Entre Nous with Heather Munroe-Blum

Entre Nous with Heather Munroe-Blum McGill University

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McGill Reporter
May 29, 2008 - Volume 40 Number 18
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 40: 2007-2008 > May 29, 2008 > Entre Nous with Heather Munroe-Blum


with Heather Munroe-Blum, Principal and Vice-Chancellor

"Just doing what we do best"

Caption follows

An avid gardener, Heather Munroe-Blum recommends cherry tomatoes, nasturtiums and nicotina to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
Owen Egan

Principal sees Convocation as culmination of McGill's mission

Heavily steeped in tradition, Convocation is one ceremony that never gets old - especially for Heather Munroe-Blum. Despite having been part of dozens of such ceremonies in her first five years as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill, Munroe-Blum still gets excited when she hears the solemn skire of bagpipes leading another procession of graduating students to receive their diplomas. "It is an absolutely fantastic time of year because it is the culmination of all the great work we do here at McGill," she said. "To see the pride and happiness on the faces of the graduating students and their friends and families is something very special." Recently, Munroe-Blum sat down with the McGill Reporter to reflect upon the academic year that is just ending and to look forward to what the future holds for McGill.

What does Convocation mean to you?

It is one of my favourite times of year because it is a celebration of achievement. Our students, staff and faculty work so hard during the course of the year and everything we do here is geared to this special moment. It takes a huge amount of skill, talent and dedication on the part of thousands of people to arrive at this point and we should all take the time to congratulate our graduating students for their accomplishments as well as ourselves for supporting them along the way.

This spring, we'll be graduating some 7,000 students and the quality of our students has always been my sustained source of pride. This graduating class is really exceptional.

In terms of the students then, what have been some of the highlights of the 2007-08 school year for you?

The women's hockey team winning the national championships was a joy for all of us. [Points to a picture on her desk of jubilant Martlets moments after clinching the title]. I know it was for me.

The thing I find so inspiring about our student athletes is that they are here as top students first and foremost. That we have so many Academic All-Canadian Athletes who excel both in the classroom and in their sport is really quite remarkable. [Editor's note: In 2006-07, McGill ranked second in the nation with 121 Academic All-Canadians - students who achieve a minimum of 80 per cent in their studies while competing in a sport sanctioned by Canadian Interuniversity Sport].

Any administrative initiatives stand out for you?

I feel terrific that we got the recommendations from the Principal's Task Force on Student Life and Learning and that the administration is committed to implementing them.

There is a nice symmetry to the fact that one of the recommendations was the creation of the post of Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) and he [Morton Mendelson] is responsible for moving us along towards those goals. Our ongoing goal is always to improve the student experience at McGill.

What kind of year has it been for our professors and researchers?

It's been a remarkable year, once again. Roderick Macdonald [F.R. Scott Professor of Constitutional and Public Law] and Patrick Selvadurai [William Scott Professor and James McGill Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics] received Killam Prizes; and Margaret Lock [Marjorie Bronfman Professor Emerita in Social Studies in Medicine] was awarded a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Gold Medal for Achievement in Research - just to name a few of our successes.

We did wonderful things in Quebec, Canada and also on the international stage. I don't think I've ever seen so many regular references in the media to the outstanding achievements of our colleagues. [Laughing] You know, we're just doing what we do best.

You haven't mentioned Campaign McGill.

I say it all the time; money is a means to the end, not the end in itself. Because of our underfunding, we sometimes end up talking about money more than we want to.

But the fact is, we launched a campaign at the beginning of October. It is a 14-month rollout on four continents and in 10 cities. I'm delighted that we've just passed the $400-million mark, which means we're more than halfway to our publicly announced goal in less than half the time. Yes, we're ahead of schedule but we've set some very lofty goals. There is still a lot of work to be done.

What kind of Campaign work is in store for you in the coming months?

I'm going to be embarking on a summer tour. The tour was actually launched a few weeks ago in Calgary. We will be launching in Boston and Toronto over the next couple of weeks. At the end of June, we will go to the Middle East. In the fall, we'll be back in North America in Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver. Finally, we will end the calendar year touring Asia.

What are the goals of this tour?

It is threefold, really. We want to strengthen our research and academic collaborations; explore recruitment opportunities; and continue our fundraising efforts.

How important are McGill's alumni in this campaign?

They are essential. At every stop on the tour we will be meeting alumni, which is always so fabulous. I've never met a group of alumni who are as passionate about their school as ours. The always come out in big numbers and they are always very vocal in celebrating our successes. They truly are our champions.

What other priorities have you set for McGill?

I want to continue the implementation of our academic plan, which is to strengthen the ties between our teaching and research - particularly at the undergraduate level.

I also want us to build on the success of our research programs. Yes, we have been doing extremely well, but we can't afford to be complacent. Our goal has to be to be No. 1 on a per capita basis at the provincial and national levels. And, of course, we have to continue growing our international research networks.

As well, I want to continue focusing on serving the community. This has been a real theme of ours for the past five years. We enjoy a unique status in that we are a Quebec university and a Canadian university that plays on the international stage.

As a member of the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec we want to move forward as a collective of Quebec universities in advancing public policies. But because of our international reputation, we are always looking for ways to better serve Quebec and Canada.

Two years ago, I accompanied Premier Charest on a mission to India and, as a result, we have forged wonderful collaborative ties with researchers there that have proven to be extremely beneficial to all concerned.

On a more local level, we are continuously looking at ways to expand our outreach programs, be it free dental clinics within disadvantaged communities or hosting conferences such topics as human rights that gather together the public, the academics and the media to explore issues of great import to the world.

You are legendary for your work ethic. How do you maintain your enthusiasm?

It's quite simple: I love the cause. McGill is a real treasure.

Day in, day out, it is the wonderful people I work with - beginning with the people in my immediate office - that make it such a joy here. Their dedication to McGill's mission is inspiring.

And, of course, there are the students.

It is enormously energizing to be surrounded by such talented, forward-thinking people. I learn something new every day that I'm here.

How do you recharge your batteries?

My family is at the heart of my life - sometimes more in the emotional sense than in the time we spend together because of my schedule [Laughing]. But I'm beginning my second term as Principal and I made a commitment to myself to take more time for myself. I do a little yoga every morning and I am trying to read a book every week. I also love gardening.

What would you recommend for a rookie gardener like myself and my five-year-old daughter?

Cherry tomatoes. Put them in the sun and they are fantastic. You should also plant some nasturtiums, which will keep the bugs away and are great in a salad. For your five-year-old, put in some nicotina to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

How did you get your green thumb?

My husband and I used to live on a farm and we planted vegetables in a big way. Now I confine myself to flowers - which I love dearly - and small vegetables like squash and tomatoes.

Any last words of advice for graduating students?

First of all, a big "Congratulations" to everyone. Your hard work has paid off and your accomplishments have done us all proud. My advice is this: stay close to us, we're always here to serve you in your endeavours. As alumni, we look to you to for support in going forward.

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"It's quite simple: I love the cause."
Heather Munroe-Blum

Heather Munroe-Blum's first job

After high school I got two jobs to make enough money to go to university. In the evening, I worked at a dry cleaner's putting tags on clothes and during the day I worked as a teller at the CIBC in Toronto.

In my one-week training to become a bank teller, they taught us about people who commit bank fraud. Forgers will closely watch other people signing cheques so they can copy their signature. One day, I got a cheque for a significant amount but the signature didn't look quite right. When I went to talk to my supervisor, the guy took off. The police were called and they quickly caught him and it turned out that this guy had robbed several banks. I got a letter of commendation - and a good story to tell.