Editor's Notebook

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Home > McGill News > 2003 > Spring 2003 > Editor's Notebook

Editor's Notebook

Celebrating Succession

The day was filled with pomp and circumstance, befitting the installation of a principal of McGill. There were robes and tassels, fanfares and processions, invocations, greetings and salutes. For just over an hour and a half on the afternoon of March 10, the cathedral-like interior of stately Redpath Hall rang with songs of celebration and the booming chords of the magnificent pipe organ as Heather Munroe-Blum was officially welcomed to McGill, invested with the title of Principal and entrusted with the care of the University's seal and charter.

Munroe-Blum declared herself both "humble and proud in the face of this remarkable institution," and pledged "with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my strength" to serve McGill, adding, "I am filled with the deepest admiration for what has taken place in these chambers and on these grounds."

There was plenty of warm feeling for Munroe-Blum, too. Student representative Ali Shivji, BEng'03, enthused, "We welcome you with open arms as our queen bee in this industrious hive of learning." At a luncheon earlier in the day, University of Toronto's former president Robert Prichard, who appointed Munroe-Blum a vice-president during his tenure, said that McGill could expect a lot of its new boss.

"She will bring fresh eyes to old issues; she will bring new ambition to overcome old barriers; she will lift spirits and inspire all those she works with; and she will give of herself more than she asks of anyone around her."

While the day was formal, it was by no means stuffy. At the morning symposium where former and current heads of universities from around the world discussed the future of the public research university, the retired principal of the University of Edinburgh alluded to a character in Dr. Seuss and the president of Columbia University sheepishly admitted to getting on the plane in New York without his overcoat.

And anyone who passed by the Arts Building couldn't miss the decidedly informal "Welcome Heather" painted on a snow bank in three-foot letters. A greeting in environmentally friendly grape juice from the students of the McGill Urban Community Sustainment project. The day following the installation was dedicated to meeting staff and the principal demonstrated impressive two-handed dexterity as she cut cake for the hundreds of well-wishers who turned out to greet her.

Now that the ceremonies are done, Munroe-Blum will concern herself with more mundane matters, calling on those skills Robert Prichard referred to. One of the knottiest "old issues" McGill principals have had to contend with is the question of raising tuition and the philosophical differences with the province of Quebec regarding post-secondary education.

The provincial government, which favours universal access, refuses to allow McGill tuition to rise even to the Canadian average (about $3,500) for all students, although students from outside the province pay more than the $1,600 charged to Quebec residents. McGill, which espouses excellence, must constantly search for other revenue sources in order to remain internationally competitive. Private donations to the University last year ($67 million) exceeded tuition revenues ($62 million). While McGill has a healthy endowment relative to other Canadian universities, a Montreal Gazette article recently said "...it would count as chump change to any well-known U.S. university."

In 1829, McGill's first principal, Archdeacon George Jehoshaphat Mountain, was installed at a public ceremony, although the institution of which he was to take charge existed only in theory. Mountain assumed office at a meeting of the Governors of McGill College convened at James McGill's Burnside estate.

According to the minutes of the meeting, the Bishop of Quebec addressed the group, reviewing the conditions of McGill's bequest. "The institution was to bear the name of its excellent founder, and he firmly hoped that it might prove a blessing to many generations yet to come, that it might tend to immortalize his name, and be the best monument that could be erected to his memory."

Professor Graham Bell said in his greeting on behalf of the faculty to Munroe-Blum that there has never been "a time of greater optimism and expanding horizons" and that over the next decade "we will see a change in the outline of the possible." Combine that prediction with the promise of a talented and dedicated new principal, and James McGill should be resting peacefully indeed.

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