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Friendly frisbee tosses and touch football games on lower campus may mark the beginning of classes, but they belie the seriousness and intensity with which McGill students, faculty and staff approach the coming academic year. As the nation's top-ranked research-intensive university, McGill is more than ever poised to build on its success. Recent academic initiatives, such as the joint Arts and Science degree (BASc), offer students unprecedented interdisciplinary opportunities and the Principal's Task Force on Student Life and Learning promises to further enhance the McGill experience. Amid the excitement, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum herself gives us a glimpse of what the upcoming year will hold.
Do you have a special message for new students and professors as the year gets underway?
First of all, congratulations on being accepted to McGill and welcome to our campus. You couldn't have chosen a better place to pursue your studies or a more exciting time to be here.
One of my big messages is "Get out beyond the obvious." If you're from Quebec, make an effort to meet people from the rest of Canada and around the world. If you're not from Quebec, make it your priority to take in the spectacular experience of Quebec culture outside the McGill ghetto.
On the academic side of things, there is no free lunch. We provide students with an unparalleled learning opportunity and we expect nothing less than excellence from them. And while academics are always our priority, I think the university experience should extend beyond the classroom. It's really important that students participate in some of our clubs and societies and make a contribution to the communities of McGill and Montreal.
McGill is a wonderful place to be. I urge our professors (new and long-standing), our students and our staff to reach out and experience the full range of opportunities and activities that McGill offers. I sincerely hope they embrace our ambition to keep our school positioned as one of the top universities in the world.
What are some of the exciting things that students and professors can look forward to this year?
Although the semester is just beginning, things are already in full gear. The results of the Principal's Task Force on Student Life and Learning are coming out shortly and some of the suggestions are already being realized. Our campus master planning is on-going; our academic white paper is being implemented; and, of course, the extraordinary renewal of the professoriate is in full force.
Has recruitment of new professors been successful?
It's very exciting. This year, we're welcoming 80 new professors, including a number of repatriated Canadians. Some have studied here and are now returning as professors; for others, this is their first time at our university. All have come here because of McGill's reputation and for the quality of our students and professors. I met with them at the recent orientation session for new professors and I was impressed by their energy and vitality, and by the high aspirations they have both for teaching and research. We're very proud of the fact that one of McGill's hallmarks is that our professors do both.
Last year, McGill received a number of major donations. Can you give us any insight on that pipeline?
Currently, we're hard at work preparing for the public launch of our capital campaign late in the spring of 2007. Our wonderful group of senior volunteers is entirely dedicated to the task and their work is already paying dividends. Although I can't go into details just yet, I can say that gifts are developing in virtually every faculty across the university.
Because medicine, engineering and business traditionally attract large donations, I'm particularly pleased that our first major gifts in the lead-up to the campaign have come in music, arts and management. As always, our aim is to continue to develop the interest of friends and alumni who have the financial capacity to make a significant difference in the quality of McGill's programs. These gifts are essential in supporting students at the undergraduate and graduate levels across the disciplines so that the university benefits as a whole.
As you know, we are underfunded as a university and it is remarkable how much we achieve with the funding that is at our disposal. Quebec's university system is financially disadvantaged compared to the rest of Canada and we're competing with the best in the world. As a result, we've had to become a lean, mean machine in terms of the quality of the work we do with money that is so scarce.
We depend on governments staying the course at the provincial and federal levels and we also depend greatly on our competitiveness with regards to research grants. Finally, McGill would not be McGill without our wonderful benefactor, James McGill, showing the way by endowing his estate to create the university. In our almost 200-year history, philanthropy has made a real difference in the quality of life at McGill.
Premier Charest recently announced $320 million in additional funding for post-secondary education over three years. You said it was a small but positive step. Do you expect to see any movement on the funding this year?
Premier Charest has said that education is his top priority but we simply have to see movement over the next 12 months from both the provincial and federal governments in terms of further investment in universities, university education, support for students and university research. Both myself and my colleagues at McGill, as well as the leadership at other Quebec universities, are working hard to figure out how best to deploy the $320 million that's been invested and also to explore ways to make the pool larger than it is.
Can you give us an idea of the recommendations that will come out of the Principal's Task Force on Student Life and Learning and how they will improve the quality of services at McGill?
The report is being finalized and the draft will be out for consultation in September or October. The final report will be issued in November. Earlier progress reports have highlighted student advising as a major area for improvement. Students at all levels want mentoring from professors and high quality advising from professional advisors who know the curriculum, not just in the faculty that the student is in but across the university, so they can make more informed choices.
Another pressing issue is financial support. While we fully endorse accessibility, our reality is that underfunding makes it very difficult to provide the level of student aid, support and scholarships that our university and, most importantly, our students deserve.
As principal, I am committed to being able to say that every qualified student will be admitted regardless of financial needs. But we aren't there yet. First of all, we must figure out how to best use the resources that we already have and put the money where it will make the greatest difference when it comes to supporting students. Second, we have to generate new resources to support our students.
Part of the incentive for me to create the task force was that we had no one person at the senior level within the university whose job was to be obsessed day and night with how to make this a great place for students. One of the recommendations of the task force was to create a deputy provost position that would fill that role. The provost has already appointed Mort Mendelson to that position. Professor Mendelson has been working closely with the task force all along and will continue to do so during the follow-up position.
Is this the most exciting time of year for you?
Absolutely. I drove onto campus this morning and smiled at the jumble of parents and students walking through campus — and the parents all looked more nervous than the students. The excitement in the air on both campuses at the beginning of each new year really is palpable. I feel very lucky. A person couldn't have a better job than mine, and what better place to be than McGill University?