In a message sent to the McGill community on Jan. 7, Suzanne Fortier announced she will be stepping down nearly one year before the end of her second five-year term as principal and vice-chancellor, effective Aug. 31, 2022.
On Fortier’s behalf, McGill media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle, explained that, having served as McGill’s principal and vice-chancellor since 2013, it was time for a change in leadership.
“After almost a decade in this role—and with the university now entering its third century—Principal Fortier felt it was an ideal time to pass the baton to a new leader who will shape the future of our university,” Mazerolle wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “Until then, Principal Fortier will remain focused on building on the strong foundation of McGill University, embedded in its Mission and Principles.”
Mazerolle did not give reason as to why Fortier has chosen to step down almost a year before the end of her contract, which was set to expire on June 30, 2023.
Fortier is a two-time alma mater of McGill, receiving a BSc in 1972, and a PhD in 1976, and served as a former chair of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). As McGill’s first francophone principal, she was selected primarily to help strengthen McGill’s connection to Quebec.
Speaking on behalf of the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT), Yelena Simine—assistant professor of Chemistry at McGill and VP Communications at the MAUT—told the Tribune that Fortier has widely lived up to the task.
“She has helped improve relations between McGill and the Province of Quebec, she has always made her pride in McGill clear, and has been dedicated to the cause of promoting the university,” Simine said. “During her time as principal the university became more inclusive in many ways.”
Simine was critical, however, of the way Fortier altered McGill’s governing structures over the course of her tenure.
“Collegial academic self-governance weakened further in favor of top-down managerial approach,” Simine said. “Centralization of operations has increased the everyday bureaucratic burden and led to increased burnout among faculty. We feel that the perfect successor would bring new unexpected and exciting ideas for uniting our community and will make it a point to shape McGill through collegial consultation and implementation of local initiatives and ideas.”
For Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) vice-president (VP) University Affairs Claire Downie, Fortier’s tenure over the course of the pandemic will be remembered as one marked by a blithe disregard of student issues.
“While I’m sure Principal Fortier accomplished a lot of work that students aren’t aware of, I think many students will remember most strongly what she did not do, things like implementing strong COVID-19 safety measures, ensuring graduate students were paid a living wage, or standing up to the provincial government when its actions directly harmed students,” Downie said. “I wish Madame Fortier the best in any future roles, but at the same time, I hope we can also acknowledge the harm caused by inaction during her tenure and push her successor to do better.”
Still, students like Juliana Malka, U3 Science, explained that while she disapproves of how Fortier has handled the past two years, she will remember her time in office with nostalgia.
“Although I have issues with how the administration dealt with the past four semesters, serving as head of an institution as diverse as McGill is no easy task, and definitely warrants our respect,” Malka said. “I remember hearing about Suzanne Fortier before applying to McGill, and now that I’m graduating and ‘Big Suze’ has announced her leave, it kind of feels like the end of an era.”
An Advisory Committee will identify and recommend possible candidates to the McGill Board of Governors with the expectation that the Board will appoint a new principal by Fall 2022.
A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed statements solely to Yelena Simine. In fact, Simine provided them on behalf of the MAUT. The Tribune regrets this error.
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