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With spring convocation ceremonies upon us, it is a time to celebrate our graduates, to reflect on the past academic year and look ahead to the future. For McGill itself, 2004/2005 has been a year of transition and strategic academic planning. McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum talked to The Reporter about the year, what lies ahead and her perspective on McGill's convocation ceremonies.
Q: The 2004/2005 academic year has included some major items like ongoing academic renewal, the launch of a Task Force on Student Life and Learning and the continuing development of a Master Plan for the physical development of McGill — to name a few. What's your priority for the year ahead?
A: Staying the course with these initiatives and the momentum that has been created. A transition affords a great opportunity to build on the strengths of those who have come before, including those who have completed their terms and are stepping down from leadership positions across the university. Transition offers the opportunity to take up the challenge of doing even better. We can build further on the great intellectual and academic strengths of the university. That means helping our professors, including the 100 new professors a year that we recruit and ensuring that they are well supported and well positioned to use their talents. It means welcoming our new students and supporting them, not just in their intellectual growth but in all dimensions of student life and student learning. From the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, I would like to see recommendations and plans that will make a concrete difference in the life of our university. The campuses' Master Plan will ultimately make us more integrated with the surrounding community. In the highly competitive environment in which we operate, we have to recognize that the status quo isn't good enough. We need a deep engagement and broad collective initiative to keep us moving forward, or we risk falling back.
Q: During the Dorothy Killam Memorial Lecture last October, you spoke of McGill ranking with "the very best public research intensive universities in the world." Are you encouraged that we're on the right track and making measurable progress toward that goal?
A: Yes. I think it's the right ambition for McGill and it's a reachable goal over the next five to ten years. We've had tremendous recognition of our academic and scientific strengths through our recruitment and the national and international prizes attracted over the past year. The one thing I would add is that our goal is to be in the top ten research-intensive student-centered public universities in the world. The idea of being ‘student-centered' is very important because it is the interaction between the superb quality of our research, the quality of our students and the education we offer that is a distinctive contribution of McGill. I also said in that speech that we "stand on the shoulders of giants" and that goes back to the idea of maintaining momentum. The international reputation, profile and quality of McGill is something other institutions can only dream of. It's a very precious stewardship responsibility and we want to be worthy of it. Our goal is the right goal — it can be expressed in a hundred different ways but it's the right level of ambition for McGill.
Q: What about the financial challenge of reaching this goal?
A: The fact is that McGill has always excelled in spite of constrained resources. Money is not the end, it's the means to sustain excellence and to grow the overall quality of the university. Yes, our goal has to be to grow the total pie of our resources but we also need to enhance the leveraging of our resources. The money that comes in from the Quebec government has to be leveraged against the research awards that we win in competition at the national and international level and, of course, at the same time we need to grow our philanthropy very dramatically.
Q: Are you looking forward to convocation ceremonies?
A: Yes! Convocation is a huge time in the life of the university and the lives of our students and their families. First and foremost, I want to say ‘congratulations.' It's the culmination of a journey not only for our students but for their family, for the community, for the institution as a whole and it reflects the public face of the hard work that's accomplished on the part of the students, staff and faculty. It's a joyful occasion and I love it. People say ‘How can you do 12 or 14 convocations?' For me, every one is a special event and every student who walks across the platform walks with a sense of accomplishment and anticipation of what comes after graduation. Each student is special. I'm particularly thrilled that we're having convocation on the lower campus again. I thought last year, rain or shine, it was a spectacular bringing together of our history, ritual and tradition along with an embracing of the community in Montreal and a very optimistic, upbeat sense of looking to the future as well. I'm so looking forward to it.
Q: What's your message to the graduating McGill students reaching this milestone in their lives?
A: I tell graduates to take care of themselves; to use what they have learned here, and what they've become as adults, to make a difference in the world and not to be afraid to act or question the way things are. If they come away from university only understanding how important the world of ideas is, then that, in itself, is a great achievement. Coming away prepared to act on their ideas is even better. And, last but not least, I want them all to remember their alma mater and to stay in touch.