Message from the Principal
By all accounts, the March 28, 1901 meeting of the McGill Physical Society was a spirited affair. It was there that physics professor Ernest Rutherford went toe-to-toe with chemistry lecturer Frederick Soddy over a controversial new theory: The atom, far from being the indivisible building block of all matter, could itself be split into even smaller particles. Rutherford said yes. Soddy said no. Neither man was a shrinking violet; both enjoyed having the last word. The history books tell us it wasn’t pretty. But when cooler heads later prevailed, these two brilliant adversaries decided to set up a research lab. Together.
This story, of course, has huge implications for the world of today: Rutherford and Soddy’s collaboration not only proved Rutherford correct, but in doing so laid the groundwork for the atom-splitting miracles of the nuclear age. It’s a story about the core essence of the material world, yet it’s also a story about the core essence of McGill.
On the south wall of the Redpath Library, passersby can read John Milton’s words extolling the virtue of “the quiet and still air of delightful studies.” McGill is a space where one can engage in deep individual reflection. This is a special thing, to be cherished. But the University is also, and has been from its inception, a place for freely engaging with others in meaningful dialogue. These conversations may be part of a structured lesson plan, or they may spring from a spontaneous encounter on the Arts Building steps. They may be boisterous, as was that debate in 1901. Or quiet. They may be exercises in logical precision; they may take wing buoyed by passion and heart. Whatever the form, engagement with other people’s views and values is invaluable for developing how we think.
Just as Rutherford and Soddy brought together chemistry and physics–an obvious pairing now, but unusual bedfellows a mere century ago–McGill continues to encourage and foster nonobvious interdisciplinary conversations. It is by breaking our boundaries of thought that we can create the synthesis of ideas that leads to progress.
Take, for example, recent developments in two fields that have been building momentum over the past ten years. Bioengineering is one of McGill’s fastest growing research areas, and the study of how biological knowledge can be applied to living design–of structures and materials processes integral to the life sciences– took a leap forward with the creation of the Department of Bioengineering within the Faculty of Engineering. The second new addition to McGill, the Centre for Population Dynamics (a collaboration between Arts and Medicine), is transforming the static statistics of the past into dynamic models of what really drives health and well-being in individuals and societies.
This year also saw the creation of the BioFuelNet Canada research network, which will receive close to $25-million from the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence program. Based in McGill’s Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and led by Professor Don Smith, BioFuelNet connects plant scientists and combustion engineers and chemists–from McGill and around the world–to form an unparalleled knowledge hub that has the critical mass to create alternate energies that work.
BioFuelNet aims to develop the knowledge, products and processes needed so that Canadians will be using next-generation biofuels for 25 per cent of our fuel needs within 20 years. It’s a lofty goal. It’s also achievable–and it illustrates the necessity of strong research universities.
The federal government’s priorities, as outlined in its Economic Action Plan 2012, are focused on advancing economic growth and job creation. But that kind of movement doesn’t just happen. There are drivers behind the drivers: Canada’s research universities and their researchers. Universities are the fertile ground in which bold, game-changing ideas can take root and grow. We see it in BioFuelNet. We see it with McGill’s pioneering work in green chemistry, led by Professor Chao-Jun Li, and with ground-breaking advances in medical imaging analysis led by Professor Kaleem Siddiqi, both of whom have won major funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s CREATE program. We see it with Professor Nico Trocmé’s extensive study of child protection services in Quebec, and Professor Susanne Lajoie’s collaborations on developing technology-rich learning environments for students of all ages, two wide-reaching research partnerships that were recently awarded large grants by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
For a progress-minded society, strong research universities are where progress begins.
Over the past two years, I had the opportunity to contribute to a special committee, struck by the U.S. National Research Council to report and give recommendations to Congress on the state of America’s research universities. I was the only non-American on this committee. Everything we reported about the relationship between research universities and the U.S.’s economic growth is even more significant in Canada.
More and more nations are recognizing the value of research universities. They’re building their own institutions with impressive speed and major investment and they are competing with McGill, other Canadian universities and the great American universities for the world’s best students and professors. There is no way to sugar-coat this: McGill performs well but it is significantly underfunded. There are universities in the American Top 15 that are similar to McGill in size but with dramatically higher revenue–and they’re struggling financially. We’ve held our own until now, but maintaining our current position as a top of league institution is not a given. To compete in the global economy, Canada must have at least a few universities that consistently rank in contribution and reputation, with the very best in the world.
As I write this, significant new regulatory and reporting requirements are being layered on top of old ones. The resulting bureaucratic burden serves to restrict agility and to hamper our ability to fulfill our mission. As the OECD and others have noted, educational institutions do not flourish with unproductive regulatory barriers. These barriers must be eliminated. And, yes, the autonomy necessary for optimal productivity and quality comes with responsibility to be accountable. McGill respects society’s investment by improving the quality, productivity, and innovation of our teaching, research and scholarship, along with improved cost efficiency and transparent accountability.
If the coming years are to be characterized by a single word, it is “sustainable.” This refers as much to what we’re working on–from building the progressive hi-tech classrooms that will best engage bright minds, or the advanced fuels that will light tomorrow’s cities. Thirty-three percent of McGill’s downtown buildings predate the Second World War; these historical treasures, and other fading infrastructure, require major investment. At the same time, renovating these older buildings provides a unique opportunity for renewal. I applaud the efforts of our governments to help McGill and others upgrade our facilities. Kudos also to McGill’s outstanding Facilities Operations and Development team, for their continued efforts to create a McGill where we can all study and work in an energy-conscious and reduced-waste environment. By investing $35-million in the restoration of historic Wilson Hall, the Quebec government showed its commitment to ensuring that McGill’s nursing and social work students–some 1,000 strong, and more than 80 per cent from Quebec–begin their service to society with the best possible preparation. This year also saw the completion of a $103-million overhaul, funded by the federal Knowledge Infrastructure Program and the Quebec government, that transformed several buildings in terms of both work-flow and energy use.
Student-centred education is central to our mission. Research-intensive universities also have a mandate to educate the next generation of critical thinkers, knowledge-creators and global citizens. At McGill, this means making strides in student counselling, as evidenced by the creation of the Staff-Student Mentoring Program, which complements traditional academic advising by pairing students with dedicated academic and administration staff.
This year saw the addition of important new voices in the leadership of McGill. Dr. David Eidelman has a wealth of experience as a clinician, a scientist and the Chair of McGill’s Department of Medicine–all of which he brings to his new role as McGill’s Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) and Dean of Medicine. Also, Michael Di Grappa, who was recently recruited as Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance), led his team through an exciting year of infrastructure renewal, labour negotiations and the implementation of new cost-cutting procedures.
Of course, conversations are not confined within McGill’s walls, nor should they be. The socially innovative Quartier de l’innovation project, a McGill-École de technologie supérieure partnership to reimagine an under-utilized part of downtown Montreal as a mixed-use “living laboratory” of creativity and innovation, took another step closer to reality this year. This “big picture” initiative benefiting citizens, students, researchers and businesses received more than $1-million combined from the federal, provincial and Montreal governments for preliminary studies. We are gaining a deeper appreciation of the myriad ways our students, staff and faculty engage with communities other than our own. It’s no secret that McGillians work hard to reach out to the larger community–academically, athletically and through volunteerism–and the vast extent of these efforts is a source of constant encouragement to me. There were many high profile achievements this past year, such as McGill students raising the most money for Rick Mercer’s anti-malaria Spread the Net campaign, or our Redmen hockey team capturing their first national championship in 135 years. There were also equally worthy, yet unsung, McGill stories, like the Toward Health program, which connects Faculty of Medicine students with at-risk Montreal teens to build a personal relationship with learning. Below the radar or on the front page, the McGill community time and again proves its commitment to bettering the world.
Whether I’m in Brazil, where this year a group of colleagues, and I represented McGill in Canada’s largest higher education mission (led by Governor-General, and former McGill Principal, David Johnston), or China, I’m heartened to hear that McGill’s reputation has never been stronger. It is thanks to our community’s hard work and dedication to high achievement that McGill again earned its place in the top 28 of the 2011 Times Higher Education World University survey, and 17th in the 2011 QS World University Rankings.
We know that challenges lie ahead, and we are preparing for them. There is work underway and more to be done. And this work is laying the foundation on which McGill is building its future. It starts with something as fundamental as improving our communication thanks to a major redesign of our website. The coming year will see the launch of both a new Strategic Academic Plan and a new Strategic Research Plan designed to ensure that the University has the resources, quality and focus to lift McGill’s unique areas of strength to even greater heights. This year will see the implementation of new initiatives resulting from the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement. We will continue to ensure and enlarge accessibility for the best students in Quebec, across Canada, and the world, as we push for a funding system that offers autonomy and rewards quality and performance. At all times we will respect the fundamental value of academic freedom. As well, we respect the importance of free expression and peaceful assembly while never losing sight of the responsibilities that come with these great freedoms.
It is a gift to live in times of great change. Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford came of age during a revolution in basic science, and by testing, and then championing, new ideas they set their shoulders against the frontier of ignorance and pushed it back a few yards. This is what a great university does. And, if we push hard enough, the frontier moves. This past year saw challenges worldwide and at McGill. This past year also saw learning and growth and continued progress and success. McGill is asserting its place. Together we are building the McGill that will address the challenges of tomorrow. Together we are positively shaping our communities today.
Principal and Vice-Chancellor