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The Search for McGill’s New Principal

A “deep” dive into the selection of Principal Saini

In January 2022, McGill’s then-Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier announced that she would be stepping down after serving in this position since 2013. In March of the same year, an Advisory Committee met to decide her replacement. In the following November, the Board of Governors selected former President of Dalhousie University Professor H. Deep Saini to take office on April 1 for a renewable five-year term ending on June 30, 2028. As the McGill administration welcomes the new principal, the Daily looked into the selection process that brought him to this position.

The Advisory Committee

The Advisory Committee for the Selection of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor is mandated to create a profile for the role and find qualified candidates to nominate to the Board of Governors (BoG), who ultimately make the hiring decision. The Advisory Committee of 2022 was chaired by Maryse Bertrand and included representatives from the BoG, the Senate, the McGill Alumni Association, the McGill Association of University Teachers, the Administrative and Support Staff, and Student Associations, specifically SSMU and the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS). 

Within the Advisory Committee of 2022, graduate and undergraduate students were represented respectively by Kristi Kouchakji, Secretary General of the PGSS, and Kerry Yang, VP University Affairs at SSMU. Former VP University Affairs Claire Downie had originally been appointed to the committee, but left after resigning from her position in April 2022, leaving the committee without a SSMU representative until Yang took office in June 2022. 

“In principle, all reps from all spheres of university life are to have equal input into the selection or reappointment of the position in question,” Kouchakji told the Daily. “In practice, the inequitable power dynamics that exist across the university are often replicated in these committees as they are anywhere else.” However, she added that “this specific committee is one of only four I have sat on in seven years at McGill that did legitimately hold space for student input.” 

In conversation with the Daily, Yang agreed that everyone on the committee got a chance to speak and express their opinion. He said that the way Bertrand ran the committee was “very fair.” Kouchakji also believed that Bertand did a good job of managing the committee, which she acknowledges is not an easy job. “If the chair is managing things effectively, then sooner or later you come to a point where people understand each other’s constituents’ needs a little bit better, and then the discussions and negotiations and reflections really start getting productive,” she explained. 

The search was done in collaboration with Perrett Laver, an international firm specializing in leadership advising. This partnership was established through a “call to tender,” a process where companies bid for public service contracts worth over $100,000 required by Quebec legislation. Yang describes the firm’s role as a “headhunter,” explaining that they were largely responsible for sourcing qualified candidates.

Community Consultations

In order to get input from the McGill community, the Advisory Committee organized community consultation sessions in April and May 2022 to develop a profile for the new Principal and Vice-Chancellor, outlining ideal qualities, experience, and priorities for the candidate. According to documents obtained by the Daily, in these sessions participants were asked about the priorities and requirements that they found valuable in a potential candidate. Often, these characteristics relate to a candidates’ values, leadership skills, qualifications, and experience. Some of the priorities identified in the final profile included deepening the university’s research capabilities, improving the quality of the student experience, attracting diverse staff, faculty and students, and increasing sources of funding to support projects such as the New Vic and the Fiat Lux projects. Selection criteria also included a commitment to “Indigenization” and reconciliation as well as being fully bilingual and having knowledge of the French-speaking context of Quebec.

The Daily obtained summary notes from these consultations through an access to information (ATI) request. Specifically, the consultations identified many current challenges with regards to the relationship between the senior administration and the students, faculty, and staff. According to the notes, McGill is faced with a “new generation of students with different worldview[s] and expectations,” such as a need for greater mental health support. They recognized that the student body is more diverse than before, and many feel as if McGill doesn’t adequately prepare them for the workforce. The notes also identified a need to be more “faculty and staff-centric,” given an “us vs them” mentality emerging between staff and senior administration. This was demonstrated by staff unions going on strike due to their treatment by upper management, and consultations called for the new leadership to build a better relationship with the unions.

However, representatives from the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) told the Daily that they were concerned that “not enough weight was given to how a candidate interacts with labour unions and associations of the university.” They also added that the underlying issues identified in the consultations, such as “insufficient salaries and cost of living increases, lack of training, lack of sufficient staffing sustainability, and HR transparency and the high employee turnover McGill is currently experiencing,” still remain present.

Kouchakji said that public consultations had a good turnout, being  well attended by staff, faculty, the Board, and senior admin. However, student participation was lower than the committee would have liked to see. She attributes this to suboptimal timing, as the sessions took place during the final exam period when many students would have been busy. In addition, consultations took place between Downie’s resignation and the beginning of Yang’s term, meaning that there was not a SSMU representative on the committee at the time to relay information to undergraduate students. Kouchakji said that the broader committee had no input on when the consultations took place, but assumed it was decided by the Chair and Secretary, who were also responsible for publicizing them.

“At a certain point, when you’ve organized these things to happen over finals and in the days leading up to the final grading deadline, and you’ve publicized them mostly by posting them on an obscure website no one visits and by lumping them in with newsletters no one really reads, no amount of retweeting, sharing, amplifying, [or] mobilizing from student societies is going to save them,” she said when explaining the low student turnout.

The Final Selection

As the McGill community found out in November 2022, the Advisory Committee ended up choosing H. Deep Saini as the new Principal and Vice-Chancellor. Although committee members aren’t allowed to reveal who the other candidates were, they were able to provide insight as to why Saini stood out compared to the rest. 

“Saini was a very good candidate on paper,” Yang explained. “Some of the other candidates did have more pronounced weaknesses [while] Saini didn’t really have any weaknesses [ …] in comparison to the criteria that we set up.”

Yang added that Saini’s knowledge of French was a large asset. As Saini was a professor at the University of Montreal for 18 years, he’s familiar and able to interact with the Quebec government, which is a key strength given the Advisory Committee’s position profile prioritizes maintaining strong relationships with the provincial government. Saini has worked at four of Canada’s U15 universities (Dalhousie, University of Waterloo, University of Toronto Mississauga, and University of Montreal), indicating that he has a good understanding of the funding infrastructure for research-heavy universities in Canada. Yang said that the committee also considered Saini to be someone who was strong in the administrative aspect, able to make tough decisions, and had a good vision for McGill.

While Kouchakji couldn’t say much without breaking confidentiality, she acknowledged that “a legitimate consensus was reached based on the information the committee was provided during the process.”

“He exemplifies the rare mix of strong academic leadership with a wide-ranging and international perspective,” the McGill Media Relations office wrote in a statement to the Daily. “A collaborative and innovative thinker who sees challenges as opportunities and who has the ability to set a long-term vision for the University, Prof. Saini is the perfect choice for McGill as it embarks on its third century.”

Nevertheless, Yang acknowledged that he was aware that many students might have concerns about a situation that arose during Saini’s tenure at Dalhousie. In October 2022, teaching assistants, part-time instructors, and markers represented by the CUPE 3912 union at Dalhousie went on strike after negotiations with the university failed. The union claimed that the current wages for its members were less than at other major universities despite Dalhousie charging some of the highest tuition rates in the country. Saini also received criticism for raising Dalhousie’s tuition fees during the pandemic, despite student protests demanding a tuition freeze. That same year, Saini received a substantial increase in salary, going from $492,001 in 2020-2021 to $558,154 in 2021-2022. Yang said that he, along with other committee members, raised this issue, but the committee eventually came to the consensus that Saini did a good job managing the situation.

Saini’s history is also very concerning to MUNACA, especially given that he left his previous position mid-mandate following the aforementioned labour dispute. “There are many unions who will be negotiating new collective agreements soon or who are already negotiating,” they told the Daily. “Let us see how those go and how [Saini] reacts to them.”

While Yang and Kouchakji were both generally satisfied with the selection process, they both identified areas where it could’ve been improved. For Yang, the main challenge was stepping onto the committee in the middle of the process after Downie had resigned and the committee had been without an undergraduate representative for some time. He said that it would have helped if someone else had been able to step in temporarily to ensure that undergraduates were represented.

When asked about this dilemma, Kouchakji explained that these types of advisory committees “aren’t standing committees who regularly cycle members in and out and can bring new members up to speed with minimal friction; they’re engaged in a specific, ideally linear process, and after a certain point it’s increasingly complicated and arguably detrimental to all to be swapping out members for interim reps.” She added that much of the content discussed in these committee meetings is confidential, making it more complicated to onboard additional members.

“In such scenarios [when one group is not represented], the best whoever is in the room can do is to think about what they’ve observed in their time interacting with the opposite group and what broader issues those observations might point to,” she said.

Kouchakji also expressed a desire for more student and staff representation on the committee. She acknowledged that given the demanding nature of the role, there should be incentives such as academic release, tuition rebates, and paid release time for workers to make participation more accessible. She added that the process should be more transparent to allow the broader McGill community to participate in the final decision. She suggested that they “require final-shortlisted candidates for senior admin roles to give job talks at Senate and on a widely-publicized (within McGill) livestream with an unvetted Q&A session after, and then let Senate vote on their preferred candidate(s) by electronic ballot over a week to give them time to take feedback from their constituents as well.”