Outgoing university presidents speak candidly about the future

The Globe and Mail

U of T President David Naylor, left, and McGill president Heather Munroe-Blum, right, interviewed by Robert Prichard. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

To be president of a major university is to be its public face, meaning those holding the role are often their school’s “tongue-biter-in-chief,” says David Naylor. But after eight years as the University of Toronto’s president, Dr. Naylor will step down in a matter of months, and he is slowly starting to feel more freedom to speak his mind. The same goes for Heather Munroe-Blum, McGill University’s principal for the last decade, who also leaves her post this summer. The two leaders’ visions have often aligned, and both have drawn reverence as well as sharp criticism. On Friday, they spoke to a decorated crowd at the Canadian Club of Toronto, with Governor-General David Johnston, former prime minister John Turner and past Ontario premier David Peterson looking on. The two presidents spoke candidly, interviewed by former U of T president Robert Prichard, about the challenging climate their successors will inherit.

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On whether they are more or less optimistic about Canadian universities today than when they began their jobs:

I think being optimistic is a pathological state for anyone in university administration. I do remain very optimistic. I will confess, however, that my frustration level is at an all-time high, but my optimism is absolutely undimmed, which is why it’s time to pass the torch to someone who is every bit as optimistic – [U of T president-designate] Meric Gertler – and far more talented, but is not frustrated. – David Naylor

On whether evidence-based argument is still effective in the politicized post-secondary world that saw massive Quebec street demonstrations against tuition hikes last spring:

Facts count. Values, absent results that make life better for the citizens of a province or a country don’t stand for much. … If you think about the difference between the [1990s] and today, the role of Internet and social media has transformed the world of how you make a compelling argument based on evidence. And fiction becomes fact in 30 seconds, and fact becomes obliterated. And so it isn’t enough to have an evidence-based approach. That worked well in the ninties. I think we have to have parallel ways of engaging the public in understanding what the dynamics are. – Heather Munroe-Blum

On advocating for higher tuition combined with vigorous financial aid, and whether recent rebellion against high student fees has given them second thoughts about their approach:

Uh, nope.

I guess I should amplify. The amount of indebtedness for university students in this country has actually, finally, turned downwards in the last year. So it’s exactly at that moment that we have this worry about tuition. There’s something wrong with that. Back to evidence, values and circumstances: In general, if you receive support from the Ontario Student Assistance [Program], it is likely that you pay, on average, about half of the posted tuition fees. So, the high-tuition, high-aid model actually enables universities to be responsive. It’s tough to sell on the doorstep, but I don’t think because it’s tough to sell, we should stop telling the truth. – David Naylor

On whether U of T and McGill’s massive fundraising goals – $2-billion and $750-million respectively – signal that a competitive future for Canada’s top universities means turning to private rather than public funding:

I don’t actually believe there are great private universities today. If you look at [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], it gets over half of its revenues out of Washington. So it has higher tuition fees, it has a bigger endowment, it has a longer history – Harvard, Princeton being other examples of that. But other than really religiously focused or culturally focused institutions, there are no comprehensive universities that are private. I think it is a huge mistake to have philanthropy substitute for sustained, effective, predictable levels of government [funding]. – Heather Munroe-Blum

This conversation has been condensed and edited

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