Volume 29 - Number 14 - Thursday, April 10, 1997

Salut McGill: Tavenas reflects on his time here and his future at Laval

Interview by Daniel McCabe
Laval's gain: Vice-principal François Tavenas

What advice will you give Principal Shapiro concerning the future of the Vice-Principal (Planning and Resources) position?

My own sense is that the principal could certainly use this opportunity to redefine the portfolio in a substantial way. I see a major need for development in the use of information technology at the University. There is a general consensus that the business of a university is going to be impacted in a profound way by developing technologies.

It would probably be good to have someone focus his or her attention solely on this matter over the next few years. My advice to the principal would be for him to consider transforming this particular vice-principalship into something like a chief information officer position or a VP (Technologies), consolidating responsibility for all of the computing and information infrastructure of the University. That would include areas like the libraries, the Instructional Communications Centre and, possibly, the Centre for University Teaching and Learning.

Responsibilities relating to the entire physical plant area are going to change in a substantial way as we move towards more outsourcing of managerial responsibilities. We have already decided to enter into a contract for the management of janitorial services. We are moving in the same direction with facilities management. I could easily see all of this consolidated under one director reporting to, presumably, VP Heaphy. So that will already change the nature of this portfolio substantially.

As rector of Laval, will you be looking for opportunities to work more closely with McGill?

Certainly. Fundamentally speaking, when it comes to lobbying government, the interests of McGill are consistent with those of the other research-intensive universities in Quebec. I know both places from the inside and that ought to be beneficial in terms of trying to support joint ventures on the academic front.

But cooperation between universities doesn't take place because of the will of the two senior officers of the universities, it takes place because of contacts between individual people at the department level. The way a rector or principal can encourage cooperation is by putting people at the department level in touch with each other. Knowing the two communities as I know them now, I will be able to tell my colleagues in the Faculty of Music, for example, 'Why don't you contact X?' That is what I intend to do.

I just spent the lunch hour with (VP Academic) Bill Chan and we were talking about this. Laval has made extraordinary progress in the quality of its performance in quite a number of areas in the last 10 years. A decade ago, Laval was a university in development. It was strong in certain areas, but it still had some way to go.

Generally speaking, it has gone quite a bit of the way to achieving recognized excellence--certainly at the national level. Laval is now operating at the level where, in quite a number of academic areas, there are some real opportunities for cooperation with McGill.

We are catering to different audiences and we are recruiting from different populations. In the industrial sectors, we are connected to a slightly different set of companies. Working together should be of benefit to both institutions.

I'm particularly thinking about possible developments in areas of continuing education where there is a rapidly growing market. In making joint ventures, we might have a better chance of making attractive proposals to large companies that need to retrain their staff. By putting together an anglophone and a francophone institution, you take care of both populations and you can meet the needs of a much larger market.

There are also some possible developments on the international scene--McGill is well connected in certain parts of the world but perhaps not as well connected in others, where Laval can probably fill the gap. I'm really looking forward to increased opportunities for cooperation between the universities.

What do you see as the major issues facing Laval?

The major issue is broadening the base from which Laval recruits. Laval is still very much a Quebec City university recruiting from the Quebec City area. There are very few students coming from Montreal or from other parts of the province. There are few students from francophone Canada outside Quebec. There is a good complement of international students, but that could be enlarged as well. It so happens that the region from which Laval is recruiting is one which is demographically declining. Economically, if it is not declining, then at best it's stable. So, for the long-term benefit of the university, one has to broaden the horizons of Laval. That is certainly going to be the top priority.

The next priority, as is the case with all universities in Quebec, is to find a way to survive in the context of budget cuts and that's not going to be easy. That in itself will speak in favour of cooperation with other universities.

How has your time at McGill helped prepare you for the rector's job at Laval?

Enormously. What I've gained are things that are not easy to describe in simple terms. I have been exposed to a completely different culture. The broadening of one's cultural outlook is of enormous value. I'm certainly a different person today than I was when I came here in 1989.

McGill is managed in a very different way from the Laval I knew when I left it back in 1989. I've been impressed by the decentralized way of managing the University.

I have also been able to observe some of the not so desirable aspects of decentralized management--on occasion, McGill's way of doing business almost verges on chaos. One of the drawbacks to decentralization is that it allows for the development of conflicting rules and convoluted processes. A lot of our time is spent just spinning our wheels and we need to do something about that.

Still, fundamentally, the way McGill is managed is something I've come to value. I'm certainly going to bring over [a more decentralized approach] to Laval because I think it's a better way to manage a university.

The richness of the context of McGill is just amazing and that certainly has brought me some lasting benefits. Being at McGill, you're able to make contact with unbelievable people--not just within the University, but all around the University.

Looking back over your record at McGill, are there any accomplishments of which you're particularly proud? Any disappointments?

I've had my hand in quite a few issues in the past eight years. When Bill Chan and I walked back from lunch at the Faculty Club, I saw the Wong Building in the background and I said, 'Well, I'm glad at least this one is finished.' Generally speaking, on the physical plant front, I think I've delivered a few goods which will be of lasting benefit--the Wong Building being one major element.

Putting in place a different way of allocating capital budgets and providing deans with the tools to meet their needs in terms of the capital budget--I think that was important. We also put in place the mechanism for matching funds with the faculties to address priority issues---that, I think, is going to be of lasting benefit as well.

The umpteen different things we've done with the planning and priorities subcommittee of the APPC in terms of the Task Force on Priorities and the planning report that was adopted more recently by Senate also stand out.

In terms of things I wish I could have done--I would have liked to have been able to spend more time on the technology side in general. Last year, the Senate subcommittee on computing adopted an overall framework which I think will help us over the next few years, but I guess with a little bit more time on my part I could have done more than just see this general policy framework put in place. If there is one area where I could say that I leave with a sense that there is still quite a bit to do, it's the area of technology in general. And that ties into my thoughts about the future of the vice-principal position.

The very public selection process for rectors at francophone universities is quite different from what we see at anglophone universities. How would you compare the two ways of selecting new leaders?

If I compare the process at Laval and the corresponding process at McGill, where a selection committee operates very much in confidence, the sense I would have is that the McGill process is more likely to attract a diversity of candidates from a diversity of horizons to the job.

An election process is more likely to attract candidates from the inside. I ended up winning, but as everyone said at Laval, I was an outside candidate--but not quite outside. I know the place quite well and I was known in the place. I doubt very much that a candidate coming entirely from the outside with no connections inside the university would have a real chance of being elected. I think it's something worth thinking about by all the francophone universities, because Laval is not an exception.

If you look at the last election at Université de Montréal, it was between two inside candidates. The most recent election at Sherbrooke was between two inside candidates. The election at UQAM was similar to my own case. It involved a candidate from inside and an outsider--Paule Leduc--but she had a long history at UQAM and she was coming from the offices of Université du Québec--not exactly a foreign organization. I think the franco-phone universities need to reflect on this. Is it good to have a process which makes it almost impossible for outside candidates to be considered for the rectorship?

Is there anything you would like to say to the McGill community?

It's been a real pleasure. I can honestly say that I've never had a truly negative experience in this job--nothing that ever made me just throw up my arms and say, 'Jesus Christ, what the hell is this?'

There is little sense of a hierarchical system at McGill and I've been struck by that and by the easy, direct and open relationships between members of the University community. That's central to the effectiveness of our operation.

I've met so many absolutely superb people. For instance, I remember the Wednesday morning meetings I used to have with (former Vice-Principal Academic) Bill Leggett and (former Vice-Principal Administration and Finance) John Armour to discuss the urgent issues of that week--those meetings were just a delight. I had real fun here.

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