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McGill Board of Governors discusses RVH, green chemistry, building maintenance

McGill’s Board of Governors (BoG) held its first meeting of the 2015-2016 academic year on Oct. 8. The meeting saw an update on McGill’s bid for the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) site, a presentation on green chemistry at McGill, and a report on the state of McGill’s building infrastructure.

RVH site

Principal Suzanne Fortier presented the BoG with an update on McGill’s bid for the RVH site. According to Fortier, all necessary agreements have been signed to launch a feasibility study.

“We have three main important goals of this study,” Fortier said. “First of all, determining if the site conversion will advance the university’s academic mission and meet our space needs. The second one is evaluating] the financial contributions that will be hard for us to go forward, and the appropriate strategies. The third one is to propose a socially acceptable business plan that respects the site, the site heritage, and sustainability and cultural heritage.”

Fortier estimated that the study will take 18 months to be completed, however, plans for the academic trajectory of the site have already begun.

“We’ve also launched the task force to reflect on the academic mission and vision for the RVH site, if we were to acquire this property,” she said. “This in ongoing now and I will update the board on a regular basis about the progress we’re making on this front.”

Fortier additionally explained that despite McGill’s bid for the space, it will not be responsible for the property until an official transfer is made.

“As you know the site is not the property of McGill at the moment, it is still the property of the Quebec government and the government will fully assume the responsibility for the maintenance and security of the site and of its buildings until such day that a transfer may be made to another entity,” she said.  

Green chemistry at McGill

The Canada Excellence Research Chair in green chemistry and green chemicals of McGill University, Dr. Robin D. Rogers, gave a presentation to the Board on the future of green chemistry at McGill, citing McGill as one of the premier institutions in the world in this area. Rogers explained the economic opportunities that his work at McGill will be able to bring to the university.

“It’s not just designing chemicals that are non-toxic and sustainable, it’s about new business opportunities and new economic opportunities for Canada and Quebec,” he said. “We’re going to produce technologies that are environmentally sustainable, economically sustainable and socially sustainable at McGill, while we are [also] developing entrepreneurs, new companies, and new knowledge.”

Rogers then spoke to his current project, a chitin extraction plant, which he foresees as being able to replace the oil-based polymers currently used in the creation of plastic materials.

“I’m trying to raise seven million dollars right now to build a chitin extraction plant,” he said. “It’s a $63 billion market. Chitin is natural polymer that comes from shrimp shells [and] we’ve patented a new way to extract it which is more environmentally benign.”

While Rogers has yet to acquire laboratory space at McGill, he has already put together a team and acquired funding for his projects.

“I’m happy to report, even though we have no laboratory, that we have [an] academic associate, a post-doc, two research associates, two graduate students,” he said.  “Besides the [Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)] funding, we [also] have […] funding from the U.S. Air Force, from L’Oreal and from Monsanto.”

BoG Chair Stuart Cobbett promised to form a list of potential resources for Rogers, including the McConnell Foundation,  where he would be able to seek out further funding.

Building maintenance plans

During his report to the board, Vice-Principal (VP) Administration and Finance, Michael Di Grappa, addressed questions concerning the need for repairs to the infrastructure of many of McGill’s buildings that are historically protected.

“We have spent several hundred million dollars [since] 2007,” Di Grappa said. “What I can also tell this board is that we continue to monitor all of our physical resources and we do attack all problems that have to do with security and integrity of the buildings, or issues of safety, we address those immediately.”

Peter Coughlin, a BoG member at large,  addressed the issue of rising costs associated with maintaining historical buildings.

“It’s wonderful to have those buildings, but they cost a lot of money,” Coughlin said. “Trying to duplicate a 100-year-old building with the same materials […] it’s going to cost you three to four times more; [however], you can keep the same look of [the building], but use different materials. I think a long term plan includes building new buildings and closing buildings that just are not functional from an economic point of view and from a teaching point of view.”

Di Grappa also underlined the the government’s involvement in the maintenance of McGill’s buildings.

“We are working with the city and the ministry of culture to give us some flexibility with respect to the projects and the interventions of those buildings that are historically protected,” he said. “[We will] continue to press the government on not just approving our plan for $400 million but their own formulas for giving us a greater share of the monies that they have available.”

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