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Margin Notes

Two new university presidents share their thoughts

Installation addresses of Meric Gertler and Suzanne Fortier were, in some ways, a study in contrasts.


The installation ceremonies of two new university leaders attracted considerable attention last week because of the institutions they now represent: Suzanne Fortier, installed as principal of McGill University on November 5, and Meric Gertler, installed as president of the University of Toronto two days later.

As the new administrative heads of two of Canada’s most formidable institutions of higher learning, they are people whose words are worth reflecting on. They were, in some ways, a study in contrasts. Dr. Gertler, who joined U of T in 1983 and most recently served as dean of arts and science there, is very much an insider. He focused his remarks on the institution, with an added plea for more money.

Dr. Fortier, who is a McGill alumna (a BSc in 1972 and a PhD in crystallography in 1976), nevertheless has not frequented its hallowed halls for many years; in her remarks she focused on her personal journey that led her to become principal of McGill – although she of course had much praise for her alma mater, too.

Dr. Gertler, after the requisite thank you to the assembled guests, started his address quite surprisingly:

20th … 8th … 2nd … 1st … and last. That is the paradox that is the University of Toronto. 20th in the world (according to the latest Times Higher Education World University rankings)… 8th in the world in scientific performance (according to the 2013 National Taiwan University rankings)… 2nd in the world in total output of scholarly publications (after Harvard)… 1st in Canada in all of these rankings… and yet last in Canada, and amongst the very lowest in North America, when it comes to public funding per student.

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that – simply put – this institution defies gravity. Our ability to achieve these incredible results in the face of such a significant resource handicap is nothing short of remarkable.

He went on to acknowledge the many accomplishments of his institution – in research, in student accessibility, in its links to the community – and also spoke warmly of the city in which it is located:

It is our great good fortune to be situated in the world’s most open, cosmopolitan, and globalized city-region. Indeed, U of T would not be the success it is today were it not situated in one of the world’s great cities. … The social and cultural diversity of this region is, of course, striking.

Reflecting on the challenges ahead, Dr. Gertler named three key elements to address them: leveraging the university’s location in Toronto more fully through community outreach and partnerships; strengthening its international partnerships, including “with other great universities in other great world cities”; and rededicating the university to the enrichment of teaching and learning, including “re-examining and perhaps even reinventing undergraduate education.”

But that’s not all: “… in the end, there is one further and very important element that will be required. There is no escaping the hard truth that we’ll need more support from our government partners, at all levels, if we are to succeed.”

Dr. Fortier, meanwhile, started her adress by noting that the world she grew up in “was far removed from the world of academia.” Her parents ran the hotel in their little village of Saint-Timothée (about 60 km southwest of Montreal), and in her home there were three books: the Larousse dictionary, the Bible and the Eaton’s catalogue.

Speaking partly in French and partly in English, she said she decided to study at McGill, even though she understood little English “and spoke even less” (Dr. Fortier is the first francophone to head McGill in its 194-year history). She remembers “vividly” how much she liked her classes and the opportunity to do research by her second year; she discovered “to my surprise, that the professors teaching me were giants in their fields.” And, like Dr. Gertler, she praised her city: “Et, bien sûr, j’étais à Montréal. I tasted all that the city had to offer.”

She finished her speech with a very touching story:

Not long ago, an 11-year-old boy was walking through the McGill campus with his grandmother. He turned to his grandmother, my sister Muriel, who is with us today, and declared “C’est ici que je vais étudier.” “That is where I will study.” His grand-maman challenged him: “Oui, mais il va falloir que tu aies de bonnes notes.” “You will have to have very good marks to get in, you know.” He answered, “Ça ne sera pas un problème.” “This will not be a problem.” And when she added, “Il va falloir que tu apprennes l’anglais,” he did not hesitate a second: “Tu vas voir, ça ne me prendra pas de temps!” “You will see, it won’t take me long.”

Born to a Brazilian mother and a French-Canadian father, “that boy exemplifies the new multicultural, multilingual generation,” said Dr. Fortier. “He is ready to be challenged. He is ready to embrace other cultures, other languages and other ways of knowing. All he needs is for us to be ready for him.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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