McGill’s eighteenth Principal and Vice-Chancellor H. Deep Saini began his five-year term on April 1. Saini hosted a round-table discussion with McGill student media outlets on April 5, during which he answered questions about his plans to work alongside students, Indigenous groups such as the Mohawk Mothers, and unions to strengthen community ties. Saini also outlined his strategies for creating accessible channels for student communication and touched on concerns students may have about his previous tenure at Dalhousie University.
In response to reporters’ questions regarding McGill’s relationships with Indigenous communities, Saini acknowledged that McGill sits on Indigenous lands and vowed to go beyond simple words when it comes to justice for Indigenous communities.
“Respect [towards Indigenous groups] is not simply paid in terms of words, it is paid through actions,” Saini said. “I think we start by building a culture where [inclusion is a] part of the natural ethos of the university rather than part of just simply our policies and legislations.”
He said that while he is aware of the Mohawk Mothers’ legal case against McGill, he has yet to inform himself enough to offer his own opinion.
Saini shared that during his term at Dalhousie, which is located on Mi’kmaq territory, he launched the Truro Start Program. The program helps Indigenous students and others facing barriers to access begin their university experience on Dalhousie’s Agricultural Campus, located in Truro, Nova Scotia, in a small cohort with devoted resources.
When asked about his previous term at Dalhousie, during which the Dalhousie Gazette reported that tuition fees for international students increased substantially, Saini responded that he has no intention of raising McGill’s tuition. He stated that the Dalhousie tuition fee increase stemmed from the university having the lowest fees of all U15 Canadian Research Universities, with some Dalhousie programs charging 50 per cent less than competing institutions. According to Saini, Dalhousie raised tuition in a way that did not impact existing students’ fees whilst simultaneously maintaining a high quality of education.
“I see absolutely no reason to do anything like that because McGill’s tuition is very much in line with the tuition in comparable universities,” Saini said. “I’m not a tuition-increase happy principal or president. That’s not what drives me.”
In a written statement to The Tribune, Law Senator Josh Werber stressed that while student senators are aware of the tuition hikes at Dalhousie, as well as Saini’s reputation of tense relations with unions, students should not dismiss creating a working relationship with Saini.
“Undeniably, reports of union opposition and tuition hikes are concerning,” Werber wrote. “The Principal at times has limited direct influence on such decisions, so I hesitate to assign responsibility to him personally without more information. Instead, [the Students’ Society of McGill University] will focus on working constructively with Mr. Saini going forward.”
Saini says that working with unions begins with a good-faith relationship between employees and university officials. To further improve the student experience and union relationships with the administration, Saini feels that he needs to understand the campus atmosphere, which he intends to do by introducing new communication channels so that students feel comfortable approaching McGill administrators.
“Nobody should be intimidated about approaching anybody in the university,” Saini said. “We should have open dialogue for everything. That doesn’t mean we’ll always agree, that doesn’t mean we will always find solutions to everything, but that means that we will talk openly and frankly.”
SSMU vice-president University Affairs Kerry Yang was on the selection committee to hire Saini. Though his own term is coming to an end, Yang looks forward to creating a strong and productive relationship between Saini and SSMU.
“What we learned this year was that a strong collaborative relationship between McGill administration and students has allowed us to move forward on many different projects at speeds much quicker than usual,” Yang wrote to the Tribune. “I hope to be able to work with Principal Saini in a collaborative and diplomatic manner built upon mutual understanding and the commitment towards bettering the educational experience for all students.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Saini launched Dalhousie University’s Indigenous Student Access Pathway. It also stated that Dalhousie once had the lowest fees of all Universities in Nova Scotia. In fact, Saini launched the Truro Start Program and Dalhousie once had the lowest fees of all U15 universities. The Tribune regrets these errors.