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McGill has 11 faculties, numerous undergraduate and graduate programs, and an administration befitting a top-notch research-intensive university. The provost must define the university's academic priorities and coordinate them with other university operations, from finance to research. In March 2005, Anthony Masi, formerly deputy provost — and since 1979 a professor in sociology — became McGill's interim provost, after the previous provost, Luc Vinet, became rector at the Université de Montréal. Masi was, and remains, Chief Information Officer.
Q: In more and more universities, the role of "VP Academic" is being replaced by that of the provost. What responsibilities does the job entail?
A: The provost is a high-ranking university official whose responsibilities are primarily for the institution's academic programs — just as a VP Academic would be — but also for the allocation of resources to meet these academic priorities. Using a corporate analogy, if the principal is the CEO, the provost is the Chief Operating Officer. I work closely with the principal and the deans in setting the university's academic priorities as well as with the VP Finance and Administration to ensure budget and capital resources are allocated to meet those priorities. I coordinate with the VP Development to make sure that, where possible, we have private funding to meet those objectives that cannot be met with public money or tuition fees, and with the VP Research to verify that our teaching and research programs are integrated.
How does the university go about deciding what its academic priorities will be?
In 2003, we began to explore all of our academic programs and research activities with an eye toward changing how we establish academic priorities. We examined the priorities in other large publicly-funded research-intensive universities and, at the same time, asked our deans to define their faculty priorities. Then we looked for the intersections between faculties, assessed our strengths, and worked with deans to put together interesting and innovative academic programs and research directions that build on those strengths. The strategic paper we developed through this process will go before the Senate and Board of Governors in the fall.
What are the academic priorities that you defined through this process?
The priorities of the university involve ensuring excellence in the areas where we already excel and moving aggressively in some areas where we know we can make a difference. For example, we're developing the area of health and public policy, because we have great scholars converging on this field from the faculties of medicine, arts, law, social work, science and management, and from the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. The theme of citizenship, diversity and human rights is another priority that brings together many faculties. Law, management, arts, religious studies and education will certainly be involved. We've also got major developments in genomics and proteomics, nanoscience and technologies, and advanced materials, all bringing together scholars from engineering, science, medicine and dentistry. Some of the linkages are truly innovative: we have neuroscience researchers from science and medicine working with others in music, and through music to engineering.
What programs might exemplify these evolving priorities?
Program development takes place at the level of departments and faculties, although the senior administrative level is directly involved in helping coordinate these activities. There are also interfaculty programs. One exciting example is the interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts and Science.
The international academic community is very competitive in recruiting the best professors as well as the best students. If McGill is making these changes, what are other universities doing?
Two years ago, I began exploring the strategic plans of members of the American Association of Universities, which includes the most research-intensive universities in North America. I was disappointed by the apparent homogeneity of their attempts to come to terms with who they are, and thought McGill should emphasize the distinctive contributions it could make. We want to put our resources into those areas where there is going to be a benefit to society. This, in turn, enhances our reputation and our competitive edge in attracting the best scholars and students from around the world.
Where does this impetus for developing new academic priorities originate?
Bureaucratic structures can seem immutable, so to some people universities look the same as they did when Galileo was at Pisa, but change is inherent in everything we do. Professors innovate because they are always thinking about the next step of their research. For instance, we have people from arts, science, medicine and education working collaboratively at the Centre for Research on Language, Mind and Brain. They are continually pushing the boundaries and changing the nature of scholarship — and therefore the things we teach our students.
If what we teach has changed, has the role of a university education also shifted?
We're beginning to rethink some of the narrowness with which we approached specializations in the 1980s and early 1990s. University education is not a training ground for the labour market, but is extremely important for helping to shape the person you become. We have sometimes acceded to political pressures from legislatures, or student or employer interest groups, but the world changes too fast to train someone for a job. We can guarantee that people who get a university education are flexible and adaptable and know how to learn for the rest of their lives.