The exit interview

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The News editors sat down for a conversation with Principal Bernard Shapiro prior to his departure from McGill. The office looked a little spare as he had already packed up his books and personal treasures, but his focus was still very much on business as he reflected on his time at McGill. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

You required a bit of persuading to take on the job of principal. What made you hesitate?

I didn’t think I was the right age — I was 59 at the time, and I had already retired from the Ontario Public Services, so I wondered, “Do I want to do this, will I have the energy?” But a more serious problem was to try and figure out for myself what the role of an anglophone institution was in a francophone society. If you’re going to champion the institution, you’ve got to believe there is a role and that you are going to move the yardsticks forward. So I said, “Do I really want to come and worry about the Quebec government and the endless conversation about language?”

There were also personal issues because my wife was very happy teaching at the University of Toronto and this would be a big change for her in order to suit me. Although we were both born and grew up in Montreal, our family wasn’t here anymore. Once I finally satisfied myself on the major issue, the others became less important and we’re very happy to have done it.

Former chancellor Gretta Chambers, who chaired the search committee that brought you here, has said that her greatest contribution to McGill was you. What would you say has been yours?

That’s for time to tell and for other people to judge. But I think the most important thing that has happened at McGill in the past few years is that we got through the collapse of government support without compromising the quality of the institution and were able subsequently to launch the academic renewal process. There are all kinds of wonderful new young people coming to join the faculty. The number of students who apply keeps rising every year, and since we don’t accept more, it means we have better and better students. That’s very exciting.

I think McGill is better positioned inside the Quebec network than it was before. This is something that is always problematic and will never be resolved — it’s a kind of existential problem that you just sort of keep working at and hope for the best.

We have a far greater capacity now to compete successfully for the research funding made available by the federal government. We figured out how to create the appropriate consortiums by bringing the right people together so as to capture more than our share of the funds available for research. For a place like McGill, that’s very important.

Finally, I’ve been excited by the physical renewal on campus. Not only getting the roofs fixed, but adding important new facilities and buildings, so there’s a real sense of rebirth. That’s the most important single thing that can happen to an institution. It’s not the buildings themselves, it’s the idea that the institution has moved forward. McGill is unfolding in an interesting way, but ten years from now we’ll have to be just as interesting in a different way, because the context around us is going to change. If you rest on your laurels, no one’s going to care.

You refer to McGill being better positioned in the Quebec network. Is one reason for that the rather controversial trip you took with Parti Québécois premier Lucien Bouchard?

It’s hard to tell what causes what in this very complex environment. But I certainly never imagined when I was in the Ontario government as the secretary of cabinet, say, that I would later find myself doing a six-day tour with the PQ premier trying to advance the economic development agenda for Quebec! I wouldn’t have thought it possible. And there was incredibly negative feedback from a whole bunch of people at the time, although I’m convinced I did the right thing, in the sense that I believe that the person who’s the premier is everybody’s premier, not just those people who elected him. That’s a bit naïve in itself, I suppose, but you have to act that way or democracy makes no sense.

What helped me most was that in two of the cities we visited there were people from McGill picketing the events that were taking place. The premier’s staff said to me, “You need to avoid these people, so we’ll take you in by entrance A instead of entrance B.” And I said, “That’s not going to help. I’m not embarrassed to be here. I’m going to walk in where everybody else walks in, and the people who don’t like it will say so. That’s their business, they don’t have to like what I do.” Well, they couldn’t believe that I’d do it, but I did. It wasn’t such a big deal, it didn’t take any courage. No one was going to kill me, they were just complaining.

The University has experienced quite a turnaround since the painful budget cuts of the ’90s.

McGill emerges much more strengthened rather than weakened, which was what one might have expected given the collapse of fiscal support for the institution.

It emerges stronger for all kinds of reasons — it’s not just me. Every day I would tell myself the same thing: not all the bad things that happen at McGill are my fault and not all the good things are, either. You just have to say that to yourself once a day in order to maintain enough distance so you don’t identify yourself as the institution but stay close enough so that you work hard to make something happen. I don’t know that I’ve necessarily achieved the right balance, but I know that’s the job.

Universities have to be so many things — efficient yet collegial, accessible yet high quality, focused yet far ranging. What’s the secret to managing an institution with such a complicated agenda?

It is not possible to run a university the way you run a corporation, where the senior administration decides on a set of policies in a top-down arrangement. In a university it’s a constant effort to try to balance the bottom-up with the top-down pressures. I’ll give you an example. Who should decide how many students to admit to Faculty X? The dean and his faculty will have a view, of course, but the senior administration will have quite a different one. What we’re thinking about is not only the number of students Professor Y would like to have, we’re also considering what this adds to the total number of students and therefore to the total grant, so we can balance the books to the extent that that’s possible. What if we need to have more francophones and they don’t seem to be applying? How are we going to address that?

There are always these pressures, so you proceed on the assumption that tension is productive, that you can somehow make something interesting out of the push and pull.

There are two other important things. One is not to lose your cool; no matter what happens don’t get too excited because in the long stretch of history, this is not going to be major. The other is never to blink first. If you know what you want, you may not get it tomorrow or next week or next year but you will eventually, assuming what you want makes sense and has some value for the institution and not just for you. Don’t blink and don’t get excited and you’ll have a great time, meet all kinds of interesting people, and all kinds of crazy and wonderful things will happen.

Competition for exceptional faculty is heating up. Does McGill worry about its best professors being poached?

Poaching in some sense is a compliment.

It means you’ve got what somebody else wants, you’ve made the right choice and so you would expect a reasonable amount of poaching at any good institution. It’s part of the academic game. You worry when somebody can poach from you but you can’t do the reverse. If you had trouble attracting people, then this would be a real problem.

Given the minimal financing of universities in Quebec compared to other jurisdictions in North America, the big danger is that we’ll attract great people and they’ll leave us in their prime. We have to strengthen the staff infrastructure so that the faculty are doing the work that only they can do. I estimate we need to find somewhere between $50 million and $80 million a year more than we currently have.

Any idea where we’re going to get it?

I have ideas but I don’t know whether they’d be successful. If we were charging the same tuition as Queen’s, for example — forget about the Americans — we would have $50 million more a year now, so I think we must find a way of convincing provincial authorities to allow tuition to rise, at least in those institutions willing to take the risk (of giving up government subsidies) and that have the student demand for it. I don’t see any reason why McGill shouldn’t be charging $8,000 a year instead of $1,700.

What is the likelihood of that happening?

It may happen within the next five years because I think all governments are going to realize that they can’t afford what they want and therefore different people are going to be partners with them. I think we’ll see a continuing decline in the proportion of the funding we get from the government, not because they’re mean, but because they won’t have the tax revenues.

We will have to dramatically upgrade our private funding. When I came almost nine years ago now we were collecting about $33 million annually and we are now collecting $65 million, but the objective is to get to $100 million no later than 2010. If we succeed, we succeed; if we don’t, we’ll worry, but tuition remains the single most important possibility.

Fundraising became a greater part of your job in the latter years. Is that something that you found difficult?

Yes, and I probably spent less time fundraising than many principals would, because I’m not prepared to do what I don’t like to do more than I have to. I rather enjoyed going to see people and explaining why and how they could help McGill. That was fun to do, but it does have a personal outcome that I at least found difficult. You find yourself in a situation where many know who you are but nobody really knows you as an individual. People only see you as the role you occupy and as someone looking for money. The first week I was here there was a garden party hosted for me where many of the guests were people interested in McGill. The very first person I was introduced to looked at me and said, “I didn’t bring my wallet.” I was angry because I didn’t like it, but I understood it.

The future of the University requires us to raise more money, therefore I have an obligation as principal to help make it happen. But that’s very alienating over time, because in the end you’re not the principal of McGill, you’re Bernard Shapiro or whoever you are. On the up side, I met all kinds of fascinating people

I would never have met if I hadn’t been out there looking for money.

What would you like to have done that you didn’t accomplish?

The single biggest thing that I didn’t get around to was to change the bureaucratic culture of McGill. It’s not person-friendly. The students complain about it all the time and as far as I can tell they’re right. It’s not only the red tape, it’s a kind of attitude that says ‘Aren’t you lucky we admitted you?’ instead of ‘We’re glad you chose McGill.’ We’ve tried a number of different things to try to make a dent in what I consider to be an inappropriate culture, and there have been successes, but there’s an enormous amount to do. Students are not going to put up with it indefinitely.

What will you remember most about being principal?

In the end I’ll most remember the people I worked with very closely, the other vice-principals, the deans, the people who served on the Board, the Senate, then I’ll remember the people I went to see outside the University. It’s the people that make the world go around in this context and so I have very vivid memories.

What adjectives would you use to describe the job you’re leaving?

I’d say stimulating, busy and complex. There’s a lot of excitement all the time — it’s sometimes trivial, and it’s sometimes annoying, but it’s never, ever dull. Looking back, it’s been a great ride!

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