The diverse routes to excellence

Principal’s Perspective

Principal Heather Munroe-Blum chairing a meeting of the Principal's Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement earlier this year (Photo: Adam Scotti)

The Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement released its draft report to the McGill community in February. Composed of faculty, staff, student and alumni representatives, and chaired by Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, the Task Force received more than 60 briefs, held meetings with representatives of the McGill and broader communities and spent the better part of a year assessing how to create a more diverse community which is committed to excellence and to engaging with the world beyond the Roddick Gates. Principal Munroe-Blum spoke to the McGill News about the Task Force’s work.

Why did the Task Force focus on these particular areas?

I see diversity, excellence and community engagement as being completely interconnected. McGill’s excellence stems, in large part, from our ability to attract students, staff and faculty from both here in Quebec, and around the world. The people who make up our community represent a vast diversity of backgrounds – not just different countries, but different cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds and life experiences, all invaluable in a learning environment.

That also ties into the concept of community engagement. I think we have an obligation to use our expertise to benefit the world wherever we can, but the notion of engaging with the wider world isn’t entirely selfless. We benefit from those interactions too. Again, it’s a chance to experience the world through someone else’s vantage point.

What sorts of things can be done to promote diversity?

At the hiring level, we can do everything we can to expand our pool of qualified job candidates. At the infrastructure level, we can ensure that our buildings are accessible for people with disabilities. At the student recruitment level, we put ourselves in the shoes of different types of students. Can we offer transitional year programs to make the adjustment to McGill easier for some who have ability, but may not see McGill as part of their future? Can we offer more mentoring opportunities to better connect our students to McGill?

What were some of the recommendations for academic programs?

We teach our students to become problem-solvers. The world around us is becoming increasingly complex and solving problems requires a much more interdisciplinary approach. We have already done quite a bit on this front and our students have responded positively to these efforts. For example, take the team-teaching initiatives at the McGill School of Environment, where professors with different types of expertise from different parts of the University join forces to co-design courses.

But we need to do more. Part of building stronger academic programs involves encouraging our departments to provide students with opportunities to be exposed to subjects that do not fall within their disciplines.  For example, an engineer doing a program in Zola studies, or a sociology major learning about the human genome. We are seeking ways to encourage our professors to think outside the box and to engage in innovative partnerships with colleagues from other areas. One idea is to create research secondments within the university that could allow McGill faculty a better sense of how their colleagues in different disciplines think and operate.

What sorts of ideas did the Task Force propose for promoting community engagement?

We know that students appreciate being able to augment their classroom learning with off-campus experiences where they are able to apply what they have learned. The Legal Assistance Clinic coordinated by our law students is one example. We recommend offering more opportunities for internships and work experience. We encourage each of our faculties to include an outreach component in their undergraduate programs.

You’ve recently written about the importance of tolerance. Why is that a concern for you?

Unfortunately, too often it is not enough for some to express disagreement with a point of view. There is also sometimes an attempt to demonize those who hold different views from our own. This has a profoundly corrosive effect on the civil discourse that healthy societies require to function properly.

As members of a learning community, we have a special obligation to listen to alternative points of view respectfully and thoughtfully.  Being civil is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it is the mark of a strong and tolerant society. One of the important elements of our report is that we want to promote not simply diversity in the background of the members of our community, but also active, positively engaged intellectual diversity.  It is an absolutely key element of the document.

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