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It is entirely fitting that the McGill Reporter got in front of Johanne Pelletier just minutes before she was to make her entrance at another convocation ceremony. As Secretary General, one of her many tasks is to oversee the planning and delivery of Convocation. It is a role especially dear to her heart; she earned her MA in Art History and Communication from McGill just last year. Decked out in her Convocation robes, Pelletier spoke graciously about everything from trying to demystify university governance to protecting the McGill brand and learning to drive in front of auction goers.
You've been Secretary General for a year-and-a-half now. What successes stand out most?
There have been a few things that we are really proud of. First, there's the creation of an organizational chart of the university. It sounds simple, but it's an important tool to get people to understand how things work here. As well, we've done some exciting work with our web communications group, getting more information out to the community as to exactly what is governance and administration. We're still working on Board and Senate reviews with the goal of reforming and modernizing our governing structures.
You've been called outspoken, yet your job description requires you to be a paragon of impartiality. How tough is it to balance the two?
I don't see them as incompatible. I think my job is to be the protector of an office that is associated with impartiality; to provide a venue where due process can be carried out; and to be a person of principle. I think you can be outspoken and still have principles and do so in a fair and just way.
How difficult has it been to make more transparent our sometimes opaque bureaucracy?
We've had a number of orientation sessions for new staff—academic and non-academic staff. It's been terrific I try to give a reductionist view of what is the administration and governance and why we have the Board and the Senate.
We had some great feedback from more senior staff who sat in on some of the sessions. They claimed that, in their 20 years at McGill, they've never heard a clearer explanation of what the Board and Senate do.
Why is this transparency so important to our academic mission?
It's just good governance and good administration. I think it's essential for every employee at the university to know who and what they work for; how structures work; what policies we have and how they work; who makes the decisions on things like budgets and infrastructure; what our campus looks like now and into the future; what our academic mission is; and, of course who we teach and what we teach. It doesn't mean that every employee has to know the minutiae, but I'd love it if, at the very least, the community understood that the Board occupies itself with infrastructure and Senate is at the core of what drives all academic matters.
Does this filter down to the students as well?
I think these questions also resonate deeply for students—especially student leaders.
You've seen Convocation from both sides of the platform. Is it still exciting for you?
There is a moment that is always very moving for me—when the platform party enters the tent. On one side there are hundreds of anticipating parents with cameras poised. They're smiling and looking very emotional—perhaps their first time being involved in a medieval tradition. On the other side, there are the students, who often are a little nervous. But even for the most cynical students who are dragged here by their parents, even they are moved when they cross the stage. I find that moment, the combination of the parents' faces and the students' faces absolutely wonderful. It catches me every time.
What is your fondest Convocation memory as a student?
My most recent one was last year, when I sat on the stage as Secretary General but got a second Master's degree. So many things came together to make it an extraordinary day, such as Will Straw, my first supervisor, being on the stage to receive a teaching award. Then I looked down and saw my family, including my 80-year-old mom in the front row—it was immensely moving.
How fun was it for the Secretary General to earn a degree?
[Laughing] I'm pretty sure I'm the only student who signed her own degree.
Organizing Convocation must take a Herculean effort.
It's a year-long effort that culminates in these seven wonderful days. I oversee the whole effort, but I have the luxury of having an extraordinary team led by Pauline Frixione. I get to come in when most of the work is done. It takes an enormous number of people to pull this off—groundskeepers, technical staff, the members of the senior administration, academic staff, student ushers, administrative volunteers...
How could you improve Convocation?
I'd like to get more academics involved. But that's for next year. And we're always looking for more volunteers to help out.
You are also the protector of the McGill brand and logo. What does that entail?
Well, it's not like I'm scanning buses or signs throughout the city to make sure everyone follows the trademark, but it is something we will be looking at with increasing interest.
How much protecting does the McGill brand need?
We want to really make sure that our brand is being used effectively. We also want to make it a more dynamic and current—the stylebook for the McGill brand and logo needs to be updated to create something that's going to really spark interest in a variety of communities. That's what we're about—moving forward and preserving the tradition we have here.
Is there anything about you that McGillians would be surprised to know?
I never made a living at it, but I did teach ballroom dancing. Long ago. [Laughing] My specialties were the fox trot, two-stepping and swing.
How good were you?
I competed, but I was always kind of mid-range. I was very proud of my consistency.
One of my first jobs as a teenager was driving cars at an auto auction, where I would drive cars through the auction block. I learned how to drive standard that summer, much to the chagrin of the owners who were trying to sell their cars. There was a lot of messy driving at first, but I eventually I got the hang of it.