Entre Nous with Principal Heather Munroe-Blum

Entre Nous with Principal Heather Munroe-Blum McGill University

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McGill Reporter
June 1, 2006 - Volume 38 Number 18
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Entre Nous with Principal Heather Munroe-Blum

With wind in its sails, McGill on course for further excellence

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In summing up the closing academic year, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum says McGill is well placed to build on areas of academic excellence and to compete with the very best in the world.

The past academic year has witnessed a series of McGill triumphs: a first-place Maclean's ranking among Canadian universities, another number one ranking as Canada's most research-intensive university, the top Canadian research university according to Research Infosource Inc, and the Times Higher Education Supplement ranking of McGill among the top-25 universities position internationally, as well as some major gifts such as those to the music and management faculties. Heather Munroe-Blum reflects on the reasons for these successes, and strategies for consolidating McGill's position as a top international research university.

This past year saw some very high-profile gifts, such as Seymour Schulich's $20 million to what is now the Schulich School of Music and Marcel Desautels' $22 million to the Desautels Faculty of Management. Why are people so enthused about giving to McGill these days?

I think people give to McGill because we have a clear academic plan and set of priorities. A gift in support of our academic priorities is an investment in support of great people, whether they are students or professors. In addition, the university sector is critical for advancing the life chances of individuals and the success and social well-being of communities. And if you care about universities, then supporting McGill gives the greatest return on your dollar. Our donors are making our priorities their priorities, and we appreciate that very much.

These gifts are especially important because of the relatively low level of university funding in Quebec. Is there any relief expected on that front?

We are under-funded against our peers, and not just internationally. Even at the Canadian level, Quebec universities are deeply under-funded against those in other provinces. There are a number of ways this problem could be addressed, but we are urging the provincial government to reinvest in universities so we can be competitive with the rest of Canada. We hope to make some progress on this issue in the coming year.

This past year has seen the university receive impressive rankings by the THES and Maclean's, among others. How will McGill stay at the front of the pack?

Part of our goal is to stay the course. The competition is fierce and intense, it's international and it's local, and other jurisdictions are investing at a very high level. The THES ranked us with private as well as public universities, and they're competing for the same faculty as we are. Part of our goal, then, is to make sure we don't lose ground.

But to do that we have to focus on moving ahead. First of all, we plan to develop some disciplinary areas where we are clearly the very best in the world. So while we are committed to offering all of our programs at a very high level of quality, we are working closely with deans, departmental chairs and colleagues to identify fields where we can really excel. For instance, we've always been known for our work in neurology and neurosciences; in addition, our music faculty and our unique program in law are internationally significant and have the capacity to go even further in terms of quality and impact.

Another priority is guaranteeing that every academically qualified student is able to come to McGill regardless of financial situation. That's a promise we cannot make today, but one I want to be able to make during my time as Principal. I'm committed to realizing this goal, which will require partnerships not only with government but with generous philanthropists and the students themselves.

You have been speaking of the need for tolerance and understanding on campus — why is that?

Clearly, looking at events around the world, we cannot take a celebration of diversity for granted. We're North America's most international university in that we have more professors and students from other countries than any other university – and with 32,000 students and 8,000 employees, that diversity is significant. We want this to be a benefit both to those who come from different backgrounds and to those who may be local students or represent mainstream culture… although I'm not sure what mainstream culture is anymore. But we must act mindfully in making our hallmark of internationalism and diversity a strength; we cannot just assume that the benefits of diversity will accrue to everybody.

You are the Chair of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, which has just released its progress report. How have you found that experience?

The Principal's task force on student life and learning has been a joy. Its goal is to create an institutional preoccupation with the well-being of students' life and learning that infiltrates every element of our operations and our decision-making. What I never anticipated was the enormous shared learning that would take place. I'm thrilled and, personally, I've enjoyed it immensely.

What do you anticipate for next year?

McGill has wind in its sails; we are well-positioned to achieve further excellence not only in research but in teaching and in quality of support for our students and faculty. We're now into the implementation of our academic priorities, and in the next academic year we will begin implementing the recommendations of the student life and learning task force; we're continuing our recruitment and retention efforts, and we're starting to build those areas of academic excellence that can compete with the very best in the world.

Words of wisdom for those convocating students?

Our graduating students should savour the moments that come at convocation and reflect on what they've accomplished. And they should go out with confidence that they'll have many opportunities, and the choices they make now will not irrevocably determine their pathway for life. They are building now on a great platform of achievement, talent and skill, and they have a wonderful network of people from McGill who will be part of their lives forever. So my advice is simple: Celebrate. Congratulations.

Banking for the future: Heather Munroe-Blum's first job

After high school I worked for a year as a bank teller to make money to go to university; I was at the CIBC at Avenue Road and Davenport in Toronto in 1969. My husband was a rock and roll musician, working in the Yorkville area of Toronto, and so it was really yin and yang. I learned that I don't want someone looking over my shoulder every minute of the day, so I was really happy the next year to land in university.

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