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When Heather Munroe-Blum graduated from high school, McGill was her first pick as the university she wanted to attend. But family circumstances prevented her from heading back to Montreal, the city she was born in.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
It took a few decades longer than she planned, but Munroe-Blum will finally be arriving at the University next January, as McGill's 16th principal.
"My feeling is, 'McGill at last!'" says Munroe-Blum, who visited the University last week for a frantic round of media interviews about her next job.
The University of Toronto's vice-president for research and international relations, Munroe-Blum will become the first woman in the history of McGill to lead the University.
"There is no individual in Canada better equipped to become the principal of McGill University than Heather Munroe-Blum," says Robert Prichard, president of the Torstar Media Group.
Prichard was the president of the University of Toronto when Munroe-Blum became vice-president, an appointment that Prichard believes was one of the smartest decisions he made as U of T president.
"She has done an absolutely superb job," Prichard says. "Ask people at the University of Toronto [which senior administrator] works the hardest for them, and seven out of 10 will tell you, 'Heather.'"
Prichard says he first encountered Munroe-Blum when he was the dean of law at U of T. He was serving on a selection committee to appoint a new dean of social work. A colleague bent his ear about a terrifically bright former student, someone that Prichard ought to consider. The former student was Munroe-Blum.
"She didn't seem to fit the right profile at all," Prichard recalls. "She was young, she was an assistant professor, her academic appointment [at McMaster University] was in the health sciences, not social work." Still, Prichard persuaded the committee to sit down with her.
"She just blew us all away." She got the job "and worked like mad for the people in that faculty. She got them a new building. They loved her."
When it came time for Prichard, now the president, to oversee the hiring of a new vice-president for research and international relations, he knew he needed a go-getter.
"Ontario was mired in a recession at the time. It was a very tough period.
"We needed stronger provincial and federal support for research and graduate studies. We needed an articulate and convincing voice to make that case.
"I wanted to overtake McGill [then in top spot] in the Maclean's rankings, frankly. We had to improve on our research performance to do that."
Munroe-Blum got the job done.
In her time as U of T vice-president, funding support for the university's research programs doubled.
Part of that success is attributable to Munroe-Blum's efforts in ferreting out new funding opportunities. Part of it is due to her powers of persuasion.
In 1999, she was the principal author of "Growing Ontario's Innovation System: The Strategic Role of University Research," a report that outlined the benefits of university research to economic growth. Governments took notice.
"She connected some very important dots between building vital universities and establishing a strong economy," notes Maclean's editor-at-large Ann Dowsett Johnson, the woman chiefly responsible for the magazine's annual ranking of universities.
"She has been an extraordinarily good ambassador for universities," says Dowsett Johnston. "I think McGill has made an inspired choice."
Law professor Richard Janda served on the search committee that settled on Munroe-Blum as McGill's next principal.
"We clearly were of the opinion that one of the great challenges facing McGill is the need to improve on the resources that are available to it. The University needs to have a diversified set of resources that meets its ambitions. One of the things that impressed us the most is the success she has had on that front."
Pointing to the federal government's recent decision to give universities $200 million to help defray the indirect costs of their research, Janda says, "She played a leading role piloting that effort on behalf of the university network across Canada."
In meeting with members of the University community, Janda says the search committee was struck by "the concerns that were expressed about building morale and a sense of community at McGill. That concern was widely felt.
"That will be one of the first challenges she faces as principal of McGill. The committee was persuaded that this is a challenge that she can successfully take on."
For her part, Munroe-Blum says, "McGill is a Canadian treasure.
"Universities have never been more important to society than they are today. Economic development is dependent on knowledge and universities are an invaluable source of that knowledge."
Universities are also instrumental in terms of personal development, Munroe-Blum says. "Without higher education, people are curtailed in their ability to do what they are best suited to do in life."
In terms of research opportunities, one strategy she advocates for the future is to build on McGill's interdisciplinary efforts.
"There are wonderful opportunities for the humanities and social sciences to interact with the physical and health sciences," Munroe-Blum suggests.
"Take the whole area of bioethics. There are cultural and psychological dimensions to those issues as well as scientific dimensions.
"Or technology -- many people still don't use computers. Why not? What are the factors you need to look at when you design a new technology?" Munroe-Blum believes technologists could learn a thing or two from sociologists, psychologists, education experts and others as they design new systems.
In a recent interview with the University of Toronto Bulletin, Munroe-Blum says that U of T and McGill are in similar straits as leading research universities.
"They are both operating in circumstances where they're treated like every other university and are not sufficiently resourced to support their distinctive missions."
Munroe-Blum received bachelor of arts and bachelor of social work degrees from McMaster University, a master's degree in social work from Wilfrid Laurier University and a PhD in epidemiology (with distinction) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
As a researcher, Munroe-Blum is widely recognized for her epidemiological studies on personality disorders and other psychiatric conditions. Her work has been funded by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, Health and Welfare Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Health and other agencies.
She chairs the University Advisory Group for Industry Canada and serves as the vice-chair of the board of directors for Genome Canada. She was a member of the Prime Minister's Advisory Council on Science and Technology. She has been active on a wide range of boards and committees for the government, academe and the private sector.
"She is always a voice for the future," says Prichard. "She has great respect for what has been accomplished, but her view is that things can always be better. She isn't afraid to imagine boldly and then she works relentlessly to get there."
Munroe-Blum will finish up her duties at the University of Toronto in June and then take some time off. "I want to immerse myself in the French language. I've always wanted to be fluently bilingual."
She will be visiting McGill often in the months ahead. "I want to meet with faculty, students and other members of the community. I will be very much in learning mode."
She is grateful to Principal Bernard Shapiro for agreeing to extend his mandate for the rest of 2002 to allow her to have a smoother transition.
Munroe-Blum's husband is Genie Award-winning screenwriter Len Blum, whose movie credits include Meatballs, Heavy Metal and Howard Stern's Private Parts.
Their daughter Sydney is finishing high school and was contemplating applying to McGill. Now that mom's on her way there, her daughter isn't so sure anymore, Munroe-Blum says with a laugh.
"She is enormously proud," Munroe-Blum says. "Every one of her classmates wants to come to McGill. McGill is clearly the first choice."
Come January, Munroe-Blum will be doing everything in her power to convince Sydney's friends that they made the right pick.