Last week, the Board of Governors’ (BoG) announcement that Dr. Suzanne Fortier has been selected as the next Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill was accompanied by a flurry of press releases, interviews, and profiles introducing her to the McGill community. There were a few points about her that stood out in particular, but aside from these details, we know very little about our new principal-designate. Nonetheless, what we do know about her—and what the university has chosen to emphasize—highlights what this selection says about McGill’s priorities as an institution, and the direction in which it seeks to go in the next five years under Fortier’s guidance.
An analysist of recent press coverage of Fortier shows the same information coming up again and again. She is a Quebec native, hailing from St-Timothée—a mere 45-minute drive from Montreal; Fortier is McGill’s first francophone Principal (although she is perfectly bilingual), and is the second woman to hold the position. She completed her undergraduate studies at McGill, and also obtained a PhD in crystallography here. Professionally, she served two terms as a senior administrator at Queen’s University, and is currently president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). She is also well connected, as she sits on the boards of numerous institutes and organizations. By all accounts, Fortier is extremely qualified for the job.
[pullquote]It is clear that the Board of Governors has chosen a principal according to the values which it feels will propel this school moving forward.[/pullquote]
Possibly the most heralded item on this list is Fortier’s status as a French-speaking Quebecer, a stark contrast with outgoing Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, whose French was passable at best. The university’s emphasis on this point makes perfect sense in the context of McGill’s recent strained relations with the Parti Québécois (PQ), as well as its lacklustre public relations with the francophone community as a whole. While a francophone principal could undoubtedly benefit the university, there is no guarantee that she will relate any better to the government or to the public based solely on her linguistic aptitudes. Ultimately, this is an opportunity to improve McGill’s image—but it is by no means a certainty.
Fortier’s background in the natural sciences, and the visible emphasis on research throughout her career are surely no mere happenstance. This is part of the university’s continued and concerted efforts to establish itself as a premier research institution, building upon its already strong reputation in the sciences. This, unto itself, should not come as a surprise. Hopefully an emphasis on research in the scientific fields will result in the kind of success that could also translate to ongoing academic excellence in other areas of study.
Among the greatest assets that Fortier brings with her to the job is her impressive scope of affiliations and connections outside of the university. A good portion of the principal’s job is to represent the university’s interests to the government and to potential investors. Given McGill’s current financial situation, we feel that the school hopes to have found a leader who can find new ways to bring in revenue.
One point notably absent from the university’s press release is Fortier’s previous relationship with students. Both by reputation and her own account, she was well-liked among Queen’s students, however, a search into her time at Queen’s as vice-principal (research, then academic) brings to light only an investigation into systemic racism at the school that she commissioned in 2001—with no insight as to her openness and accessibility to students or to the media. While there is an argument to be made that the principal’s job concerns higher-level matters than student interaction, we feel that an increasing source of tension in the past ten years has been the divide between students and the administration, with much of it falling on the principal, and the example that she sets for other administrators.
It is clear that the BoG has chosen a principal according to the values which it feels will propel this school moving forward—and we don’t necessarily disagree with these values. Rather, we hope that Fortier will not confine herself to the parameters of these institutional priorities, but will approach her job with a broad view of what’s important, and a willingness to reach out and communicate openly and honestly with the McGill community.