A conversation with Stuart Cobbett, Board of Governors chairman

McGill/News by

On January 6, the University’s Board of Governors, McGill’s highest governing body, announced Montreal-based lawyer Stuart H. (Kip) Cobbett as its new chairman. Cobbett, who succeeds outgoing chair Robert Rabinovich, received his B.A. from McGill in 1969 and B.C.L. in 1972, and has since served the McGill community as both a lecturer in the Faculty of Law and president of the McGill Alumni Association, among other responsibilities. The Tribune spoke with Cobbett about becoming chairman.

Can you describe the history of your involvement with McGill and how you’ve come to this accomplishment?

It goes back many years to the late ’80s. At the time, I was working not as a lawyer but in the film and television business. I was asked to get involved with something called the Board of Visitors for the Faculty of Arts, which is like an advisory body for the Faculty of Arts, and I was chair of that board for a few years. At about the same time I was asked to sit on the editorial advisory board of the McGill News. So that’s kind of what started my formal relationship with McGill. Way before that I had taught at the law school, from ’76 to ’85 … And then I went to England in the mid- 1990s, and when I was there they asked me to take over the chairmanship of the McGill Alumni Association in the U.K., which I did. When I came back in 2000, they asked me to get involved with the Alumni Association here, and I became president of that and then subsequently ended up going on the Board a few years ago.

Where does the Board stand on Bills 38 and 44 at this point?

We’re not too sure where we stand at the moment. There were hearings before the National Assembly committee back in November and December, but we haven’t heard anything back from that, so we’re just waiting. We hear that they are trying to make amendments but we don’t know that for sure. We just don’t think [the bills are] necessary. The problem is that each of the Quebec universities is individual, so to try to have one overarching piece of legislation that applies to all the universities is almost, by definition, impossible. Each university is governed differently. Each university is at a different stage in terms of the development of governance processes, and in terms of giving the government the tools that they need to have oversight of the universities, we think they already have the tools. It’s much more from the point of view that we just think this legislation is wrong. The students seem to agree with us, and the various faculty and staff associations seem to agree with us, but at the moment we’re all in a wait-and-see mode.

What did Rabinovich do well, and what would you change?

Robert did a lot of things well. One of his main accomplishments was the revamping of the board, and reducing the numbers of the board. Seven or eight years ago you would have 50 or 60 people at the Board of Governors meetings, and that’s just too big a group to have any sort of effective discussion. So when Munroe-Blum became principal and when Rabinovich became chair, they embarked on a review and revision of the board. The result has been that McGill is at the forefront of governance structures certainly among Quebec universities, and I would say possibly even Canadian universities.

Any specific goals you would like to see the Board of Governors achieve looking ahead to your term?

There are a number of things on the radar we are focussing on – diversifying the sources of funding is one. We are very dependent on government and we will always be very dependent on government, but it will be nice to find other areas of support for the university. We’d also like to focus on students. When the principal several years ago had the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, we are not putting many of those recommendations into effect – for example, the student centre going into the basement of McLennan Library. Sustainability is important as well. There’s a big commitment to the campus being ecologically and environmentally defensible. … It’s something to which the board is committed. We’ve had a number of presentations on it from [Associate Vice-Principal University Services] Jim Nicell. There are always things we’re doing and trying to bring in.

Any final thoughts?

McGill has done a good job at remaining focussed on its mission. We are a particular university; we are a public university but we are containing our growth. As the principal reminds us frequently we are becoming a medium-sized university compared to others, particularly in Canada. We continue to maintain a spectacularly good position in the world; McGill has a great reputation, deservedly so, so what we have to do is make sure we keep it and improve it. We have a wonderful student body, a super faculty and staff; the whole thing is just in good shape.