10 Lessons Over 10 Years

Prof. Heather Munroe-Blum
Mar. 11, 2013, delivered at the Canadian Club in Montreal

Video of the event/speech

I’m honoured to be able to speak with you one last time as Principal of McGill, before my mandate finishes at the end of June.

The past decade has been eventful. To put this period into perspective, when I began my term as Principal, Facebook didn’t exist and Montreal still had a baseball team.

The university system has undergone even more important changes, sparking a debate about the state of higher education, the likes of which have not been seen since the Quiet Revolution.

Today I would like to share with you 10 lessons that I’ve learned during my 10 years at McGill.

Lesson #1: Einstein was right, you can be in two places at the same time.

Don’t worry, you haven’t been tricked into a quantum physics lecture.

For close to 200 years, McGill has been a public university that belongs to all of Quebec. McGill is also an international university.

Over the past decade, I’ve seen first-hand the importance of the relationships that McGill has built around the world.

The talent that we attract — the collaborations we’ve built with institutions in the U.S., in Europe, in Asia, for example — all reinforce Quebec’s place in the global community.

In the days leading up to this year’s Summit on higher education, we heard people attempt to fit McGill into one neat category.

Are you Anglophone or Francophone? Québécois or Canadian? Has your family been here forever or are you a new arrival?

McGill is all those things, and to pigeonhole us as one thing diminishes our role in Quebec. More than half of our students come from Quebec. They are Francophones, Anglophones, First Nations and Allophones. Approximately 60% of our students speak French well; 38% grew up speaking it.

McGill brings the world to Montreal. That’s important. Today, in order to succeed locally, you also need to succeed globally.

Lesson #2: Great minds don’t think alike. In fact, they rarely agree.

When you bring together Quebec’s brightest minds with the world’s top talent — each person with their own experience, language and culture — you open the door to solving the world’s most complicated problems; in health, in sustainability, in food security.

Do these smart people agree on much? No. And that’s good.

In the quest for solutions, differing points of view are exactly what allow us to tackle problems from every angle. Diversity breeds innovation and enriches us culturally.

When the student next to you has survived a civil war, your human rights law class can’t help but be transformed. When you’ve spent four, six or 10 years learning and living with students from every continent, you’re comfortable taking your own turn on the world stage. It is through meeting and working alongside talented people from different backgrounds that students from Quebec increase their cultural literacy.

Exposure to different points of view is crucial for learning and progress. It’s true for our students. It’s true for our society.

Lesson #3: A good man is hard to find. He’s even harder to keep.

When I came to McGill, competition for professors was ramping up. We were seeing the end of the time when achieving tenure meant staying put until retirement. Today, talent moves and money talks.

Effective facilities, support services, bright and eager peers and protégés — these also talk. It’s hard to fault our professors — or technicians, or artists, or professionals in other fields — for listening.

Highly talented women and men know they have options to move just about anywhere in the world, and certainly everywhere on this continent.

It surprises me that some have argued recently that our universities don’t need more money because Quebec has a low cost of living: that Quebec universities can pay professors less, because that money has greater purchasing power here.

This is no bragging point. In addition, it’s simply not true.

The cost of living is lower in the Quebec regions than the Canadian average, but it is a fact that the large urban centre of Montreal, our ville de savoir, actually has a higher cost of living than many university cities elsewhere in Canada and North America. Then there is the small matter of Quebec taxes, which affect all Quebec professors no matter where in Quebec they live and work: A professor earning $80,000 pays about $5,000 more in taxes here in Quebec than in Ontario or British Columbia. So much for using a lower cost of living argument to excuse the underfunding of our universities.

Since 2000, McGill has hired more than 1,000 excellent professors — roughly 60% from outside of Canada — thanks in large part to federal programs like the Canada Research Chairs.

We don’t want to re-enter the brain drain of highly experienced women and men that Quebec and every province experienced in the mid-nineties. Every person sitting here knows that great people make the difference between the success or failure of an organization. We all want exceptionally well-prepared people in our universities, teaching our young, making the discoveries and offering the services that save lives, build economies, and create safe, civil and caring societies.

Lesson #4: This is not your grandparents’ university (even if it was).

During my first year as Principal, I mentioned at the Montreal Board of Trade, that “I lead one of the city’s major enterprises.” And I only knew the half of it then.

If the insular, ivory tower days of universities ever existed — they are over. The universities of 2013 are highly complex, multi-purposed organizations.

McGill employs 11,000 people and serves over 38,000 students. We’re one of the largest managers of real estate on the island. Our international students inject close to $400-million into the Quebec economy each year; McGill creates a return of 13 dollars for every one dollar the Government of Quebec invests, and our contributions in service and dollars grow each year.

Administrative costs at Quebec universities have also increased in the last 10 years. This is true. This growth is not, however, due to poor management; the percentage of Quebec administrative costs that is spent on salaries is only now at the Canadian average.

To meet the new and growing needs of students, professors, community partners and governments, universities have stepped up with increased services and innovative academic and professional programs.

As examples, the past decade has seen our universities embrace their digital promise, with powerhouse computers to support large-scale and distributed research networks. We are opening ourselves to exciting developments in teaching for both on-campus and off-campus learning, opportunities such as the new Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs, as they’re called).

Today’s students live with greater complexity and stress than our grandparents’ generation, or our own. Students require more academic advising, more counselling, more mental health services. Progressive technologies and services are also important. And none of this comes free.

Universities are evolving to respond to growing demands. This is not a problem, it’s progress. It’s to be celebrated.

Lesson #5: Today’s university is like a broken water main — it cannot be contained by campus gates.

Last month, 40,000 cubic metres of water erupted on Dr. Penfield, washing across our downtown campus. If you were nearby, you know now for certain that when McGill gets wet, Ste-Catherine Street gets pneumonia.

The flood was serious, but with a few weeks of round-the-clock work by our dedicated employees, a dry pair of socks and a fresh perspective, I could see McGill’s porous borders as a metaphor for the good ways that our universities now pour into, and over, the larger community. No isolation here. Community engagement reflects the new character of universities.

Our students, staff and faculty are proud citizens of Quebec. They’re committed to making our communities better. Year after year, they serve Centraide; they reach out to at-risk teens; they deliver specialized medical care to well over half of Quebec through our Réseau Universitaire Intégré de Santé (or RUIS) – notably with the highly-specialized expertise offered by our CUSM, of which we’re very proud.

And this spring, you’ll be hearing a lot more about the Quartier de l’innovation, a McGill-ÉTS partnership to reimagine an under-utilized part of downtown Montreal as a mixed-use “living laboratory” of creativity, education and development.

These are but a sample of the many contributions of McGill’s people to Quebec society.

In 10 years, I’ve watched the constructive relationship between universities and society change, from cautionary to “must-have.”

Lesson #6: If the sky is blue and sunny…bring an umbrella.

Over the past decade, education policy has been so erratic that Quebec’s universities can’t tell up from down — let alone whether to wear sandals or snowshoes.

The one consistency: Quebec’s universities are seriously underfunded. Yes, advances have been made, including those at last month’s Quebec summit on higher education. Yes, indexation of tuition is a step in the right direction. But it is a small step at a time when we should be racing, not walking.

Frankly, we all understand that the public pantry is empty. But major cuts mixed with mere tuition indexation is a poor choice for moving Quebec forward.

It’s time for us as a society to decide whether we sincerely value our youth and their education — and are committed to their success — or whether we’re satisfied just to say we do.

Lesson #7: Tuition is like sweatpants. One size most definitely does not fit all.

We like to believe that we are a progressive society. We would not accept it if all Quebecers paid the same tax rate — that would be profoundly unjust for those less well-off. The rich should pay more than the poor, right? Why then do we accept that everyone pays the same for tuition? Isn’t it unjust to ask families with lesser financial means to subsidize students who come from well-off families?

For the last 10 years, you’ve heard me talk about this and I’m going to repeat myself once again today, because it is so important. Our financing model is regressive. It is a flat tax. It does not help the integration of low-income students into university. Nor does it guarantee that they will graduate, simply because they have started university. In fact, it seems to do precisely the contrary.

The percentage of Quebecers who earn a university degree is less than the Canadian average and less than the OECD average. Tuition in the rest of Canada is higher than here, and at the same time, universities in the rest of Canada welcome more lower-income students than Quebec universities do.

Over the last few years, McGill increased its student financial aid from its operating budget by 500 per cent. One McGill student in four is the first in their family to attend university. That being said, I still cannot say today that every eligible student who wants to go to McGill can be supported to attend. And this, despite tuition that is the lowest in North America.

With higher tuition, we can redistribute our resources. We can properly help those who really need it. Studies show that sound policies to increase access to university are based on five pillars:

  1. Having parents, grandparents and societal leaders who value and encourage education and access to university;
  2. Greater support for student success at the primary and secondary levels;
  3. More generous financial aid programs for university students;
  4. Better services and support programs for students, once they have arrived at university;
  5. And, most importantly, the intensity of university studies: that is to say, an environment where students are immersed full-time in their studies.

If we want to raise the rates of access to university and raise our graduation rates, we have to attack these questions and stop treating tuition as a sacred cow.

Lesson #8: Nobody ever lay on their deathbed and thought, “I should have filled out more forms.”

Around the world, best practices in university governance favour increased autonomy. They favour implementing reporting processes that focus on results, not on increasing the number of forms and regulations and laws.

Results. That’s the real goal.

How do you get from here to there? That’s for the organization to decide with its governing bodies. That’s the beauty of autonomy: Know where you are going, figure out the path that works best for you, then show that you are achieving your goals, serving your mission.

The focus on results vs. paperwork changes the culture of an organization, moving it away from a bureaucracy to a nimble, entrepreneurial organization.

For one third of my time as Principal, I had the honour to serve as President of CREPUQ; I’ve seen how hard my fellow rectors work for education in Quebec, and how committed they are to improving operations that already run quite well.

Ten years has taught me that Quebec universities are responsible, they are transparent —and they have a proven track record of good decisions.

Lesson #9: Life is short. Lunch is even shorter.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend many presentations over the years, and I’ve learned that brevity is always welcome. So let’s move straight into my last lesson.

Lesson # 10: Pretending that something is not what it is, will not make it so. Facing reality is a good thing to do.

You may have noticed a theme in my reflections today: that is the theme of change. My learning has also taught me the importance of anticipating change, preparing for it, embracing it. To paraphrase the “addiction recovery” truism, the first step toward positive development is admitting that something needs to change.

Something. Needs. To change.

It’s time to step into the light, rub our eyes and take a hard look at reality. The world is moving. Change is all around us.

There is an uneasy tension running through Quebec today. How do we respect our traditions, yet still evolve? Can we reinvent ourselves, yet stay true to who we are?

We can continue to serve the values reflected in the Rapport Parent of 50 years ago, but only if we move out of our grandparents’ house, only if we choose actions that reflect the realities of the world of today.

In conclusion, I’d like to end by speaking briefly about how another jurisdiction nearby is preparing itself.

Last year, a U.S. National Research Council (NRC) panel warned its Congress that America’s great research universities are in grave danger, unless government and industry take immediate action to ensure adequate, stable funding.

Here I’ll quote Charles Holliday, Jr., the Chairman of the panel: “U.S. research universities are our best asset for building prosperity and success in the future.”

Noting that the U.S. has the most highly regarded universities in the world, the NRC panel nonetheless laid out a 10-point action plan for strengthening its most valuable societal asset. It urged the U.S. government, for example, to adopt stable and effective policies, practices, and funding for research universities. It asked universities and industry to strengthen their relationship in order to accelerate the “time to innovation.” It demanded reduced regulatory and reporting burdens with increased accountability. It targeted enhanced graduate education and degree completion. Its report placed increased focus on recruiting international students — and called for government to make it easier for those students to study in the U.S., and to stay there after graduation.

We Quebecers must not focus on the small stuff, while our neighbours are eyeing the moon.

The McGill of today isn’t the McGill I joined 10 years ago. And the McGill of 10 years from now will be different still from today. But through all of its changes, this University has stayed true to its mission and to its values, as established by our founder, Scottish immigrant, James McGill. McGill University has stayed true to its commitment to Quebec, and to the world.

Our universities are changing. Society’s needs are changing. Let’s be confident in our values as we steer our course with aspiration. We cannot let fear turn out the lights on our future.

Thank you.

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