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Just minutes into my interview with François R. Roy, Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance), it is obvious he's the man in charge of McGill's purse strings, turning the tables and quizzing me about the McGill Reporter's circulation, advertising-to-story ratio and, of course, its bottom line. And who better to take on the challenge of being the university's Chief Financial Officer and Chief Administrative Officer than Roy? His extensive experience managing complex financial and administrative files in the public sector includes stints as Director of Finance of the Société générale de financement du Québec, Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice-President at Quebecor Inc. and Chief Financial Officer at Télémedia. However, in this interview, Roy reveals that his passion for the arts runs as deep as his love of a balanced book.
As VP (Administration and Finance), yours must be one of the most complex portfolios at McGill. What is your mandate?
I'm not sure that I agree with your assertion that this is one of the most complex jobs. If you take our professors, for example, I consider it much more difficult to be shaping the minds of our students than managing McGill's finances or looking after the administrative aspects of university life. We're all part of a team, we all face the same issues and challenges and I'm just trying to contribute as a member of that team.
My mandate as Chief Financial Officer is to make sure the finances of the university are in as good a shape as they can be and that the financial resources are used efficiently. In my role as Chief Administrative Officer, I supervise University Services and Human Resources and make sure we optimize our resources that are not financial resources – human resources, real estate and the like.
You were appointed June 4, 2007. How have the first nine months gone?
It's been great. Going into this, everyone knew I was not familiar with the academic environment and, in the past, this position has always been filled by an academic. The process I went through before being hired was very extensive. I wanted them to know exactly what they were getting in me and they, on the other hand, wanted to ensure that I knew exactly what I was getting into. That very thorough process has led to no surprises for me and, hopefully, no surprises for them [Laughing].
Coming from the private sector, what are some of the biggest challenges you face in the academic milieu?
You know, people helped prepare me for this so well that, honestly, I have had no major challenges or disappointments. It's been very, very enjoyable so far.
In that case, what are some of the pluses you've found working here?
The biggest plus is the joy in working with intelligent people, committed people, people who work here because they share a passion for higher education.
Some people seem to have this image of McGill rolling in money. What is McGill's financial status?
McGill, like most of its peers in Quebec, has lost money for several years. Our accumulated deficit – which is the sum total of yearly deficits – now stands at $58 million. Last year, we lost $17 million in operations and our budget for this year is around a $15-million loss.
This situation is not unique to McGill. Most universities in Quebec lose money. When we compare ourselves to some other research-intensive universities in the province, our total accumulated deficit isn't as bad. Still, a $58-million deficit is a big number and it has to be dealt with.
What are the repercussions of operating at a loss?
Not only are we operating at a loss, but the provincial government has given us three years to remedy the situation and reach a break-even situation. The implications of this are that we have to do more with less.
McGill has a great reputation worldwide and that's because we have so many committed people who punch above their weight and get big results with fewer resources.
But how difficult is it to punch above your weight for an extended period of time?
It is difficult. The university system in Quebec is underfunded and we make daily representations to our funders to change that because at a certain point you run out of breath and get tired.
Will some of the funds raised during Campaign McGill be earmarked to address our deficit?
When donors give money to the University, they like to endow it and put it to a very specific use. Our policy has been to distribute for university operations five per cent of the total money endowed every year. So if we raise an additional $500 million as part of this campaign, there will be $25 million more recurring yearly for university activities.
Campaign McGill will help, but it certainly is not the solution to the ongoing deficit.
What needs to be done to help the situation then?
In the past, Quebec universities received more money from the government than those in other provinces. This is no longer the case. We're hopeful that the government will raise its contributions to the levels of past years.
For McGill, there aren't too many ways to deal with a deficit. You either increase revenues or reduce expenses or have a combination of the two. We're looking at ways to raise revenues where we can and, as opposed to cutting expenses across the board, selectively cutting expenses that should not be incurred. The key is in controlling the increase in expenses.
I'd imagine that either option is a tricky thing at McGill.
Exactly. Increasing revenues in the university context has to be done very carefully because you want to make sure that you continue to offer the quality that you are known for. It has to be done within certain guidelines. The mix of students – the mix of undergrads and grads – is important and can possibly be tweaked.
As I mentioned, there are expenses that should be cut and will be cut. That's the only way to get this university back on track financially.
I understand you are an avid supporter of the arts. Where does that come from?
Support is a big word. I love the arts. Music is the most important thing in my life. I guess it comes from the realization that one has to feed one's soul. When I accepted this job I told people that life had prepared me for this and in a way, my long-standing love of the arts contributes to my enjoyment of McGill and understanding how this place works.
In what way?
Dealing with the intellect, as you have to in the university environment, requires a certain sensitivity. Whereas I'm the CFO and should be good with numbers, I think I need to have a sensibility for other matters that are qualitative, not quantitative. I think I've developed my brain along those lines all my life thanks to music and the arts.
What kind of music?
For publication? [Laughing] I love classical music, but mostly the opera of the Germanic repertoire.
Have you seen any Opera McGill performances?
No, but I have seen them rehearse at the Schulich Building.
It's quite a building, isn't it?
Very impressive. McGill has done very well over recent years in renewing its real estate with very interesting buildings which will serve its mission for years to come. That's one of them. There's also the Bellini Life Sciences Building, the Trottier Building, the Genome Building – we're very careful about that and do it extremely well.