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McGill University's new principal Suzanne Fortier poses for a photograph at her office in Montreal, Thursday, September 5, 2013.Graham Hughes/The Globe and Mail

Suzanne Fortier was not yet two weeks into her new job as McGill University's principal when she made her first splash in September, issuing a firm declaration that Quebec's proposed secular charter "runs contrary to our principles."

Dr. Fortier believed she was moving swiftly to protect McGill's global reputation. Faculty and students feared the charter would undermine the school's cultural diversity – a few professors wore religious habits to work in protest – and also its international allure. "With people who are extraordinarily talented, the whole world is open to them and they'll go where they feel welcome," she said in an interview, ahead of her ceremonial installation on Tuesday.

But her statement put her out on a limb, and at risk of irking Quebec's government. Her counterparts at other universities were more circumspect, noting the Charter of Values was only a proposal, and not yet legislation. "I saw it differently," she said, "because I thought, well, this is a period where the government is actually consulting on what might turn into a bill."

It marked the first of several hot-button issues Dr. Fortier will need to navigate with care. She is now nearly two months into the job, and Quebec's universities are only beginning to mend their relationship with the provincial government, which unexpectedly slashed postsecondary budgets mid-term last year, having already reversed tuition fee hikes the schools say they badly needed. The funding climate remains uncertain, and McGill will need government on side to tackle important upgrades to its infrastructure in the coming years.

But McGill still enjoys high international standing, and many university leaders think Dr. Fortier is well equipped to navigate it through this delicate chapter in its history. A native Quebecker from tiny St-Timothée, McGill alumna and the school's first francophone principal in its 192-year history, she built her academic career in Ontario before leading the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), where she learned to move in Ottawa's power circles.

Even though she stood alone among university principals in speaking out against the secular charter, Dr. Fortier thinks McGill has shed some of its outsider status as an English-language school. Some hailed her hiring as an effort by McGill to bridge a language divide, but she sees it differently, calling it "an incredible demonstration of McGill's sense of place in this city" to choose a leader "who still makes mistakes in speaking English."

"I spend more than half my time speaking in French on this campus, and that has been a total surprise," she added. "I was expecting to use my French once in a while, rarely, and be conversing mostly in English. People at this university have committed to living in Montreal and in Quebec."

The school is also still rebounding from last year's disruptive student protests, and Dr. Fortier said she has so far focused on reconnecting with a campus where she last studied in the 1970s – shadowing current students, attending classes, and taking the pulse of a community that was at times divided over the policies of her predecessor, Heather Munroe-Blum.

Dr. Fortier doesn't disagree with her colleagues who have long argued their schools are cash-starved, but insists she has reason to be optimistic. The relationship with Quebec's government "is certainly looking a lot brighter," she said, after September meetings in Quebec City where the government reassured university and student leaders of its plans to add an extra $1.8-billion in university spending by 2019.

She also appears ready to take up the case that leading universities such as McGill and the University of Toronto have been pressing with governments: That a greater share of university funding should be awarded based on "excellence" rather than notions of equality, with each university "competing fairly and squarely for what it gets."

"I think we were very much on that path," she added. "We've been slowed down because of the [economic] crisis, but I think Canada can gain enormously by increasing that power as a magnet for talent. … I think that's the model."