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Pride and excitement are in the air these days at McGill as the Spring 2004 Convocation ceremonies get underway. But it is not just the 5,850 graduating students and their families and friends who are feeling that way.
McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum is also feeling a deep sense of pride -- pride in what the graduates have accomplished at McGill and will go on to achieve in their lives, and a deep sense of pride in the rich and unique experience that McGill strives to offer its students.
"This is an amazing place," said Munroe-Blum, referring to the diversity and quality that characterizes McGill as Canada's best-known and finest university in so many ways. McGill has the best and the brightest students, faculty and most devoted staff faculty and provides a remarkable learning environment in one of North America's most vibrant and exciting multicultural cities, she said. It is Canada's number one research university, it's ranked in the top echelon of the Maclean's survey and the Princeton Review reported recently that McGill has the most international student campus in North America.
"If you ask people in Asia, in Europe, in the States, in South America, in the Middle East to name a Canadian institution, McGill would be the institution that would fall most easily from their tongues. That's fantastic. And my goal is to make sure that continues to be true in the future and that we continue to grow our reputation and our strengths."
On top of McGill's impressive history and record of achievement, Munroe-Blum said she's impressed by how "everybody here works very hard and there is an extraordinary high quality and dedication of faculty and staff."
"It's been a very full year for me and I have felt welcome. People have been very generous," she said. Within all the hard-working and talented people at McGill, there is a "sense of shared ambition and a very big team spirit."
"Simply put, we want to be the best recognized, highest-impacting, public research–intensive university in the world.
"The fact that McGill has accomplished so much, and continues to do so with constrained resources, is a reflection of the quality here, and of our potential. If we compete, we win. If we participate, we're recognized. If we reach out to attract the best, we succeed."
Academic renewal is one of the most exciting initiatives for ensuring McGill's future, said Munroe-Blum. Under McGill's 10-year academic renewal program, the university is hiring the brightest minds from around the world to add strength to its already very accomplished faculty. Last year, McGill hired 121 new faculty members from 35 different countries. Academic programs are continually being updated and improved. A new Arts and Science degree has been given the go ahead, an example of McGill's increasing focus on interdisciplinarity.
In the face of the many positive facets of McGill, there are many challenges and many opportunities, said Munroe-Blum.
The university has to improve services to students and is taking steps to do so, with the help and support of all our staff. Last year's addition of a student residence is a major step in the right direction. It is not easy given limited resources, but it is essential that McGill continue to do more for our students as the university moves forward, she said.
"We all want to advance the services and support of students, so that not only is McGill a great place to learn, but also a great place to be. The recruitment, admission and enrolment processes must be well supported and increasingly smooth, and McGill must build financial support for students who need it. These are really overriding considerations for me."
Funding issues are a major focus for the principal, who has been a leading voice on the public stage, including at Quebec's legislative committee hearings on university funding, accessibility and quality in February. The Quebec university network is underfunded by more than $375 million compared with Canadian average funding levels and, making matters more difficult, McGill is underfunded compared to its peers within the Quebec system.
Munroe-Blum said adequate funding is urgently needed and there must be greater support from among governments -- both provincial and federal -- students and private donors.
Better funding for research is also essential, not only for the physical and life sciences but "we're also reaching out to foundations, for example in the U.S., particularly for support to the humanities and social sciences.
"One of McGill's great strengths is its humanities and social sciences. They're wonderful programs." Munroe-Blum cited as examples history professor Brian Young's successful Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council proposal for a project on Montreal modern citizenship, and Paul Yachnin's innovative Shakespeare lab. "These are great initiatives."
Munroe-Blum said that McGill has been too modest and must do a better job communicating its success stories and accomplishments, and in conveying its mission and vision to local, national and international communities. It also has work to do within Quebec, both in terms of continuing to forge effective academic and research partnerships, providing more information to the community about these and in building relations with the community, the government and with a range of other Quebec organizations.
"It is important that Quebecers know about McGill, see it as their university and see and build on the tremendous potential that McGill and Quebec have together," she said. "We must be part of the solutions."
Munroe-Blum has lots to say when it comes to talking about McGill people and what she admires and likes about McGill.
She was wowed by the staff-led initiative to raise money for Centraide involving dozens of tireless volunteers. They surpassed their goal, raising $290,000 -- a real achievement in a tough financial year. Munroe-Blum said she admires this kind of commitment to community.
She is delighted at the results of the efforts to beautify the campuses.
She relishes the collegial interaction at McGill, even the scrappy moments. "I love Senate! I had never attended a senate meeting before becoming principal because I came from a unicameral government system."
Munroe-Blum sees it as a forum for "real engagement. People care, and that's fantastic! There's a great sense of permission to debate, to have different points of view, and that's what universities are all about."
Before Munroe-Blum rushed off to her next appointment, I asked how she stays so energized with so many tasks and great aspirations?
"I say virtually every day is a rich and full life, and I welcome it and embrace it. The challenge is how to set priorities amongst so many worthy choices.
"I have a wonderful team. The other part of it is that McGill is a special place. There aren't many places where you can work for a great public cause and be surrounded by dedicated, interesting and talented people doing fascinating work.
"There is a lot to be proud of -- and, a lot to achieve."
Graduating McGill students won't be the only ones honoured at convocation this spring. Principal Heather Munroe-Blum will be receiving an honorary doctorate from l'Université de Montréal on May 28 in a special ceremony celebrating their 125th anniversary.