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Every fall at McGill, new faces, new ideas and a new spirit of discovery come together to bring vibrancy to our campuses, and the 2004-2005 academic year is shaping up to be a particularly exciting one for staff, faculty and students. In a recent interview, McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum spoke about initiatives in the coming year to build on McGill's unique strengths, and outlined her vision and goals to enhance the university's standing into the top ranks of the world's public research-intensive universities.
After 18 months as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill, what are your impressions and how do you like the job so far?
It's fantastic. McGill is a wonderful and distinctive university and Montreal is a great city. We have enormous strengths, outstanding faculty, students, staff, and alumni; and we also have the potential and opportunity to build on our strengths to achieve and contribute much more. That is what I find most exciting about McGill — working closely together with faculty, staff and students at McGill to enhance the learning environment, the student experience and McGill's world standing among public research-intensive universities.
I understand that a reporter called you this summer in relation to your name emerging as a potential candidate for the presidency of University of Toronto. What was your response?
I told her unequivocally that I have unpacked — heart, mind and soul — in Montreal and at McGill. In short: I love it here and there is no place on earth that I would rather be. The future is here.
What's first on your agenda as the 2004/2005 academic year gets underway?
It's a simple message but it's a crucial one. I want to start the year by recognizing the talented people at McGill and their achievements and by welcoming them back to this remarkable university. I also want to extend a special welcome to the new students and faculty from Quebec, from the rest of Canada, and from 150 countries around the world. This is a great place to be for talented professors, outstanding students and dedicated staff.
What are your major challenges in the coming year?
There are four major areas: One; enhancing the student experience and continuing to improve the learning opportunities, support and services we provide our students. Two; renewing and building our distinctive academic and leadership strengths in faculties and at the academic administrative level. Three; improving our infrastructure. Four; enhancing our financial situation to redress serious underfunding and get us more in line with peer public universities in Canada and the United States.
That's a tall order. Let's start with improving services and support for students. What's the objective and what can we expect?
First, I want to emphasize that we're on the right track. There have been major improvements in how the university welcomes and integrates new students. For example, we have the new residence to further accommodate first-year students who wish to stay in residence, ID card wait times were virtually non-existent this year due to extended hours in August and weekend service during the residence move-in period. Increased staffing levels to respond to student inquiries — on the phone, on the Web and at the front desk — have made the start of the year a positive experience for newcomers and returning students alike. And there is more to do. Work will continue on providing better coordination among student service offices, improved web self-service options and a user-friendly, paperless admissions process. In 2004/2005, McGill will build on these successes and do more. Very shortly, we will be announcing an initiative to consult with students, staff and faculty about how we can enhance further the learning and service environment and student experience.
What do we mean by "building distinctive academic strengths" and how will McGill approach this?
Building academic strengths is about making informed choices about where we want to take McGill in the future. This is a key initiative that allows the university to allocate time, effort and resources to areas in which McGill is especially well positioned to offer teaching and research programs that compete with the best in the world. Based on an extensive academic planning process led by the Provost and Deputy-Provost with deans, chairs and department heads, McGill is finalizing a solid plan to build on our academic strengths and areas of excellence. Also, we have embarked on a search for new deans in the faculties of Science, Management, Medicine, Agricul-ture and Environmental Sciences, Engineering and Dentistry. As is the case every five or 10 years, when talented deans step down, there is a period of transition, and an opportunity for renewal and building for the future.
Last year McGill hired 121 new faculty members from 35 different countries. What can we expect in terms of faculty renewal this year?
This year, McGill welcomes 104 new faculty and I have had the pleasure of meeting many of these enthusiastic and talented individuals. Some are recruited back to Canada and Quebec; others are choosing McGill over positions elsewhere around the world. In this time of uniquely fierce global competition for talent, we are very proud of our colleagues — both those newly recruited and those who have made McGill their professional home for some time. This is part of the university's 10-year academic renewal program to recruit the best and brightest.
How does "timely communication and information sharing" affect faculty and staff at McGill?
Faculty, students, and staff need up-to-date information about issues and initiatives at McGill. This is key to good decision-making, cooperative initiatives and teamwork. For example, a monthly feature in The Reporter called McGill Matters will carry news and updates about activities of interest to all employees. The Principal and all Vice-Principals will also be regularly providing information on issues of importance and relevance to McGill in interviews — like this one — with The Reporter. The university will take a decidedly proactive approach to sharing success stories, profiles and events with audiences inside and outside McGill. We have been perhaps overly modest in that regard — we aim to change this.
What elements are included in partnership and performance?
Our goal is for McGill to work strategically, cooperatively and accountably to achieve our goals — whether it's within the university or with the public, external institutions and partners. With the arrival of the new Vice Principal (Inter-Institutional Relations) Janyne Hodder, McGill is well positioned to build and enhance partnerships across the province. This is important for successfully identifying areas of mutual interest and cooperation with Quebec institutions and to leverage McGill's reputation and name among all Quebecers — English, French and others. Partnership and performance are equally important within the university and we value and will continue our important work on upgrading management and extending performance dialogue so that working together is easier, more efficient, allows more opportunity for personal and program development and is effective. The role of all our support staff is particularly important in this regard. We are also beginning, through our academic planning exercise, to strengthen academic benchmarking against peer programs and institutions.
We know that Quebec universities lag dramatically behind the Canadian average in funding. How do we change that imbalance and obtain the funding that McGill needs to thrive in the future?
The current situation is untenable and unacceptable. We simply cannot sustain quality or accessibility without more competitive levels of funding. We must be increasingly vocal and constructive about this issue through lobbying, networking, formal links with government, putting forward possible solutions and growing a strong, positive public profile. Quebec universities including McGill urgently need a funding framework which promotes a leadership role in teaching, research, innovation, administration and infrastructure support. One that adequately invests in the knowledge economy and a healthy, civil society. This is crucial to our future, and to the future of all Quebecers. At the same time, under the leadership of Nancy Wells (Vice Principal Develop-ment & Alumni Relations), McGill is in the process of planning for the next capital campaign to augment funds for our academic priorities. Government funding and university capital campaigns are both critical pillars for McGill in the 2004/2005 year and beyond.
Any final thoughts about the year ahead?
This is a wonderful time to be at McGill. The strengths and achievements of its people — in all areas — resonate around the globe. More than two dozen McGill students and former students have just returned from the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens participating as athletes, coaches or officials — and that's just one example. This is a university which represents the very best of Canada and Quebec — diverse, dynamic and dedicated. I invite every student, staff member and faculty colleague to join me in advancing McGill's standing into the top ranks of the world's public research-intensive universities and in bringing people and ideas together in the pursuit of world-class impact in our teaching, research and scholarship, and related service to society.