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McGill University principal Suzanne Fortier.

McGill University principal Suzanne Fortier has announced she will step down from her position in August, just less than a year before her contract is set to expire.

Dr. Fortier served two terms as principal, starting in September, 2013. A graduate of the university and former chair of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Dr. Fortier was seen as a leader who would build better relations with the provincial government in Quebec City.

“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,” McGill spokeswoman Cynthia Lee said in a written statement.

“The decision is her own and was made after careful consideration. Until then, Principal Fortier will continue to help steer our University safely to harbour, through what she hopes will be the tail end of the COVID storm, so that her successor can sail in calmer waters towards a bright future for McGill.”

She leaves shortly after the university marked the bicentenary of its founding. It was named for James McGill, a Scottish fur trader and slave owner whose Burnside estate became the site of the Montreal university’s downtown campus.

Reckoning with the university’s history is one of several thorny issues Dr. Fortier navigated in recent years. Since the pandemic’s onset, dealing with the implications of COVID-19 has loomed over all other matters and in some cases has caused friction between faculty and administrators. McGill did not impose a vaccine mandate, for example, in keeping with other Quebec institutions but that decision prompted criticism from some professors.

Dr. Fortier was also in charge during the outcry sparked by an article written by former director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, Andrew Potter. Prof. Potter resigned the administrative post after his piece prompted an intense outpouring of anger in Quebec, which led critics to accuse Dr. Fortier of failing to adequately defend academic freedom.

Dr. Fortier’s compensation drew attention this year after Le Journal de Montréal reported she received more than $850,000 last year. The university said Dr. Fortier’s pay has always been public and is in line with other administrators in the U15 group of research universities. In addition to her base salary, which was reported to be more than $470,000, she received an amount accrued under the university’s executive retirement plan, Ms. Lee, the university spokeswoman, said.

Andrew Kirk, president of the McGill Association of University Teachers, said faculty hold a range of views on Dr. Fortier’s tenure but most would wish her well. He said she has been a good diplomat for the university with the Quebec government and with the broader community, where McGill is sometimes seen as an aloof, English-speaking institution that draws its students from elsewhere in Canada and the world.

Prof. Kirk said there have been disagreements with faculty, particularly during the pandemic, but most recognize she has a difficult job.

“I think she’ll be remembered for turning McGill in the right direction,” Prof. Kirk said.

Richard Gold, a professor in the faculty of law, has been critical of McGill’s response to the pandemic on issues such as vaccines, masking and air filtration. He said Dr. Fortier was chosen primarily to improve relations with the provincial government and it’s not clear how much she was able to achieve.

“It’s time for new leadership that goes beyond, ‘Let’s not upset Quebec City,’” Prof. Gold said.

He said an ideal candidate for the principal’s job would be someone with a global vision such as Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge and a former McGill dean of law, who will complete his term at Cambridge in September.

An advisory committee will recommend possible candidates to the McGill Board of Governors and it’s expected a new principal will be appointed by the fall, Ms. Lee said.

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