The principal's perspective

Principal Bernard Shapiro is settling down in his native city and also settling into a new term as McGill's top administrator. In a conversation last week with Reporter editor Diana Grier Ayton, he talked of his unstinting enthusiasm for the job, his pride in McGill and where he hopes to lead the University in the next five years.


When we first talked at the beginning of your original mandate, you were working your way through 200 departmental annual reports to familiarize yourself with McGill.

I certainly know a great deal more about McGill and about higher education and universities in general than I knew three years ago, but there always seem to be new challenges. That's one of the exciting parts of this job  just when you think you've reached a reasonable plateau on the learning curve, something comes up. You're always having to learn something new and learn it quickly. But that's what makes it stimulating. So I feel that I'm in just as steep a place as I was before but in a different place.

I understand you've also been working on improving your French.

We've made a deliberate effort to read French newspapers, watch French television, go to French plays and movies, but also to learn in a formal sense. My wife has gone through all five levels of McGill's intensive French course, both written and oral, and we spent our entire vacation this summer at the Institut français in France going to class from 8:30 to 5, five days a week. It was great, we loved it.

I've just finished an interview with Le Devoir on the telephone. I'm sure the people on the other end recognize this is not a native-born francophone but my French is certainly functional, and wonderfully enriching. I find that one of the negative parts of my experience in Montreal has been the number of anglophones you meet who look at French as a language of oppression. It's not that you can't understand how that happens, it's just that that attitude is a dead end.

But you've enjoyed being back in Montreal?

Oh, yes, and we intend to stay. We rented our house when we left Toronto because we planned to go back, but we've just finished moving into our own place here. It's a fabulous city, the people in Montreal are wonderful and there are all kinds of opportunities for a life well lived.

As you embark on this new term, is there something in particular that stands out from your first three years as principal?

Two things that stand out: one positive and one negative. The negative thing that stands out is the amount of time and effort spent simply imagining how to cope with what I regard as the draconian collapse of government support for universities. I expected it would go down, but I did not envision the scale at which it actually occurred.

The outstanding positive part really is the extent to which the staff and faculty are in some senses killing themselves to do the work. The demand is the same, the student numbers are the same, the programs are the same  if not more complicated than they ever were  and somehow we are managing to deliver the goods. And we are doing it because everybody is simply working harder. Probably working smarter as well. But the goods are being produced. Week after week you see the publications coming out, the awards coming in, the students applying, and that's very heartening, because it's not as if people weren't working before.

Because your mandate was interrupted and you were appointed to a new five-year term, there is some fear that this was done to enable you to start making drastic changes.

Given the fact that one of the things I am required to do is manage the entitlements to staff and faculty  which use up easily 80% of our budget  really drastic moves are not available to me and probably not appropriate. Universities aren't places where radical action is available as an option.

I think what is appropriate instead is principled action. You take small steps in the name of a principle, so that they add up and don't cancel each other out. Where possible, you build on strength, you don't build up weakness, and if you do that consistently over five, six, or seven years, then something will happen as you look back. The danger is that various factors will cause us to do unprincipled things  and I don't mean bad things, just unprincipled things, so that nothing builds and five or six years from now, you're just where you were before.

I think there is also a general feeling of "Where is the strategic plan?" I don't actually believe in the great big pie in the sky. I think that's what people talk about and never actually do. It gives you the right psychological feeling but entirely the wrong result.

So where do we go from here?

We've now got to find other mechanisms or other sources of revenue to sustain the quality of the institution. That's what is at stake: the quality, not the institution itself. We are holding a special retreat for the Board of Governors on September 13, and it's that issue we will focus on. How can we put together enough revenue to continue to offer, on an international scale, the quality of our programs?

We want to gather ideas that make sense and avoid what I call magical thinking. Magical thinking is assuming that what you need will fall from the sky. It's easy to say just be more efficient, you won't need the money: that is magical thinking. The challenge is fairly obvious, but the problem is to figure out solutions that aren't delusionary, and that will enable us to meet the challenge.

What are some of the possibilities?

We're working those out now. We want to give some ideas and then listen to what other people have to say about them. And I'm hoping the Board members themselves will have very interesting ideas to add. As an example, in five years I want the income from alumni support to be doubled. I think that's reachable. If I said, in five years I want to have 10 times the income, that's magical thinking  it's not reasonable.

We have to imagine a series of moves, because there won't be any one move that will do it. We want to continue to try to convince the government to give us more, we want to work on what are the possibilities for students, for tuition systems. We want to work on contract research, on philanthropy, on self-funded programs. Put together, these things might be an appropriate solution.

The government keeps cutting and we keep adjusting. Are we actually making any progress?

I think we are. I've often said the trick for university principals is to remain fiscally and intellectually solvent at the same time. And so far, we're managing. We began with a very large deficit which is gradually getting a bit lower. The situation hasn't been resolved, but it's under control. We continue to have a very large capital deficit in terms of deferred maintenance  in the order of $200 million  which is an issue we've yet to deal with.

Nevertheless, given the size of the cuts, it's quite amazing that we've been able to hold our own. And we aren't seeing at McGill what we've seen at Laval or Université de Montréal this past year, which are huge new operating deficits. Much more important is that while all this is going on we have all kinds of new academic things happening. We have a new medical school curriculum, the entire redesign of the BCom and the MBA programs, the integration of the dental and medical students, the newly created School of Environment coming up, the proposed change in the majors program in the Faculty of Arts, the redesign of the teacher education program. There is all this intellectual ferment going on, which is where the action really is. As long as we can hold up that end of the bargain, I think that the other end of the bargain will hold itself up sooner or later. The danger is that we would allow the budget constraints to ossify the intellectual side of the University.

You've said that student recruiting is one of McGill's top short-term priorities.

Yes. Student recruiting has two important aspects. It's absolutely crucial that we continue to recruit not only quality students but students from different backgrounds. We need anglophones and francophones from Quebec, but we also need people from around the world. McGill is and must remain the most international Canadian university, whether we're talking about students, faculty or any other part of it.

It must remain the most international in order to be distinctive in Quebec?

Yes. What is the role of an anglophone institution in a French society? Why are we worth supporting? My answer is that we are a very high- quality institution, and that we are the most international institution in the country. This is a time when internationalism is more important than ever, and McGill is there. The problem is to stay there. That is why I would like to double the proportion of our international students. It's now 12-13%; I would like it to be around a quarter.

Is this a selling point for the Quebec government?

Government responses tend to blow hot and cold. On the one hand they are very much in favour of being able to participate in the international competition going on in the world, and after all, international students have become an export industry. We export our brains to these people and we import their money. In that sense, people are excited both intellectually and financially.

On the other hand, there always is a kind of nativism, where people will say a student you accepted from France is one you didn't accept from Quebec. In a selective university, that does happen. But the presence of students from around the world is as important for students from Quebec as it is for the international students themselves. We are providing a special kind of environment that is beneficial for all our students. Having said that, I would also like to see enrolment of Quebec francophones increase to a quarter as well. Right now it's about 20%.

Is that a matter of more aggressive recruiting in French CEGEPs or is there a strategy to make francophones feel more at home at McGill?

I think we do have to recruit more aggressively, but we have to look at other things. Is our correspondence with francophone students in French? Are the signs at the University in French and English both inside and outside? Are faculty as sensitive as they could be? A young francophone student in a class may need a little extra consideration just to make sure that he or she understands what's happening. I know we allow students to write papers and exams in French if they wish but do we encourage it?

Lots of francophone students, of course, come here with the intention of not using their language. I don't want to get in the way of that, that's fine. But we need to make them feel at ease; to say this is a place for you, not just for anglophones. Nevertheless, McGill is an English-language institution, and there's no use pretending it's something else.

What are some other immediate priorities?

We have to work hard to make sure Quebec participates in the Canadian Innovation Foundation program, so we can have some of the benefits of the billions of dollars the federal government is going to be investing in university infrastructures.

I have an enormous priority which is the McGill University Health Centre. We finally got it up and going. It's had its first board meeting and we've got the superstructure put in place. Now we've got to move from the bottom up to achieve the integration of clinical services and start behaving as if this were one hospital rather than four hospitals. So that's another matter that's really quite important for now and for the future.

You spoke about McGill being the most international university in the country. Is it inevitable that all universities must develop a niche?

The price paid for mass higher education is differentiation and there are no exceptions to the rule. What we don't do is admit it and I think that's our mistake, because by not admitting it, we have been unable to develop what I call differential status arrangements. Universities which have different missions aren't necessarily lesser or more  they're different. Unless we admit that there are differences, we're forced to enter into a unidimensional state and to try and convince the government that every university needs what the most expensive model needs, and that's simply not true.

Do you think the provincial government is promoting accessibility over differentiation?

I would put it differently. Access and differentiation are possible together. What you can't have together are no resources, accessibility and quality. They're pushing for accessibility without facing the fact that the only way they can purchase it with the current pot of money available is by lowering the quality of the institutions they're supporting. You're then defrauding the future of young people because you're not giving them the quality of experience they will need to compete with other young people.

When I spoke to FEUQ (the provincial students' association) a couple of weeks ago, I said, "You may think you've got a victory through the continuing freeze on tuition fees, but what did you really get? You got fewer books, fewer professors, fewer courses  big deal!"

Your office was occupied in a protest last year. Do you think you face a new onslaught from McGill students this year?

Probably. It comes with the territory, after all. But don't forget that McGill students are very generous to the University. They are always voting to support this or that project, and I do understand that when you have to borrow money to pay tuition fees and therefore mortgage your life when you begin it, it's not ideal.

We have to help students  I think we need better student assistance programs and more reasonable payment schemes. I like income contingent loan repayment plans because if you owe money, the degree to which you pay it back depends on what your income is later. If you've chosen an occupation where income is low, you have a different obligation than if you have a high income. I think that's all reasonable. It means that students who have benefited from education  and after all, university graduates do get paid better than most other people  will help pay for it.

No one is suggesting they pay for it entirely. Some sort of shared responsibility is appropriate because I think the benefits are shared. The only countries that have managed to make higher education free are those who have managed to make it inaccessible. There's no trick to that. We could have far fewer dollars than the Quebec government is currently allocating and make it entirely free  it would just be for far fewer people.

Is student indebtedness a greater problem in Quebec than elsewhere?

I think it's a lesser problem because the fees are lower, but I think student debt is going to be an increasing problem if fees are going to rise, as I'm almost certain they are. Then it's going to be more difficult for students, especially since we should be wanting to attract more poor people to universities.

One thing McGill has in common with other universities in Quebec and with universities everywhere is that not many people from disadvantaged backgrounds come to university and that's a shame. It's not a matter of cost alone. It's also a question of the cultural environment in which you grow up and what things are seen to be important. Going to university is not for everybody, but in some situations it's just a question of not having figured out how to do it.

I think something we  society in general  could do is work much more actively with relatively disadvantaged families when their children are 9, 10 and 11 years old. We should say, "If you want university for your children, we can figure out a way. If they can figure out how to get the grades, we can figure out how to finance it." When kids are 17, decisions have long since been made.

You've done a lot of interviews over the last few years. Are there questions you're getting tired of answering?

No. I think if questions are repeated it's because the issues are important and there are no easy answers. The question I would like to be asked is: "What are three exciting things that have happened at McGill in the last six months?" People always ask about the problems, but incredible things are happening in a whole variety of places at McGill and we don't seem to have a mechanism for capturing people's attention about that. I think we need to make a bigger fuss about our people and the wonderful things they're doing.