McGill’s new principal reflects on “coming home”
Principal Suzanne Fortier, BSc’72, PhD’76, was a very visible presence at McGill Homecoming this year, attending a wide variety of dinners and events. One event in particular – a “Meet the Principal” Q & A session with Derek Cassoff, the director of communications for development and alumni relations – offered graduates the opportunity get better acquainted with McGill’s new leader. She shared her thoughts on returning to her alma mater and on what surprises her about McGill today.
How does it feel to be coming back as the principal to the school where you were once a student?
There are so many feelings. Of course, joy is the biggest one. It is very special to be coming back home.
There is gratitude, because you realize that the opportunities that are presented to you are there because of so many people who helped you from the day you were a student to all through your career. I’ve had fantastic mentors, fantastic colleagues, I’ve worked with great people and I have a lot of gratitude for these people and for my family as well.
There’s also a sense of humility. There are so many great people who have been at this university, who have occupied the job I’m in now. You feel humbled by all of their accomplishments, but that also gives you energy. You know the bar is high and you have to work very hard and give it your best.
I think the strongest feeling for me is a sense of responsibility. My education opened so many doors. Now I have to make sure that students today have the same opportunities that I was given.
We’ve heard about your modest upbringing in a small Quebec village. Could you share a little more about how a young francophone woman in small-town Quebec ends up, not only the first in her family to go to university, but at McGill of all places?
Well, McGill, that one was simple. Although my parents were not educated, they had heard of McGill. And I, of course, had heard of McGill – it was my first choice for university. When I talked to my family, particularly my father, he said, “I’ll support you to go to university, but there’s only one condition.” He said, “You’ll have to go to McGill.” He said it’s the best university in Canada. And I wish he were here today, because I would say to him “Papa, c’est pas juste la meilleure université au Canada, c’est une des meilleures universités au monde!”
Can you share a little bit about how you’ve been spending your time so far on campus?
I’ve spent a lot of my time meeting people, particularly the students. They are the most important people in this University. We’re here to make sure they get a great education, an education that matters in our world today. I’ve shadowed two students, and I’ve been to classes. I’ve been to many events organized by students, and I must say that what I have discovered is very inspiring. Our students are really plugged into the [broader] community. I think we all know, it’s pretty hard to get into McGill, so they’re very, very talented and bright people. But they use their intelligence and their talent, not only for themselves, but for others. I was enormously impressed by the leadership and the initiative that our students take on.
My sense is that they are more engaged than we were. When I was a student here, we didn’t worry about the environment. They do. We didn’t worry about sustainability, and they do. Nutrition, that’s another area that our students are so involved in. They care about living next to people who don’t have enough to eat. They care about people who are down and out in the community. One of the clubs that I was very impressed with is called Making Waves. They teach children who are disabled how to swim. These children need one-on-one training, and our students provide that. It’s amazing to me that over half of the clubs that students have initiated are on topics that matter to society: sustainability, giving back to the community, leadership building. It’s pretty impressive.
You’ve been going to classes. How are the professors?
They are so good that it’s been difficult for me to accept that I can’t continue in the course. And I am telling you that seriously. I went to a course in water resource management that was just fantastic, and I did the field trip in the cornfields looking at new techniques of irrigation. I went to a class in law on taxation. If you’re starting a small business that involves, in this case, buying land, a tractor, seeds, when can you claim your tax credit? You might think this would be boring, but it was just so exciting. And the students were so into it. They couldn’t wait to run to the blackboard and add their piece to the puzzle. A class on anthropology, again, fantastic. Just every single class I’ve attended so far has been incredibly good. So I’m going to continue to attend classes, when I have the time. It’s one of the privileges we have on this campus.
What has surprised you the most about McGill today?
Three things. First, the engagement of our students. That was a very inspiring surprise for me.
The second thing is that at this University, the professors are in the classrooms. And that’s not true of many universities because of budget constraints and what-not – they don’t have professors in the classroom. Here, the people who are teaching in our classrooms are our professors. That’s something very important.
The third thing, and it’s been a very big surprise to me, is how little I’ve been able to speak to people in English here. I am not kidding you – at least two-thirds of the people I meet here want to speak French to me. And I have been feeling over the last month that the quality of my English is diminishing a little bit, so I’m being careful. Imagine the headline in the paper: “New principal loses her English at McGill.”
McGill has been ranked among the top 25 universities in the world for nine years running now. I’ve heard you suggest that you’d like to see McGill become a top 10 global university. Do you have any sense yet of what we as an institution need to do to achieve that?
Well, let me say first of all how incredible it is that we can be in the top 25, because when you look at who else is in our class, you start to realize how productive we have been and how well we use the resources that we have. How devoted the people are in this University, to be able to be where we are.
I was looking at some of the top 10, and what helps them be in the top 10 is the amount of resources they have – particularly the resources for students. Princeton University, that’s one of the top five, certainly in the top ten. It has 8,000 students, and it has an endowment of 18 billion dollars. McGill has 35,000 students and it has an endowment of 1 billion dollars. So if you think of this on a per-student basis, they have 75 times more resources through their endowment than we have here. And yet, we’re in their league. Imagine.
When we talk about the underfunding of universities in Canada and Quebec, how much of that is because governments or perhaps the broader public don’t fully appreciate the contributions that universities make to society?
I personally believe that governments and populations across the world, in fact, fully understand the importance of investing in education and in research. I think people understand that. So, then, one has to ask, why [aren’t they supporting universities more] if they know how important it is? I see two reasons.
If you look at our demography, it’s quite clear that we are going to have to invest more and more of our dollars in health, particularly if we want to enjoy the kind of public health sector that we have in this country. Populations are living longer and we all want to live good lives, and so there’s a lot of medical care that needs to be given. The second factor is, hopefully, temporary, and that’s this terrible economic crisis that is still lingering on.
What role do you think alumni support can play or has to play in McGill’s success in the future?
When we look at our neighbors to the south, you see that all of the top universities in the U.S. have enjoyed a lot of support from their alumni. I was at Yale University for the installation of their new president, and the commitment that they have from their alumni is so visible. You need that virtuous circle – alumni being generous to their universities because they are grateful for the role that these universities played in their success. Not just financial success, but success as individuals who can enjoy a lot of things in their lives apart from having a good job or a good business.
Is a $2,000-a-year tuition a sustainable model?
Well, it is sustainable of course, but you get what you pay for. So is $2,000 sustainable to get a very high quality education? The answer is no, it isn’t.
As someone who is not only a McGill alumna, but who has travelled extensively across Canada and around the world, what is the perception of McGill out there?
It’s an incredible brand. Over the summer, I was in the U.K, attending meetings with the top scientists in the country. When I introduced myself, I would say, “In September, I’m going to be the principal of McGill University.” And their reaction was instantaneous. They’d all say “Wow! You’re going to be the principal of McGill? This is fantastic!”
When I was at Yale, I sat next to a Yale alumna, and after the lunch she said, “Oh, I’m going to tell my daughters that I sat next to a celebrity for lunch.” I said, “I’m not a celebrity.” Of course she knows that, she didn’t even know my name, and probably won’t even remember it. So who is the celebrity here? It’s McGill. McGill is the celebrity. Wherever I’ve been, when I mention McGill, people want to talk to me, they want to give me their business card, they tell me they want to come to Montreal. McGill is a huge celebrity.