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Suzanne Fortier has been named McGill University’s new principal.Tony Fouhse

McGill University has chosen Suzanne Fortier to be its next principal, turning to a French speaker to help navigate the political turmoil that has engulfed the province's university system over the last year.

A McGill graduate, Dr. Fortier brings expertise in the world of federal research funding, having led the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), one of the country's three main granting councils, since 2006.

A chemistry professor and crystallographer by training, she gained administrative experience as a vice-principal at Queen's University before moving to NSERC. Dr. Fortier will succeed Heather Munroe-Blum, who is scheduled to leave in June after a decade in the principal's post, and who has served as a vocal critic of the Quebec government's perceived underfunding of universities.

"I am proud to be invited to serve as the next Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill," Dr. Fortier said in a statement. "Principal Munroe-Blum blazed a trail as McGill's first female Principal and as an exceptional leader, and it will be an honour to follow in her footsteps.

"McGill opened up a world of opportunities for me."

Dr. Fortier's appointment comes one day after the University of Toronto named its new president, promoting current dean of arts and science Meric Gertler, and adds to sweeping changes among the senior leadership of Canada's universities in recent months. Dalhousie University and the University of Victoria both announced successors to their current presidents, who held the top jobs for 18 and 13 years respectively.

At the same time, Quebec's universities are facing major budget challenges, and the situation only worsened when the province tasked them with collectively cutting $124-million in a matter of months, with further cuts expected to eat into new government spending in the coming years. Meanwhile, students continue to demonstrate against tuition increases that would raise new revenue.

As a result, the University's financial fortunes will be Dr. Fortier's foremost concern, said Kip Cobbett, chair of McGill's board of governors. And after the provincial government announced increases to Quebec's famously low tuition fees at 3 per cent annually at its recent higher education summit, that means turning her attention to fundraising, securing government grants and landing international partnerships.

"Having worked in Ottawa for the last seven or eight years, she certainly understands how government works, admittedly at the federal level, but I think those skills are probably transferable," Mr. Cobbett said. "She's certainly had some experience fundraising and dealing with donors when she was at Queen's."

Dr. Fortier is no stranger to funding constraints. Last year, she was charged with defending a decision to place a moratorium on two popular NSERC funding programs. She said the move resulted from the federal government's drive to balance its budget, and was necessary to protect other grants and scholarships for students.

Before deciding on Dr. Fortier, McGill's search reviewed 85 candidates and spent several days interviewing front-runners, including some who "came in from outside Canada," Mr. Cobbett said. He doesn't believe Quebec's political and financial unrest chased away candidates, but acknowledged that "it's hard to tell, because you never know the calls you don't get."

Dr. Fortier won't formally take over at McGill until September, in order to satisfy a six-month cooling-off period mandated by federal ethics rules after she leaves her post at the granting agency. McGill will appoint an acting principal after Dr. Munroe-Blum steps down in June.