When Suzanne Fortier took the helm of McGill University in 2013, she could hardly have known the upheaval that was to come. After steering the institution through (hopefully) the worst of the pandemic, Dr. Fortier announced early in 2022 that she would be relinquishing her post as the leader of one of the country’s most well-known universities on Aug. 31.
As fate would have it, she was chairing the Global University Leaders Forum at the World Economic Forum when the pandemic hit. She says that the opportunity provided key lessons, as leaders from the world’s top universities shared their experiences in responding to an unfolding public health crisis.
As we spoke this past spring, she also mentioned her research in the area of artificial intelligence, which makes her insights on the future of education in a world that’s being reshaped by technology well worth heeding.
There are a few other notable points about Dr. Fortier’s storied career, for context. She served as president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for seven years before becoming principal and vice-chancellor at McGill. A crystallographer by training, she joined Queen’s University back in 1982 and became a professor in the department of chemistry and the school of computing before going on to hold senior administrative roles at that institution from 1995 and 2005.
You announced in January that you would be stepping down. How are you feeling, now that the academic year is coming to a close?
It’s bittersweet because I love McGill, and I’ll be stepping down from the job but not moving away from McGill. Of course, I’m not going to be getting in the way of my successor. But I love what this life has to offer – so much to discover, learn every day, concerts to enjoy. In fact, I made it a point to do that as principal – I go to a lot of classes and lectures and conferences and concerts. But I have limited time, and when I go to class, I have to make up for it in the evening because there is, of course, work that needs to get done.
Do you find that energizing?
Oh yes. Even during COVID. We didn’t have many students here from March 2020 until September 2021. During that time, I went to some classes online. But it’s not quite the same. What I also noticed online is at the beginning people were more engaged. As time went by, there were more and more people who decided not to put their cameras on. And facing a screen that’s full of little black squares doesn’t really bring the kind of experience you have in person.
How do you think the pandemic changed university education pedagogy? And do you think some of those changes are permanent?
It changed us in many ways, interestingly. First of all, if we had any doubts about the value of a physical campus, a place of meeting, a carrefour where people meet and interact, the kind of dynamic life that you have when you’re on a university campus, now we know how important it is. So, the notion of having virtual campuses is gone for a particular group of learners. You can’t think about students as one group. For the students who are here, having their first experience at a university, this is definitely the experience they should have. On the other hand, if you are a person who’s at work, you have a family, [then] the virtual learning platforms are fantastic, and that’s what you want. Also, for different communities that may be remote, to have access to high quality education virtually is certainly a good opportunity. And we learned we can open our doors much wider to people who are in such situations.
I also wanted to ask you about the Global University Leaders Forum, which you chaired. What has that experience been like?
It’s been fantastic. We have opportunities to participate in a lot of conferences as members of the academic community, but they tend to be meetings among ourselves. The World Economic Forum is completely different: you’ll have people from the investment sector, the industrial sector, [there are] a lot of young people at the meetings in Davos who are great innovators, social innovators. And [the forum brings] people from the academic environment. So, the mixture of people is really great.
Chairing it was a difficult experience in some ways because soon after I became chair we turned into this big pandemic wave. We met in person in January 2020 in Davos, and the next thing that happened, we were in the pandemic. And we had many meetings online, much more than we’ve ever had. As we got into the pandemic, we would meet every month. And it was great because our colleagues from Hong Kong were there for us, saying “we’ve been through it. This is what you should expect. We’ve built some tools. We would be happy to share what we have learned.” There was a great sense of all of us being a community.
Looking back on your career, how has the idea of inclusiveness and diversity changed?
When I started, there were very few women in science hired in universities. I was the very first one in 1982 to be hired in the department of chemistry at Queen’s. And there was no one in physics. There were a few in mathematics. After me, they hired the first women in engineering. It sounds like we were dinosaurs, but this is the way it was in the early 1980’s. Today at McGill, when we look at the number of assistant professors hired as their first position in a university, it’s 50/50. So, it’s changed enormously. What came afterwards though was a greater opening for other minority groups, whether it’s Indigenous people, Black, people of different sexual orientations. Even when I was hired, it still was not a hospitable environment at universities for people with different identities.
But while it’s changed enormously, there’s still so much to do. I think it’s fair to say that there were minority groups who were kept out because they didn’t fit the stereotype they were supposed to in order to join [the university] community. There’s good reason for people who have had that experience to be very frustrated and impatient for things to change. And yet, the tough part is you know the changes will probably not occur as fast as some people would like them to. It takes time to build the pipeline, to bring in people so that they’re no longer a minority group, [that] they’re a part of the normal demography of the universities or any communities.
I supposed one example would be the Canada Research Chair equity targets, and how to meet those.
Yes. I’ll tell you what we did at NSERC, which I thought was a good model in terms of thinking about the goals and targets. We always looked at the feeding pool. For example, if 40 per cent of your PhDs, postdoctoral fellows are women, then you should expect that 40 per cent of the people who are hired as assistant professors would be women. And yet, sometimes people are setting their expectations at 50 per cent women, 50 per cent men, which is what it is in society. It’s hard to meet parity when the pool of people you can recruit from doesn’t have parity.
To me that’s a realistic and achievable goal, and probably the best way. Because if you set your expectations at a much higher level, but in fact you don’t have the candidates — they’re not there – then you’re not achieving what you think you’d like to achieve because the pool is not big enough.
Let’s turn to academic freedom, which is a big issue in Quebec in particular. Under Bill 32, universities are required to come up with a policy on this. Do you have any advice for other administrators who now have to tackle this?
There’s a lot of discussion about it now because we all support academic freedom. It’s essential for advancing knowledge and for creating an environment where you can really go outside of the current frontier and to places where people have not explored yet. What I think is to be considered is how much imposed bureaucracy from outside is needed to achieve that. Because I can tell you, many universities have been thinking about this and building processes together in their own community to protect academic freedom. So, is it better that the government impose a model on you? Or, is it better to have one that you develop in your own community? On that, I think, as long as there are common principles and standards that are established, the rest would probably be best built from the inside rather than imposed with a one-size-fits-all kind of model.
The biggest conundrum is that the history of academic freedom was to protect people who were pursuing discoveries from the government of the day, which may or may not be aligned with [government’s] thinking. So, it’s a bit of a strange situation that the government may interfere, seeing that the original intent was protection from government.
I’m curious about your expertise in artificial intelligence, and what perspective that has given you on how technology may change the job market, and how universities function as a result.
I think we all know that technology in general is changing the nature of jobs. Algorithms, artificial intelligence, robots, sensors – our world is full of technology that’s changing how we work and the skills we have to acquire. This was part of the work I did at the World Economic Forum. I was co-chair of the Global Forum on the Future of Education and the Future of Work. So, I had many interactions on that topic with people from all over the world in different sectors.
After the work that we did, we wound up with four big buckets of skills that people will need to start learning from day one. One of those buckets of skills is creativity and innovation. Another one is digital skills, but not simply being able to work with technology – being able to understand the impact of these technologies on our lives, on our interactions. Learning about the disruption caused by technologies and how to really use disruptive technologies for the benefit of society, not to the detriment, is very important. Another set of skills is to be citizens: our civic sense of belonging to a community — and a community at a global level. And finally, the last bucket was on intra- and inter-personal skills. That was very important because a lot of the things we do, we do with others. A great deal of having interpersonal skills is having intrapersonal skills and being able to have an objective look at yourself, what you can bring, what are our strengths and weaknesses.
There’s no question that technologies are changing our lives, but there’s no question that as humans we have a great ability to learn, to adapt, to acquire new competencies. We have to develop that. For us as educators, this is what we need to bring as a learning environment for our students – that they require skills and competencies in all of these areas through all sorts of learning experiences on our campuses.
I always say to students: the one thing that’s the most valuable that you get out of this university is confidence in your ability to learn. If you know you’re good at learning, and you’re not afraid of learning, of facing something that you don’t know much about, but you say, “OK, I’ll do it. I’ll be able to learn. I know I’m good at learning,” then you will be well equipped for life both on a personal and professional level. That’s the kind of thing we need to bring to our students: confidence in their ability to learn.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.