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"I can't think of anything finer in life than to lead McGill University," says Principal Heather Munroe-Blum. The new principal is as pleased as punch with her new position and, in the heady days leading up to her installation ceremony, she's happy to share her thoughts on the university, Montreal, and her family with the Reporter.
Photo: Owen Egan
Munroe-Blum, recently University of Toronto's vice-president, research and international relations and, before that, their dean of social work, believes that to work in higher education is "the highest calling."
The transition from Toronto to Montreal has been fairly smooth. Munroe-Blum is wowed by the "incredible warmth" of the McGill, Montreal and Quebec communities. "I joke, but it's true -- it's the biggest small town in the world. Everybody knows everybody and there's a strong sense of common cause in the people I meet and a shared sense of optimism about the future for Quebec and McGill."
The warmth has made it easy for her and her family to choose Montreal, although right now her husband, screenwriter Len Blum, and their daughter, Sydney, are staying in Toronto for a few months more. He's working on a script for an animated feature for Dreamworks, while Sydney finishes up her last year of high school.
"For the three of us the multicultural nature of Montreal is superb. The integration of cultures, the tolerance and the kind of expression of creativity is quite unique and reflects Montreal as a bridge between North American and European culture."
"There's no question the family sees this as an adventure." Munroe-Blum adores the city, which she was born in. Her husband spent part of his childhood here, and feels like he'll be returning home. "He hasn't watched hockey since he left Montreal!"
Although any young person would find the city's charms tough to resist, Sydney's off to University of Chicago's liberal arts program next fall. "I hazard a guess that if her mother weren't principal she might be coming to McGill. But she's as proud of me as I'm proud of her."
Munroe-Blum's mother would also be proud of her, were she still alive. "My mother wanted very much to go to McGill and actually won a scholarship. But her father didn't believe girls should go to university."
Our principal wanted to attend McGill as a student, but instead stayed close to home, going to McMaster University for an undergraduate in social sciences and social work. This was the early seventies, yet there was already an emphasis on innovative, interdisciplinary and community-based health care and professional development.
"I really thought the whole world was like that. It still serves as a benchmark for interdisciplinarity and for creativity in approaching community problems and public policy issues."
Despite being urged to go into medical school, Munroe-Blum was looking for a challenging graduate degree in research. McMaster had a new program in clinical epidemiology. "I took the first course and a penny dropped for me." She went on to do her doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Her doctoral supervisor Berton Kaplan, "a social scientist par excellence," will be at her installation ceremony March 10.)
The program prepared her well for her non-linear life course, she says, adding that her roundabout route is typical for those of her generation who "just assumed we'd get good jobs. We followed our interests, our passions, and had a strong sense of social responsibility."
Her notion of social responsibility arose out of her experience of having polio as a child. "That little microcosm of several years when I had acute problems related to polio, from being in a family without any economic means, to being cared for completely by the health care system, by having a volunteer who dedicated her time to my rehabilitation." A retired physiotherapist took in Munroe-Blum and, against the medical beliefs of the time, would pump her legs back and forth each day to keep up the muscle tone. Her mother was single at the time, and caring for a younger brother, so other volunteers helped out by taking the young Munroe-Blum swimming and to physiotherapy.
"Then benefitting from this incredible public education system that we have in Canada, all of that taught me how important it is to have a sense of common cause and community, to help people who aren't able to help themselves have access to opportunity and to reasonable education and health care."
Her mother remarried and had four more boys. "My mother was very strong minded, very smart and deeply curious. She read all the time. My strongest memories of family life were of her and my father debating the news of the week often on opposite sides -- literally and politically -- of the table. We grew up in a very literate environment. Not economically well endowed, but with a deep curiosity and a sense you could learn whatever you wanted to learn if you reached out."
Munroe-Blum has kept her love of literature, and likes to kick back with her family to relax. She's a huge Van Morrison fan, and has broad musical tastes (which her daughter keeps expanding further, she says)."But I grew up with my dad listening to big band music. I still love it and it has enormous resonance."
Munroe-Blum has received a lot of attention for being the first woman principal at McGill. "I'm not naïve at all to the challenges that women and other non-traditional groups, demographically, experience in moving into higher office, in the public sector or in the private sector. That said, I didn't think about being the first woman principal at McGill. It never occurred to me until the day my appointment was announced."
"What has surprised me, perhaps, is the enormous power of the symbolism of the appointment of a woman. From women in their 70s and 80s who have come up and taken my hand with both of theirs, with tears in their eyes, and said 'I never thought I'd live to see the day.'" Recently, a young student from Belgium approached Munroe-Blum, breathlessly, but utterly confident, asking "what do I have to do to become a principal?" Munroe-Blum told her "I think you're doing it! Just keep thinking that way and you'll get there!"
As well, "it's meant a lot to men who're really committed to McGill being not just part of history, but a very important part of the future for Quebec and Canada."
She takes the role of higher education seriously, and has thrown herself wholeheartedly into McGill, sometimes working up to 18 hours a day. To balance out her busy schedule, she's recently taken up doing a bit of yoga in the morning, and loves to walk. "I crave the time when I can be out in the country walking."
"Universities are about the development of talent and people," she says, as well as "the role of knowledge, ideas and debate in preparing people to contribute to social, cultural and economic dimensions of society."
"The principal product of a university is the quality of our graduates. All the other things are important but secondary to the preparation of people." For people to be driving forces in society, they must "have an understanding not just of life as it exists locally, but internationally"
McGill's local-to-global impact is one reason why she chose to work here. "The international reputation of McGill, its emphasis on international curriculum and international research networks; and its place in the heart of Canada -- historically, currently and into the future -- makes it the best fit for me."
That, and McGill's intensive research and scholarly production spread throughout all the faculty, which is, she adds, tops in Canada for competitively awarded research support. "I was proud of the record of accomplishment of my former institution and my colleagues, but the one indicator I always 'deep-sixed' when I did my reports was research." Nonetheless, our university needs reliable resources to follow through on its mission.
McGill's funding has been uncertain for decades, Munroe-Blum says of the university's cash-strapped status. Money must be raised to maintain and advance buildings and staff, and have internationally competitive levels of compensation for faculty and ample support for undergraduates, graduates and students in professional programs.
"We in Canada operate in a pretty lean, mean way, certainly [compared] against American competitors in the comprehensive research-intensive university cluster." McGill needs a diversified resource base and a strong commitment to public purposes, Munroe-Blum says. For funds, McGill will look to the governments of Canada and Quebec, philanthropy, and work on "a new development campaign to work with foundations and government agencies outside of Canada -- NGOs and the private sector. If you think about how strong our international programs are, there's a lot of opportunity to build partnerships," Munroe-Blum says.
These partnerships will also afford us the opportunity to share infrastructures and knowledge- and technology-driven networks, she says. This will help students get valuable research exposure, too, both in and out of the classroom.
"Yes, discoveries and technological breakthroughs and broad dissemination is very important, but even more important than that is the quality of education that students receive in a research-rich environment."
Teaching is a priority for Munroe-Blum. She hopes that hallmarks of the undergraduate experience at McGill will include smaller class sizes, more direct contact with tenure-stream professors, hands-on access to the research of faculty members across disciplines, and for students to be involved in their own research.
Recruitment of top talent is one of the main challenges facing McGill. "The professoriate around the world is aging. Births are declining and as the baby boomers start to retire there's a search going on for the very best in the world."
Although the opportunity is great for young academics, "it's very challenging from the institutional perspective. We attract outstanding students and we want to be worthy of them, have the best faculty we can offer and that means retaining wonderful colleagues and recruiting at an unprecedented rate."
Munroe-Blum has been bowled over by the dedication of McGill's non-academic and support staff through the university's rough times, and wants to ensure that everyone feels they can develop themselves fully.
"Given how loyal the faculty and staff of McGill are, having a special commitment to working with each group, to have professional development opportunities, mentoring opportunities, to have those who work with us exercise their talents fully is very, very important."
Despite the enormous challenges of her work, Munroe-Blum says "I feel optimistic in great part because of the dedication of my colleagues and the community to seeing this through with us, and the quality. That's our hallmark: Our past, current and future commitment to quality."