Heather Munroe-Blum – The Heather decade

Written by  //  July 24, 2013  //  Education, Montreal  //  Comments Off on Heather Munroe-Blum – The Heather decade

The Heather decade


It was never dull. During a 10-year period in which McGill dealt with daunting challenges and enjoyed impressive victories, the one constant was the woman at the helm of the University.

by Daniel McCabe, BA’89


Heather Munroe-Blum attending a reception held in her honour at McGill in June (Photo: Owen Egan)

It all began with a slightly awkward coffee date. In 2002, Richard Pound, BCom’62, BCL’67, LLD’90, was McGill’s chancellor and the head of an advisory committee tasked with finding a new principal for the University to succeed Bernard Shapiro. One of the names that kept coming up belonged to the University of Toronto’s vice-president of research and international relations, Heather Munroe-Blum, a woman known for her skill in nurturing research programs and her deft ability to coax governments into supporting university-related initiatives.

“It’s a delicate process. You have to tread carefully,” says Pound of selecting a new principal. The committee assigned Pound the job of reaching out to Munroe-Blum, to see if she would allow herself to be considered for the McGill position.

“She was a little stand-offish at first,” Pound recalls.

“I remember Dick Pound, as only Dick Pound can do, telling me, ‘Are you saying you won’t even have a cup of coffee with me to talk about this?’” says Munroe-Blum with a laugh. “I flew down to the Toronto island airport and we met in a shabby coffee shop,” says Pound.

Munroe-Blum had good reasons to be hesitant.

“My daughter was going into her last year of high school. It was the first year of the double cohort in Ontario, a huge challenge [for students] coming as it did with no forewarning, putting two years of study into one, and then that year being the one that would determine their grades for university [applications].” Munroe-Blum wasn’t sure that an intense new job was a good idea at that moment in her daughter’s life. Pound suggested there could be flexibility in the start date, if that helped. She thought it might.

“I remember going home that night and talking to Len [her husband] and Sydney [her daughter]. Sydney was the one who laid it all out. She said, ‘Oh, mom, it’s McGill. You’ve got to do it. We’ll make it work.’”

Truth be told, Munroe-Blum needed little prompting. “It was the university that, to me, had always been the iconic great public university. It has Canada stamped all over it, which is very important to me. It’s in Montreal, the place where I was born and where Len was a boy. It’s the city where my parents and Len’s mother came from.”

“If you’re going to move an institution forward, you need someone who has the energy and drive to make that happen,” says Pound. “We certainly got what we were hoping for on that front.”

An aura of “We can do this”

Munroe-Blum participated in McGill’s successful attempt last year at earning the Guinness Book of World Records’ title of largest fruit salad (Photo: Adam Scotti)

Munroe-Blum participated in McGill’s successful attempt last year at earning the Guinness Book of World Records’ title of largest fruit salad (Photo: Adam Scotti)

“From the moment she became principal, she became McGill’s biggest booster,” says Chancellor Arnold Steinberg, BCom’54, LLD’00. “She has been tireless in that regard.”

“She has been a transformative leader, but one who has always showed enormous respect towards McGill’s history and traditions,” says Provost and Acting Principal Anthony Masi. “Her first impression, I think, was that McGill was a great institution, but, perhaps, not as sure of itself as it should be.”

“Right from the start, she exuded this optimistic, energizing aura of ‘We can do this,’” says Sally McDougall, a former McGill Alumni Association president, and a member of the advisory committee that selected Munroe-Blum as McGill’s principal. “Clearly, she is not someone who is put off by the occasional road block.”

There is little doubt that McGill’s reputation soared during Munroe-Blum’s tenure. For six consecutive years, McGill has been ranked among the world’s top 20 universities by QS World University Rankings, and McGill has taken the top spot among medical-doctoral universities in Maclean’s annual rankings of Canadian universities for eight years in a row.

“She has been such a tremendous ambassador for us,” says McDougall, BSc’68, DipEd’69, DLitt’13. “Everywhere she went in the world, she upped that reputation. She can work a room like no one I’ve ever seen. She has pulled McGill’s reputation right up, kept it there, polished it up and it’s glowing.”

Of course, reputations are fleeting if they aren’t based on something substantial. The performance of McGill’s professorial corps over the last decade has been eye-catching. In 2003, McGill professors published 3,000 research papers in leading peer-reviewed journals. By 2010, the number of publications per year had increased to 4,443. Research Infosource, which monitors the research productivity of Canadian universities, has ranked McGill among the two best performing universities in the country for the past 10 years.

Fresh-faced faculty

Munroe-Blum chairing a meeting of the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement (Photo: Adam Scotti)

Munroe-Blum chairing a meeting of the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement (Photo: Adam Scotti)

Those results are all the more impressive when one considers the high number of new faces in McGill’s academic ranks. Before stepping down as McGill’s principal, Bernard Shapiro launched the largest academic renewal program in the University’s history, establishing an ambitious target of hiring 1,000 new professors over a 10-year period. Munroe-Blum, along with Provost Masi, has overseen most of that hiring. More than 600 of these professors were recruited from outside of Canada during a period in which there was stiff competition amongst universities for high calibre faculty.

“In my faculty, 75 percent of the professors weren’t here 10 years ago,” says Dean of Science Martin Grant. “This was very much a once-in-a-30-year opportunity and it was critical that we hired the right people.”

If the number one goal was to find faculty who were talented, it wasn’t the only concern, says Munroe-Blum. “In choosing these people, we really thought about who would be a good fit with our values and standards and with the mission of McGill.

“When I was appointed in the spring of 2002 and I began to meet with people across the University, what struck me very quickly was the enormous sense of engagement that people—faculty, staff, students, alumni—had with the well-being of the institution itself. It wasn’t a matter of one professor after another coming up to me and saying, ‘I need this,’ and ‘I need that.’ There was a sense of collective responsibility. We wanted [new faculty] who would also care about the institution as well as the broader collectivity.”

“I look at the quality of the people that we’ve been hiring and I think to myself, there’s no way I could have gotten into this university with the CV I had 20 years ago,” jokes James McGill Professor of Civil Engineering Jim Nicell.

“There is no question that we’ve been successful [in attracting talent] and that success is due to the efforts of many people,” says Grant, “but Heather is the one who set the tone. It was all about excellence, about being ambitious, about getting great people to come here and then letting them get to it.”

Grant says Munroe-Blum has been consistent in her approach to planning from the start. “With Heather, it was always, ‘What’s the best method for moving forward? Where’s the evidence for that? What are the metrics? ’”

It’s an approach that Masi endorses. “She insisted that we all take careful stock of what we were trying to accomplish. That’s a very different way of behaving for McGill.”

Munroe-Blum called for the creation of a multi-year strategic plan to set out McGill’s academic priorities, and a multi-year budget plan to support the implementation of those priorities. She also established two task forces, one to examine issues related to student life and learning, the other to assess McGill’s approach to nurturing diversity and community engagement along with excellence.

The task force reports sparked many initiatives. The University, as a whole, has bolstered its outreach efforts to aboriginal students, for instance, while the Faculty of Medicine has been reassessing its approach to attracting underrepresented groups into the medical profession. The Service Point, launched in 2010, assembled many student services offices under one roof, in a bid to make students’ lives easier.

Haley Dinel, the vice president for university affairs for the Students’ Society of McGill University during the 2012-13 academic year, believes the task forces’ work led to some significant changes. “I think those reports provided some really important building blocks for McGill’s future.”

Emphasis on students

Munroe-Blum believed that undergraduates should benefit from attending a major research university (Photo:

Munroe-Blum’s insistence that undergraduates should benefit from attending a major research university “changed the conversation on campus” (Photo: Rachel Granofsky)

The Principal’s Task Force on Student Life and Learning had a very direct impact on the life of associate professor of psychology Morton Mendelson, BSc’70. One of the task force’s key recommendations was the creation of a new senior position—deputy provost (student life and learning)—that he held for seven years. In this role, Mendelson was expected, among other things, to represent student interests in high-level policy discussions at McGill.

“It changed the conversation on campus,” says Mendelson of the task force’s work. “The principal said, ‘We’re not talking enough about students.’ [The task force process] really changed the way this University views itself. We all began to grapple with what it means for a high-quality research-intensive university to be student-centred.”

Ensuring that undergraduates have access to vibrant learning opportunities isn’t always a top priority for leading research universities, says Munroe-Blum, “and that’s a characteristic of research universities that we aimed to change.

“Why does research take place in universities instead of in stand-alone research institutes?  It’s so that the next generation can benefit from learning from, and interacting with, professors who are engaged in outstanding research and scholarship.”

Over the past 10 years, dozens of new internships for McGill students have been created, and new offices to promote them have opened in several faculties. There are also far more opportunities for undergraduates to take part in their professors’ research programs, fostered, in part, by new initiatives like the Faculty of Science Office for Undergraduate Research.

Mendelson says another important change spearheaded by Munroe-Blum relates to financial support for students. Need-based student aid (loans, bursaries, work-study) has increased by almost 120 percent in the last nine years.

“That’s one of the causes that’s particularly dear to her heart,” says Mendelson. “She never wanted qualified students to decide against attending McGill because they didn’t think they could afford it.

“We’ve made very large inroads on that front,” says Mendelson. “She rallied the University community and the board of governors to make it a priority. We’re one of the few universities in Canada that provides student aid to students from across Canada and from outside the country. That’s quite rare.”

“When we were planning Campaign McGill, we thought, could we have a campaign where students were at the heart of it?” says Munroe-Blum. “And that’s been a great source of fulfillment, that such a large share of the new investment coming in through the campaign is directed at student support.” Money raised for the campaign has been used to create more than 600 new scholarships, graduate fellowships, bursaries and awards, benefitting more than 3,700 students. “Her energy and drive were absolutely crucial” to the success of Campaign McGill, says Vice-Principal (Development and Alumni Relations) Marc Weinstein, BA’85, BCL’91, LLB’91.

Students have had the chance to have a very direct impact on the University itself through the Sustainability Project Fund, a joint initiative between the University and its students that has resulted in a number of award-winning projects aimed at fostering a greener McGill.

According to Jim Nicell, who, as McGill’s former associate vice-principal (university services), championed the creation of both the fund and McGill’s Office of Sustainability, the fund has provided support to more than 100 sustainability projects, more than 80 percent of them co-led by staff and students.

“Heather has been behind us all the way,” says Nicell. “She helped shepherd a joint Board of Governors/Senate meeting that focused on sustainability at McGill and that really put the wind in our sails.”

Facilities facelift

Munroe-Blum in 2011 with the late Harold “Shorty” Fairhead, BA’51, a veteran of both the Second World War and the Korean War. McGill began hosting Remembrance Day ceremonies on the downtown campus’s lower field in 2009 (Photo: Owen Egan)

Munroe-Blum in 2011 with the late Harold “Shorty” Fairhead, BA’51, a veteran of both the Second World War and the Korean War. McGill began hosting Remembrance Day ceremonies on the downtown campus’s lower field in 2009 (Photo: Owen Egan)

In his role as an associate vice-principal, Nicell also had the opportunity to work closely with Munroe-Blum on another front —maintaining McGill’s infrastructure. “She put an incredible effort into that,” he says. “With all the new faculty coming in, we needed to modernize our facilities” to accommodate the new directions they’d be pursuing.

The new Life Sciences Complex, the largest construction project in McGill history, provided a huge boost to biomedical research at the University. Three of McGill’s biggest buildings—the Otto Maass Chemistry Building, the McIntyre Medical Sciences Building and the Macdonald Engineering Building—underwent extensive renovations, thanks in large part to $81 million in support from the federal government’s Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) and matching funds from the Quebec government and other sources.

KIP was created by the Harper government to help offset a threatening economic slowdown. Nicell and others credit Munroe-Blum with playing a key behind-the-scenes role in encouraging the government to create the program.

“I remember getting a call from her in December, saying that we had to put together a proposal quickly because the federal cabinet was going to be meeting about this just before Christmas,” says Nicell.

“She has had a great deal of influence on policy matters,” says Masi, pointing to the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program as another initiative that she helped support.

University of Toronto president David Naylor, a former U of T colleague of Munroe-Blum’s, says she has long been a pivotal champion for universities.

“Heather Munroe-Blum’s work was arguably the single most important factor in the decision taken by the Ontario government in the nineties to begin effective reimbursement of the institutional costs of research,” says Naylor. “That was a huge achievement in the face of widespread fiscal stringency.”

Her views haven’t always prevailed. She was a leading proponent of raising tuition fees in Quebec to match the Canadian average, while arguing that such an increase would necessitate an expanded loans and bursaries system to protect financially disadvantaged students. The Maple Spring scuttled that idea, at least for now.

She has been sharply critical of the Quebec government’s recent dramatic cuts to university funding.

“She has courage,” says Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Michael Di Grappa. “She has expressed opinions, about tuition fees, about the government cuts, that she knew wouldn’t be popular with everyone.” “She took those things head-on, knowing that you don’t always win those fights,” says Masi.

In his portfolio, Di Grappa has had to deal with an assortment of calamities—everything from the surprisingly severe budget cuts to a massive flood earlier this year that caused considerable damage to the downtown campus. “She is an excellent crisis manager,” says Di Grappa. ““Many people don’t realize what a tremendous sense of humour she has. Even in the most stressful of situations, she tries to make people feel at ease. She knows it helps to laugh sometimes.”

“She will make the hard decisions that need to be made,” says Board of Governors chair Stuart Cobbett, BA’69, BCL’72, “but her first concern is always about the impact it might have on people.”

At a recent campus event celebrating her 10 years as principal, Masi took the opportunity to tease Munroe-Blum about one of her more notorious habits.

“Some of us will actually miss your emails and text messages that arrived at all hours of the day and night, including weekends.”

“She could be an extremely tough taskmaster,” says Masi.

“However demanding she was of those around her, we all knew she was asking more from herself than from anyone else,” says Di Grappa.

“I think the mark of a successful leader is whether or not you’ve left the institution in better shape than it was before you arrived,” says Cobbett. “I don’t think there is any question that McGill is a better place thanks to Heather Munroe-Blum.”


The exit interview: Heather Munroe-Blum’s final thoughts on a decade spent at McGill

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