The champion of 'grey matter' trade

August 29, 2003

Kenneth Asch examines the legacy of the retiring principal of McGill University in Montreal.

In January this year, Bernard Shapiro, principal of Montreal's McGill University, opted for early retirement with two years of his contract left to run. His days of full employment threaten to be outpaced, however, by a newly acquired workload in the broader community, spanning Montreal's harbour front and symphony orchestra and Canada's armed forces.

Shapiro's selection in 1994 as McGill's principal was regarded as a defining moment in the city's culture. It had been improbable that a Jewish candidate could take on the top job at a traditionally Scottish Presbyterian campus noted for its antipathy towards people of his faith and virtually isolated within a community of mostly hostile French Catholics.

He had been headhunted out of earlier retirement - following seven years as Ontario's deputy minister of education - to rescue Canada's finest university from apparent terminal decline. Such was its academic and fiscal predicament that in 1994 - a year before the referendum on sovereign status for Quebec - a university spokesperson could admit how ethnic background had become a critical issue. "Our choice," she told The THES at Shapiro's installation, "had either to be French or a Jew."

In 1994, the campus resembled eastern Europe of the 1980s. Today it has risen from 13th to third place in the national rankings. Among prominent projects under way, with investments totalling C$105 million (£48 million), are new facilities for music, communications technology and genetics research.

Fundamental problems remain, by Shapiro's own admission. "The biggest disappointment was my inability to convince the Quebec government... of the value of universities to the future of the community," he says. He points to grants that are "parsimonious" and tuition fees that have remained frozen for ten years. Despite repeated appeals for tuition reform he failed to persuade the province's legislature to revamp an antediluvian agenda guaranteeing less affluent students a university education. McGill remains underfunded by C$80 million a year.

"This simply undermines the quality of education," Shapiro says, "since in the 'free trade' of grey matter Canada must compete with the US."

At Shapiro's departure there is a sense of stability, even confidence. The reason, according to Lucien Bouchard, Quebec's retired premier, is clear.

"Francophone Quebec [viewed] McGill very much as part of the Anglophone world. [Bernard Shapiro's] main contribution is to have made people aware that McGill is very much ingrained in the texture of Quebec."

The process began immediately the separatist Bouchard became provincial premier in 1996. He invited Shapiro - then principal-elect - publicly to join him and other prominent Quebecers to define the "distinct" status that French Canada demanded.

Attacked by the English media for his support of an agenda anathema to most Anglophones, Shapiro made instant friends on the opposite side of the cultural divide. "Because of people such as Bernard Shapiro," Bouchard emphasises, "we improved the collective life of Montreal."

The discreet deliberations of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra are suited to Shapiro, who studied piano as a young man. His legacy at McGill will belong as much to the community as to higher education. And because it is on a broadly cultural scale, chances are that his achievement will be recognised as historic.

Successor Heather Munroe-Blum says: "These are enormous shoes, and I won't even pretend to fill them."

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