New university presidents at Toronto and McGill

Paul Wells on a leadership change that could be more significant than most cabinet shuffles

Between them, the University of Toronto and McGill University have 100,000 students, $596 million in total accumulated funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, one Charles Taylor and a perhaps disproportionate amount of the spotlight on higher education in Canada’s two largest provinces. They also have two new presidents: Meric Gertler at UofT and Suzanne Fortier at McGill. Together the two changes are probably more significant than most federal cabinet shuffles.

(This blog post will be lousy with Laurentian Consensus nostalgia; sorry. Perhaps only for today though, the less said about the University of Calgary, the better.)

In hiring close to home, both universities can be taken to be demonstrating either quiet confidence in the maturity of Canadian academe, or a chastened realization that in a time of limited resources, even the biggest schools are wise to stick to their knitting. Both schools instituted global searches and wound up bypassing candidates from afar in favour of local produce. Gertler was Toronto’s dean of Arts and Science. Fortier is president of the National Science and Engineering Research Council — indeed her start as principal of McGill will be delayed so she can cool off from that job for six months before taking a position with a major NSERC grant recipient —  but her BSc and PhD were from McGill. 

Both have had occasion to think about the role of universities in the broader society. Gertler wrote this chapter for a UofT conference on the role of universities; it draws heavily on his work with Richard Florida on creativity and geography. In this interview, Gertler took issue with the too-preponderant eagerness of Canadian university administrators to peddle their institutions as high-tech job mills:

“There is a commonly held misconception that when public research councils fund university research, the knowledge outcomes can be fully captured by measures such as patents, licensing revenues or university-based start-up firms. So policy makers and the public at large have developed somewhat unrealistic expectations concerning the knowledge production process.

 “In fact, the most important social contribution that universities make is through educating human capital. Knowledge flows from the university to the city around it in the form of embodied knowledge: well-educated graduates who make up a talented workforce. This contribution tends to be overlooked or seriously discounted when measuring the university’s impact or in developing innovation policies, even though the central role of highly educated and creative workers in the contemporary economy is well known.”

Having recently made similar arguments for my own alma mater’s alumni magazine, I was pleased to see Gertler talking this way.

Fortier, of course, is stepping into a hornet’s nest. At McGill she will face a government and a minister who plainly don’t understand why there is such a thing as McGill University. There was a lot of comment this morning about the fact Fortier is a francophone. That’ll make her a good public advocate for McGill among skeptical audiences, but it’s hardly the only asset she brings to the table.

In infrequent conversations with her, I’ve found her to be a formidable Type A personality with strong interests in music and art on top of her scientific expertise (she does stuff with crystals; I dunno). Her life story is in many ways inspiring; in conversation she comes off as someone with strong opinions who prefers to be diplomatic if she can, but who will not go along to get along. At NSERC, the main natural-sciences granting agency, she has handled a dramatic slowdown in federal funding increases by more tightly focussing grant dollars on the most ambitious proposals. Less of the agency’s budget goes to routine grants for researchers whose best claim to this year’s money is that they received money every year in the past. This has made Fortier highly controversial in some corners of the research community; the Canadian Association of University Teachers doesn’t like her at all, and you can read up on some of that debate here and here and here and here and (from a smart perspective outside CAUT) here.

Much of the criticism Fortier has faced is about methodology. Some is about the very idea that the most ambitious science should receive more money. At McGill she will be fighting similar battles, although from a different spot on the food chain.

While both presidents have pressing business on their home campuses, I hope neither will neglect the importance of universities in national debates. I came to Ottawa when university presidents like Martha Piper at UBC and Robert Lacroix at the Université de Montréal were practically writing whole chapters of the early Chrétien-Martin budgets. Of course the times, and the government’s party stripe, have changed, but there is always space for national voices on higher education issues, and lately a dearth of candidates to fill that space. One thing I like about David Naylor, the departing UofT president, and Heather Munroe-Blum, who has fought on many fronts for McGill, is their willing to play a role beyond their universities. I hope we can look forward to hearing from Gertler and Fortier too.


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