Last week, McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier attended the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland on behalf of McGill—the only Canadian university invited. In an article for The Montreal Gazette, titled “Why Davos Matters for Millennials,” Fortier discussed the purpose of her trip and the message she presented. She emphasized the importance of working with a variety of industries to better prepare university students for the “intractable problems” of the future, like climate change and income inequality.
Fortier’s presence in Davos directly reflects the continued value of promoting McGill’s brand on the world stage. She was accompanied by several preeminent McGill researchers and academics, who presented at Davos on issues of sustainability. McGill’s status as the only Canadian university present at the conference speaks to the weight of the McGill name; Fortier’s participation will hopefully help ensure that the university continues to be seen as a world-class institution that is active on the international scene. A university’s global reputation for providing a quality education is more important than ever in many of today’s highly competitive job markets.
The Davos conference is a reminder of the Principal’s role as the public face of the university. One service the Principal can provide is ensuring that other schools, academics, and prospective employers see a McGill diploma as a valuable and respected commodity.
However, promoting and maintaining respect for the McGill brand goes beyond promises from Fortier, or participation in conferences like the WEF. To preserve and further develop itself as an institution for the twenty-first century, McGill must attempt to impress not only international elites, but also other groups, like current and prospective students, faculty, and alumni. Each of these groups evaluate the university based on different criteria and their judgements have important consequences for the McGill brand.
Students, for instance, look to aspects like the university’s quality of teaching, transparency, and responsiveness to student demands when assessing their school. Poor performance in these areas could result in disgruntled graduates who are less inclined to recommend the school to others. Fortier has garnered criticism in the past for being out of touch with the student body, such as in her opposition to alumni and student calls for divestment from fossil fuel companies. Representing the university externally should not mean losing contact with the genuine concerns of its more local community members.
Furthermore, Fortier’s statements about Davos were conspicuously lacking in specifics. Her talk of McGill as a university stepping up to the challenges of the future may help the school’s brand, but following up with concrete action to ensure that McGill meets those challenges is most important. For instance, Fortier wrote of the growing need “to expose students to learning opportunities outside the university,” yet gave no concrete indication of how McGill plans to accomplish this goal. The vision Fortier laid out for McGill at Davos is commendable, yet still needs to be translated into tangible and effective action.
To best prepare McGill students for the future, it is essential that the university improve itself in areas beyond research. The examples for areas of improvement are countless, and include indigenous representation, equitable hiring practices, and mental health support. The recent Report of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Systemic Discrimination revealed continued discrimination in the McGill faculty. McGill offices, student societies, and community members are working hard to promote change in these and other salient issue areas. Without concrete action here at McGill, its portrayal abroad may come to feel disingenuous to the university’s closest stakeholders.
McGill’s reputation–like that of any university today–is a complex and multifaceted topic. Fortier’s presence at the WEF certainly benefits the university, yet the audience of Davos is only one of the many groups that McGill must satisfy if the university wants to retain its position as a premier institution. Going forward, the administration must now focus on making a reality of Fortier’s promises at Davos, as well as its obligations to its students and faculty at home. Only in this way can McGill show its students and staff, as well as the international community, that it is deserving of its reputation.