Swimming against the current

Fall-Winter 2009

Principal Heather Munroe-Blum at one of the launch events for Campaign McGill along with campaign co-chairs (l to r) Eugene McBurney, LLB’79, Yves Fortier, BCL’58, LLD’05, and Michael Meighen, BA’60 (Photo: Owen Egan)

In just a little more than two years since its public launch – and in the midst of a worldwide economic crisisCampaign McGill has successfully raised $500 million of its $750 million goal. These funds will be used  to support the University’s top priorities. Regular McGill News contributor Andrew Mullins recently sat down with Principal Heather Munroe-Blum for her thoughts on the campaign, the economy, and the role of alumni in McGill’s most ambitious fundraising initiative ever.

What is your reaction to the success of Campaign McGill?

I’m delighted to be reaching this milestone. When we launched the campaign, we had the highest launch goal of any public campaign for a university in Canada. That we’re at the $500 million mark with another three-and-a-half years to go in the campaign is terrific, especially when you think of the economic downturn and the challenges we all faced in the last year.

What impact has the international economic crisis had on the campaign? Are potential donors more cautious in the midst of economic uncertainty?

People understand that when times are tough, public causes need support. We have many more people giving than we have seen in the past, and that was one of our goals. One expected consequence of the economic downturn was that overall giving was down 20% compared to the previous year. Our hope is that this year will be different as things start to pick up again.

The crisis has hit university endowments, including McGill’s. Does that affect the campaign?

There’s no question that donors want to see that their investment is extremely well stewarded. And while McGill, like all universities, had our endowment hurt, we haven’t been hurt as badly as many other universities. I want to take this opportunity to thank our investment committee. This extremely talented group of volunteers works with the senior administration on the management of our endowment. I know there were some who believed that our endowment was invested somewhat conservatively. Of course, we’re celebrating the investment committee members as heroes right now for having been so prudent.

How has McGill fared in general during the economic downturn, compared to other universities?

Wealthier universities have long had the luxury of saying almost every good idea will be funded. We’ve never have that luxury at McGill. It’s not a matter of suddenly waking up in an economic downturn and saying, oh, we’ve got to make some hard choices. We have a long history of thinking very carefully about our programs and how to support our outstanding students and faculty with limited resources. It’s in our DNA.

We benefitted enormously from being at the tail end of a massive faculty renewal phase, not at the beginning of it. We’ve recruited 900 new professors in the last eight years. Universities in Canada and the U.S. that were just about to ramp up into a renewal of their professoriate have suffered a real blow. There are universities in the U.S. that have had to slash enrolments, reverse hirings and cut back on student aid. We are in much better shape than that. We do face budget cuts, but we’ll be able to maintain our emphasis on our priorities.

In terms of the money that has been raised, where do you think Campaign McGill will have the greatest impact on McGill’s future?

We’ve already seen enormous strides in support for graduate students, and undergraduate student advising and mentoring. Graduate student support is a sine qua non with having a world-class research enterprise. The research that goes on here supports the development and education of our graduate students, and the contributions of our graduate students provide invaluable support for the research and scholarly enterprise.

What has been the biggest surprise for you over the course of the campaign so far?

We’ve had an exceptional ability to connect with many alumni for the first time ever, or the first time in a very long time, and have them immediately support us. I make it clear that we don’t engage with them only for their financial support. We engage with them because it makes us a better institution. We learn from them. They encourage great young people to come here to study. They recommend new professors and staff. They help us connect with other parts of the world.

During your campaign tour, what questions have you been asked the most by alumni?

They are eager to learn about the renewal of the professoriate, and they’re thrilled about our efforts to bring undergraduate students into the research realm. They’re very interested in interdisciplinarity, because they see in their own lives how the world has changed. For instance, they love the fact that neuroscience at McGill incorporates intellectual contributions from five different faculties.

Is there anything about McGill’s alumni that makes them distinct in your eyes?

I’ve been to five continents in the last year for the campaign and I’ve seen exceptional loyalty. I met Edgar Fay in London. He is 100 years old and he took the time to talk to me about his own ambitions for McGill. Then there is Gang Ye, MEng’03, from Wuhan, China. He travelled 10 hours to Beijing to attend an alumni event, and then travelled 10 hours to get back home so he could go to work the following day. I have been associated with six universities and I have never seen the passion for a university that McGill alumni show. It borders on patriotism.

Are there particular campaign priorities that remain to be addressed?

We still have a significant way to go to reach the level of student support that will allow us to say that every qualified student can come here, independent of financial means. That is an absolute commitment for me during my time as principal: that we reach that goal and sustain it.


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