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Principal Suzanne Fortier will step down in August 2022

A look at the McGill principal’s time in office

Professor Suzanne Fortier announced on January 7 that she would be stepping down from her role as McGill’s principal and Vice Chancellor, effective August 31, 2022. This past year marked the University’s bicentennial, and Fortier said in her message to McGill’s community, “Entering the University’s third century provides a unique opportunity for renewal and for setting new directions and ambitious goals.” After almost a decade of occupying the role of the university’s principal, Fortier believes “it is an ideal time to pass the baton to a new leader who will shape the future of our University.”

Fortier became the university’s 17th Principal and Vice-Chancellor in September 2013. She was reappointed for her second term as Principal beginning in 2018. She has served as an important figure to McGill’s community, working hard to ensure the success of McGill’s students and faculty. She also received criticism throughout her tenure, with multiple policy-related controversies and issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

A McGill graduate herself, Fortier received a BSc (1972) and a PhD in crystallography (1976). In 1982, she went on to become a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and in the School of Computing at Queen’s University until 2006. During her time at Queen’s, Fortier occupied two administrative positions: from 1995 to 2000, she served as Vice-Principal (Research), and from 2000 to 2005 she served as the Vice-Principal (Academic). Beginning in 2006, she held the role of the President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) until 2013 before returning to McGill as Principal. Currently, she is a member of many boards, some of which are the HEC Paris International Advisory Board, Board of the McCall MacBain Scholarships at McGill, Board of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), and Board of Directors of Montreal International. She also serves as Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global University Leaders Forum (GULF).

During her tenure at McGill, Professor Fortier has worked on the McGill Commitment, established in 2015, which has led to more research and academic opportunities for McGill’s students and faculty. Principal Fortier has also prioritized working towards McGill’s full research potential. This includes ensuring McGill as a top research-intensive university and increasing the impact of research conducted at the university. Other priorities include enhancing McGill’s partnerships, ensuring a healthy workplace, and working to transform campus to be a safe and welcoming environment for all of McGill’s community.

Professor Fortier is involved in initiatives along with the Vice-Chancellor and her colleagues, which aim to build upon McGill’s strengths on the local, national, and global level. These initiatives include the Principal’s Task Force on the Academic Vision and Mission of the RVH SiteAssociation of American Universities (AAU), Global University Leaders Forum (GULF), and U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities. One initiative, Respect and Inclusion in Campus Life, has led to disagreement on what the University should be prioritizing in terms of inclusivity and academic freedom. In October 2020, a white professor at the University of Ottawa faced heavy criticism after saying the n-word during a lecture. The professor and those who took her side said that punishing this act would be a violation of academic freedom, and the professor was reinstated. Fortier wrote in a message to the McGill community discussing McGill’s academic freedom and inclusivity: “I believe that abandoning one principle in favour of another is not the solution. Rather, these situations call upon us to engage in active listening and dialogue so as to understand the cause of the conflict and to learn.”

In recent years, Fortier has received pushback when it comes to the Mission of the RVH Site. In 2020, the SSMU as well as other organizations criticized the University’s vision for the Royal Victoria Hospital site in an open letter because the Quebec government’s decision to give a significant portion of the site to McGill University was made “without any consultation with civil society or local citizens, and without debate in the National Assembly.” The SSMU could not obtain a copy of a formal analysis of a process of consultation with the community, though the University insists they completed and carried out the process.

During her time in Office, Fortier contributed to the establishment of the Sexual Violence Response Policy. In 2017, she received criticism for her stance on McGill’s policy within the context of reports of alleged sexual violence against a McGill professor that went seemingly unaddressed. In a 2017 exchange with campus media, the Daily asked about the administration’s lack of investigation into allegations of sexual assault committed by professors. Fortier responded, “If there’s a serious allegation, we will investigate. Now, we will investigate in the context in which we live, which has a respect for privacy, and a respect for […] universal justice. […] Sometimes people in society in general, and at McGill, want to have a public disclosure when this is not allowed, not permitted, and not appropriate.” 

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Fortier faced an increasingly difficult challenge. The university did not impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, though many universities outside of Quebec did. This decision to not require McGill’s community to be vaccinated sparked criticism from both students and faculty, and has since been upheld. In Fall 2021, Fortier wrote in a message to the McGill’s community saying, “From the beginning, the University has made clear its expectation that all members of our community should be vaccinated, unless they cannot do so for medical reasons.” Rather than a mandate, Fortier and the McGill administration have relied heavily on Quebec’s vaccination passport to incentivize McGill students and faculty to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The University’s Chair of the Board of Governors, Ram Panda, said in a statement to the McGill community that Fortier received additional money to her whopping baseline salary of $470,000 under the university’s executive retirement plan. In total, Fortier received over $860,000 this year. McGill’s full professors earn an average salary of $137,485 yearly. Assistant professors earned an average salary of $84,094. Panda noted Fortier’s public salary’s comparability to the salaries of other U15 research universities.

Until officially stepping down as McGill’s principal in August, Fortier “will remain focused on building on the strong foundation of McGill University, embedded in its Mission and Principles.” She added in her message to the community, “I will continue to help steer our University safely to harbour, through what I hope will be the tail end of the COVID storm, so that my successor can sail in calmer waters towards a bright future for McGill.”

To select McGill’s next principal, an Advisory Committee will be formed in the coming months that will recommend candidates. The committee is made up of two representatives from the Senate, Board of Governors, Board of Directors of the Alumni Association, and others. The SSMU will be represented by one member, and the Post-Graduate Students’ Society will also be represented by one member. The appointment of Fortier’s successor will be approved by McGill’s Board of Governors before they take Office.