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Final interview with Heather Munroe-Blum

Last Wednesday, the Tribune sat down with Principal Heather Munroe-Blum for the last time to discuss her final year as principal of McGill, as well as what lies ahead for both her and the university. This June marks the end of her 10 year tenure as the first female principal of the university. Munroe-Blum spoke about the role of education in Quebec, the nature of McGill’s measures to address the provincial government’s budget cuts, McGill’s drop in the world rankings this year, and what she learned in her time as principal.

Edited and condensed by Emma Windfeld


McGill Tribune: After attending the PQ’s Higher Education Summit in February, what role do you think education will play in Quebec’s future?

Heather Munroe-Blum: I would say we’ve made some progress in the 10 years I’ve been in Quebec as a professor and as an academic administrator, in developing good public policy in higher education, but we still have a ways to go. So I’m hoping that [this] debate will continue to be engaged, and will be engaged with broader voices of the academics and of the students.


MT: In the Mar. 26 MRO, you wrote that McGill’s cuts to the Principal’s, Provost’s, and Vice-Principals’ (VP) operating budgets are seven to nine per cent, while senior administrators’ salaries are being cut three per cent. Why are the percentages different, and how were they determined?

HMB: The offices of the administration will take a seven to nine per cent [operational] cut; that’s the whole operation of each of the VP portfolios and my own office…. That’s different from the [3 per cent] compensation [cuts] to the senior administrators. People have an image that [the] James Administration Building just serves the VP and the Principal, [but] the whole research administration operation is run out of here, the whole graduate student operation is run out of here, [and] these are programs out and across the university. So we’re looking at cuts on those as well…. Having top talent is a really important issue for McGill, given our mission and our emphasis on quality, on full-time studies, and on research and scholarship with high impact. And none of our salaries are at the top of the country…. and we are number one in the country.


MT: Cuts to faculties, departments, and libraries were not mentioned in the Mar. 26 MRO. Will those areas experience budget cuts as well?

HMB: Every program in the university has a VP doing oversight, so when we look at a cut to the Provost budget, that will get expressed in the programs that report in [to the Provost]….We’re looking at how to protect the academic mission as the priority [of the university], and then student support and services around that as a secondary emphasis…. There was a special effort to not have a freeze for the assistant professors coming in who are at a stage of establishing their careers and getting going.


MT: When will you know if the first phase of cost-cutting measures was successful? What will the second phase involve?

HMB: There are two elements to it. One is that 75 per cent, and a little more, of all our spending is in salaries. So you see the measures we’re taking, and we’re doing that in stages. For example, the window on early retirement for administrative and support staff, that’s a two month [window]—we’ll know more at the end of that about what the uptake has been. The other part is, every VP and every dean, every major program director has been asked to say how they’ll take cuts to the spending in operations—some of which is salary but some of it is other areas…. For example, if you look at the non-salary expenses, spending on energy in this cold climate is a big one – so are there some one-time investments we could make that would make us more efficient in energy usage?


MT: McGill fell from 25th to 31st on the 2013 Times Higher Education World Reputation Ranking. What caused the slip, and how has it impacted the university?

HMB: There’s no question that [it was due to] the Quebec disruptions of the prior year, just by virtue of the inquiries we’re seeing from our student applicant pool which are all about that…. Nonetheless, the change is a blip, and our overall application pool is very strong…. We’d say that we have the strongest undergraduates in the world because the standards are so high, and you can’t buy your way in, and you can’t inherit your way in as you can in our equivalents—particularly in the U.S., where they have what’s called a ‘legacy system.’ Of course we want our reputation to be strong, but we believe, on the basis of the quality of our academic staff, our students, and the research and scholarship that we’re doing, that it’s not a problem.


MT: How did last year’s tumult change your engagement with students this year, and what advice would you pass on to Dr. Fortier for interacting with students next year?

HMB: I am actually proud of the record of student engagement and interaction over the course of the past 10 years…. I think there was clearly tumult, not just at McGill but in Quebec at large over the past year, and I think it really brought democracy to campus in terms of getting stronger student engagement in representing their own interests…. In terms of things we do differently… of course, [we should] keep our very strong relationships with SSMU [the Students’ Society of McGill University, with PGSS [the Post-Graduate Students’ Society], with Macdonald students, with the [Continuing Education] students, but reach out into the faculties [as well]…. That would be a recommendation to Dr. Fortier. The colleagues on the senior team have embraced [the] meetings with all of the elected leaders at the faculty level as well as the institution-wide associations.


MT: What will you miss most about McGill, and what are you looking forward to post-McGill? 

HMB: First, let me say it has been a huge honour to be Principal…. Even on the more challenging days, there are always wonderful things…. I won’t be leaving…. I’ll be going to Stanford on a leave to their Centre for Advanced Studies, then coming back and keeping our home in Montreal and keeping McGill as my university…. I’m a full professor in the Faculty of Medicine.

What do I look forward to? Well, I am taking a holiday with my husband in the fall…. You know, there isn’t the time when you do a job like this and you’re a professor; you always want more time for reading, for writing, for reflection, for study. We’re all here temporarily and if you think of leadership as a relay race—someone came before you, someone’s coming after you—then you want to do well in the time you’re here so you leave the place better than you found it, and you build on the strengths of what people have contributed before.


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  1. SlawomirPoplawski

    HMB is “keeping McGill as my university…. I’m a full professor in the Faculty of Medicine McGill”!!! Heather Munroe-Blum used today Tribune to announce this scary message at this lowest level of communication with McGill Community. It wasn’t said in the Gazette, McGill site or even in McGill Reporter, but by using usually not respected by the administration students’ press that she will stay forever at McGill.
    It means, after decoding this message, that nobody in Canada wanted until today to hire the most expensive in Canada female principal (her salary + additional expenses) and now better known for senseless/improvised costly reorganizations with her extreme abilities of creating out of the blue multilevel conflicts. All offers with prestigious jobs and high salaries are closed for her and now she has decided to milk McGill budget indefinitely for about 50% of her present salary as the medical professor. Yes, when it comes to easy and big money, some people can act shamelessly. She never worked as the professor here and this position was created only on the contract’s page just for fulfilling the old rules when the principals were elected from McGill professors. Hired by her recent dean of medicine also had a chance to stay as the professor at McGill after finishing his term last year, but he preferred to go out with dignity. I wrote a few weeks ago a short piece about organizing a “Goodbye and never come back party for HMB” what was supposed to be published in the Daily, but it seems that the guys there were informed on time about her not finalized yet high profile job hunting. Now she recognized her hopeless position in jobs’ market and we will have to pay many years over $200 000 for her opportunistic rescue plan. Let’s remember that for the same budget would be hired 3 young assistant professors with the best CVs and willingness to work really hard.

    • What in the hell are you saying… none of that made sense.

      • SlawomirPoplawski

        Will you be praised or fired for editing my opinion? Let’s see and go ahead. I am sure that your English is better and I will humbly correct this piece from above.

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