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q & a

Heather Munroe-Blum, principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University

Heather Munroe-Blum
Appointed in 2003 at McGill University

What is the biggest challenge your successor faces?

No matter what the challenges are, the job is an exhilarating one, the people remarkable, the mission simply the best. But a primary issue facing today's university leaders is that of making the case for effective public policy in a focused, evidence-based, yet politically and publicly compelling manner. Notwithstanding considerable progress, we are not yet where we need to be in Canada, or in our largest provinces, in realizing a public-policy framework that supports successes garnered to date by Canada's most successful research and graduate-student intensive universities.

McGill is one of few Canadian schools that consistently lands in the top 40 of world university rankings. What is its biggest challenge to staying near the top of the tables?

We have extraordinary people and over the last decade, we've recruited over half of our tenure-stream professoriate from all over the world and from top-flight institutions. We show we don't need dollar-for-dollar parity with south of the border, and certainly I don't want to see American tuition levels in Canada. But we sure need fair, effective tuition frameworks with a commitment to growing student aid so that we don't have those who can pay more benefiting from those who can't.

David Naylor
Appointed in 2005 at University of Toronto

What is the biggest challenge your successor faces?

Communications, communications, communications. Key opinion-makers abroad are often more receptive to U of T than those at home. Unfortunately, the institution's depth, size and record is actually a mixed blessing in a country where so many of us have an affinity for upstarts and underdogs. Meanwhile, there's a ruthless global competition under way based on talent and innovation. Canada needs some winners, and Toronto is this country's top seed. My successor will have to make that case to a domestic audience segmented by regional rivalries and distracted by a regrettable new trend to very slippery marketing by sister universities jockeying for domestic position. Not easy.

Some say running a school of this size is unmanageable. Is the job as desirable now as it has been?

I think that all these [president's] jobs are now ones that give people pause. I don't think that's specific to any one institution. The reality is that governments have been inconsistent partners across Canada in the exercise of trying to advance higher education, and the challenge of being competitive. But I'd like to think that while these jobs are not particularly easy, there will always be people who are attracted to them. The attraction is evergreen – the old saying is that it's the cause and the company.

The Ontario government has pressed universities for drastic change to save costs, enrich teaching and make learning more mobile. What will result from those efforts?

In the old days, orthodontists used to sometimes approach the first few weeks of treatment by putting pressure on the teeth in a rather random way to loosen them on the dental ligament. I suspect they've gone to a more sophisticated method, but it was uncomfortable for my kids when they had braces. And I sometimes think the last 10 months have been like that period – a lot of random forces and stresses that may have prepared the system for some more focused and strategic change.

Tom Traves
Appointed in 1995 at Dalhousie University

What is the biggest challenge your successor faces?

I do think the financial issues are the biggest. There's government-funding issues, there's government regulation of tuition rates, there's pension issues which need to be dealt with. And then I think at the same time, there are some evolving issues that I don't know that anybody has made clear sense of. What's going to be the role of some of the new information technology opportunities in the future, in terms of how universities go about their business? Speaking personally, I'm still in the "show me" mode in terms of their impact.

You've been president for nearly 18 years, in which time Dalhousie has grown substantially – in enrolment and research terms as well as physically. What other change are you most proud of?

I think there is a renewed confidence in the university. When I came here things were very much cast in a negative light – the government was cutting back on funding, they were talking then about rationalizing the university system, the university's board of governors was into a very stringent financial management program, all of which left the academic community feeling kind of besieged. Now people aren't so worried about defending their jobs and are more focused on doing great things.

David Turpin
Appointed in 2000 at University of Victoria

What is the biggest challenge your successor faces?

I think dealing with the current financial environment. We're in a tough time, across the country and around the world, in fact, in terms of public finance. I think another one is going to be dealing with some of the challenges we face in British Columbia, being within the government reporting entity, some of the ways that fetters the institution's ability to make completely independent decisions.

How do you make a university better when it has to do more with less? With the province refusing to fund salary increases for faculty or staff, you've asked all your departments to trim budgets by 4 per cent this year.

One of the things you can do when you are in a period of reduction is you can reallocate to areas of highest priority. Clearly, one of the challenges we face as a nation is the appropriate level of investment in postsecondary education, and we have to be very, very careful that we don't, for short-term expediency and to save a little bit of money in a budget year, undermine the quality of our postsecondary education.

UVic has thrived by building particular strengths like climate-change research, which is such a hotly debated topic. Is your attention to climate a statement in itself that can help shape smart public debate?

I think it doesn't matter what discipline you're involved in, that's the role of a university: to provide independent information, provide high-quality research, and to use that to help seed and inform public policy debate. ... When you've got independent scholars focusing their interest on an area, it's something that society has to pay attention to, because these individuals are not beholden to anyone telling them what to do research on or telling them what to think.

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