Entre Nous with Robert Rabinovitch, Chair of the McGill Board of Governors

Entre Nous with Robert Rabinovitch, Chair of the McGill Board of Governors McGill University

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McGill Reporter
October 25, 2007 - Volume 40 Number 05
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 40: 2007-2008 > October 25, 2007 > Entre Nous with Robert Rabinovitch

ENTRE NOUS

with Robert Rabinovitch, Chair of the McGill Board of Governors

Presenting culture, promoting education, preserving a way of life

Caption follows

Robert Rabinovitch's extensive volunteer record has included board and executive positions on numerous organizations, including the Canadian Film Centre and the Charles Bronfman and Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundations.

Robert Rabinovitch is a busy man. The newly reappointed Chair of the Board of Governors of McGill and the President and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada, Rabinovitch provides leadership to two of Canada's most venerable and recognizable institutions. In 1964, Rabinovitch left McGill with a freshly minted BComm. After a lengthy absence from McGill, during which he earned an MA and a PhD in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania and held numerous federal government positions, including Deputy Minister of Communications and Under Secretary of State, Rabinovitch returned to his alma mater in 1997 when he was appointed to the Board of Governors. In an interview with the McGill Reporter, Rabinovitch discusses everything from Campaign McGill to the crucial role cultural activities play in society.

You graduated from McGill in 1964, but came back to the fold, so to speak, more than 30 years later. Why the reconnection?

I think what reconnected me to McGill directly was working with the Bronfmans on their donation to the 1992-93 campaign. I was on the Bronfman side negotiating the grant for the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and I got reacquainted with McGill and went on from there. In talking to people in the community I realized how everyone thought very highly of McGill.

How long have you been interested in higher education?

Ever since I was an undergraduate. I never ran for student office, but I headed up what was called the Education Committee. I was very, very involved with the francophone universities and the government of Quebec in terms of the role of post-secondary education and I did my master's thesis on the rate of return on the investment in education. For me, education is the single most important step in terms of getting people prepared to handle issues like poverty and inequality. Without education, we are in deep, deep trouble. Education underpins everything.

Speaking of return on investment in education, how important is the just-launched fundraising campaign to McGill?

It's absolutely crucial. The way the campaign is structured, with our focus on people—whether it is graduate fellowships, undergrad fellowships, hiring more professors, financing research—it is absolutely the right way to go.

It is critical for us to bring in the best possible professors, the best possible researchers and, of course, the best possible students. But it is one thing to hire new professors and another to keep them here. They have to be paid half-decently and they have to be assured that they will be able to conduct their research. You have to give the administration credit for going out and getting the very best people. Now it's our job to get the money so that they can actually get to work.

McGill has a fabulous brand recognized around the world, and when you have a good brand it gives you some flexibility. But once you lose the brand, you never get it back.

We're all proud of McGill's reputation, but the only way to maintain it is through the help of the private sector in terms of additional funding.

How do you see your role as Chair of the Board?

My job as chair is to coordinate and make the board function, to make the Board useful and make people on the Board feel like what they are doing is useful. As part of that, my job is to renew the Board from time to time, together with the Principal.

My second function is to act as a link between the lay members, who have given of their time and are quite involved, and management. If there's a problem, I expect Board members to talk to me about it and I will talk to the Principal and vice versa.

What do you mean when you say you must "renew the Board"?

What I set out to do with Dr Munroe-Blum was to rejuvenate the Board. Shrink it, as is going on now in boards within the private sector.

Historically, the Board has been much more quiet and much more formal. When you are 50 to 60 people around the Board table, nobody wants to be the hog, so you would ask one question, maybe two. But in a group of 25, members ask more than one question and they initiate debate. As a result, you can really go at issues.

With this management group and this principal, who is so open to discussion, it's become much more exciting.

It sounds like things can get a little heated in Board meetings.

[Laughing] We're too civilized to be heated—or too civil anyway. I wouldn't use the word heated but there are definitely disagreements. That's fine. It's funny, but we've almost never had to have a vote. At the end of it, we move towards a consensus or, quite frankly, we agree to take the item off the table and revisit it after we've given it more thought.

Isn't it hard to implement progressive policies by consensus?

Yes, but it just takes a bit longer. You have to be willing to take the time to foster debate and discussion. Otherwise people see it as a sham.

People often see consensus as opening the door for the lowest common denominator. That's not the case, providing leadership is strong. Building consensus does not mean that you don't know where you want to go and you're going to let others dictate what course of action you are going to take. Good consensus-builders have a sense of where they want to go and therefore can lead the discussion. But they are also flexible enough to move it if need be.

That's why, as the head of an institution, you have to have a strong sense of yourself. Take McGill for example. Research-oriented, student-focused—these are critical concepts but they aren't automatic. If that's what you are about, then you have to bring people along with you.

You have always been heavily involved in cultural institutions. Why?

My wife is the one who is really involved. I just tag along. [Laughing]

We're now in the era of globalization, open boundaries. There's no way to stop the foreign content from coming to this country, nor do we want to. That's the beauty—as a society we are open to other people and other cultures.

But it is at least as important that we respect our own culture, so that we're not just an appendage to someone else's culture.

How do we do that? We do it through our cultural institutions, we do it through development and training and teaching—McGill's music school plays a vital role in developing Canadian culture. CBC plays a vital role in presenting Canadian culture. But we can't present drama without a national theatre school or a Stratford, and well-trained actors and writers. We need the whole enchilada.

You put it all together and you get a large part of the soul of our nation, a defined culture for us to nurture and develop.

As a child were you interested in such cultural activities?

I was a kid like any other kid. I was interested in the culture of sports. [Laughing]

My parents, especially my mother, weren't involved in culture, they went to culture. The difference is both my wife and I are involved in culture. We aren't creators, we're managers. I always say to people, just because you're involved in culture, there's no excuse not to be as efficient as possible. Every dollar we have has to be stretched. So we need good managers.

But it also means we have to educate and expose our children to culture. My kids remember going to Stratford in Grade 10. They had a blast. The result? They now go every summer.

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Robert Rabinovitch's first job

My first summer job was teaching swimming and canoeing at camp. But my first real job was as an econometrician with the federal Department of Finance, a job I held while finishing my thesis. What did I get out of it? I quickly realized that I didn't want to become an econometrician. [Laughing]