus is that there’s plenty of places where you can go, you don’t have to spend a penny […] you can bring your own food [and] eat with your friends, and I think that is very important as well. […] Do you have a sense that a lot of people think that there’s not enough diversity?

MD: I don’t think it’s so much the diversity, as it is how expensive it is, because you have to spend $10 or so, unless you go to the Midnight Kitchen…

SF: Really? I’m surprised. […] Maybe you have bigger appetites. […] I’m surprised that people think that it’s very expensive. Maybe I’ll just ask our Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning), I know they do a lot of surveys on food.

DF: Coming back to the budget, why not fund opening hours for the McLennan library between midnight and 7 a.m., as it’s obvious that there is a student need given that SSMU is funding it? Is it the role of the administration to finance these things, or do you think it’s superfluous?

SF: We may have simpler solutions, I don’t know if we’ve explored them. […] It’s obvious that, for many users, the library is more of a space than a location to consult books. […] Are we really talking about the library, or about a space that should be reserved? There may be an easier solution.

MD: With the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR)’s terms of reference having been broadened after a community consultation, and students increasingly speaking in support of divestment from fossil fuels, how will McGill’s investment choices better reflect the opinion of the community?

SF: The committee [CAMSR] has recently changed its terms of reference, has changed some of the definitions to include environment. […] This was the first time last year that a committee of the Board of Governors, as it’s reviewing its terms of reference, decided to consult broadly. It’s the first time there was a public process of consultation. […] The committee now has a role to meet even if it doesn’t receive a petition, to consider proactive measures, and the committee met recently, and one of the things that it has decided to do is to look at the range of practices with regard to socially responsible investments, and that, I hope, will start fairly soon. […] I think it’s very difficult to avoid any footprint at all on the environment. […] You start getting there into the zone of evaluation of what is the impact and at what point is it important to take serious action, it’s not a simple thing.

DF: For you, what is the importance of French on campus?

SF: I think that McGill is a university where the language of instruction is English, and it’s important that we preserve this language. […] It’s good that we can support people who want to speak both languages at McGill. […] I must tell you that I speak French a lot on campus, maybe sometimes a bit too much. I’m surrounded with colleagues who speak very good French.

MD: McGill’s research regulations are soon coming under review, and many in the community are calling for stricter regulations. Will you heed the call and support measures to increase transparency and impose restrictions on military research with harmful consequences?

SF: This year, we’re reviewing policies relating to the responsible conduct of research, which has many areas, and a new one that we’re introducing is to look at all of the contract research that we do and pass it through a process to see if it meets the criteria of responsible conduct of research. […] I believe we might be the first university to extend it to all of our contract research. […] You asked specifically about military research […] the important thing is to make sure that we have the right process, to look at the more detailed level – what is it exactly that’s happening? […] That’s the kind of thing that I think we need for contract research more generally.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Compiled by Jill Bachelder and Igor Sadikov

*Questions from, and answers to, Le Délit have been translated from French.