Former McGill principals (l to r) David Johnston, Heather Munroe-Blum and Bernard Shapiro (Photo: Claudio Calligaris)

On Campus

Three leaders look back

Three of McGill’s past principals, David Johnston, LLD’00, Bernard Shapiro, BA’56, LLD’88, and Heather Munroe-Blum, DSc’17, share some of their memories about the University and what it was like for them to lead it.

Story by McGill News

February 2022

At different points in McGill’s history, David Johnston, Bernard Shapiro and Heather Munroe-Blum have all sat in the same office in the James Administration Building, wrestling with the challenges of their respective eras, and taking delight in McGill’s accomplishments during their tenures as the University’s principal and vice-chancellor. We recently asked each of them to reflect on some of the things they experienced when they led McGill. 

David Johnston

After serving as the dean of law at the University of Western Ontario, David Johnston, LLD’00, became McGill’s principal in 1979, spending 15 years in the role. He later led the University of Waterloo as its president from 1999 to 2010, and was Canada’s governor general from 2010 to 2017. He was the founding chair of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, and chaired the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the federal government’s Information Highway Advisory Council and was the first non-American to chair Harvard University’s Board of Overseers.

What is your first memory of McGill?

My first memory of McGill would probably be from the age of 10 or 11, when I discovered the role that McGill played in the invention of hockey – even though there are three or four other institutions that also claim they invented hockey. I would add to that the famous rugby match between Harvard and McGill, which is said to be the beginning of North American football.

Is there a historical figure from McGill’s past who particularly inspires you?

Sir William Dawson, the principal who really built McGill from next to nothing to the beginning stages of a really terrific university with a flourishing culture. There have been so many superb people over the years. Rutherford. Penfield. Frank Scott, the remarkable poet and one of Canada’s most influential voices in constitutional law. John Humphrey, who played such an important role with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I had the chance to get to know both Frank and John when I was at McGill.

What was the biggest reason why you accepted the offer to become McGill’s principal?

The University of Alberta actually reached out first and asked if I’d be interested in becoming president. And then, an invitation came from McGill. To make a long story short, McGill moved more quickly. They sent six members of their search team to spend a Saturday with us. We thought it was going to be an examination – how on Earth could I manage a university with five children who were all 10 or younger. But [my wife] Sharon and I soon realized they weren’t there to inspect us. They had come to express the warmest welcome they could.

What was the most important thing you learned about McGill during your first year as principal?

The single most important mark of leadership is recognizing your total dependence on the people around you. As a leader, you need to do everything you can to foster a culture where people are excited about what they’re doing, and where they feel that they have the opportunity to develop to their full potential.

What was your most memorable day in that role?

Every convocation was a memorable day, just to see the joy of all those families celebrating the achievements of their sons and daughters, their grandchildren, their spouses. The first few days of each fall semester were special too. Seeing the excitement in the eyes of the new students and knowing that we would all get to be a part of this adventure with them.

What McGillian – past or present – had the greatest impact on you personally?

From a personal standpoint, I would mention some of the people who played such an important role in welcoming Sharon, myself, and our children to McGill when we were newcomers and very young. Alan Gold, who was the chief justice of the Superior Court of Quebec, was the chair of McGill’s Board of Governors back then. He was extraordinary, both as the chair and as a friend. Conrad Harrington was McGill’s chancellor, and he and his wife Joan were like second parents to us.

What was the greatest challenge you faced in your years as McGill’s principal?

It was government relations and our funding situation. For quite some time, McGill was underfunded relative to Quebec’s other universities, and it took years to get the government to acknowledge that and then to take action. We were trying to build the best university in Canada and [it felt] like they were trying to make us the worst university in Montreal.

What was the best part of the job?

I think the connection with students would be a big part of it; I love young people, and they were so enthusiastic. It’s all people related. It’s the great leaders, the deans, the vice-principals – all the people who created a culture that is quite unique, I think, in North American universities. The sense of passion and commitment for the advancement of knowledge which is so present at McGill and is so powerful. It allowed us to deal with the tough fortunes that I just described.

What advice would you give to the principals who will lead McGill in its third century?

What I would say about universities is that the cause and the company are both very good. Just enjoy that company. Deal with the problems as they come along, but know that you are surrounded by great people who are there to help you deal with them.


Bernard J. Shapiro

Principal Emeritus Bernard J. Shapiro, BA’56, LLD’88, was the third McGill graduate to become the University’s principal, serving in the role between 1994 and 2002. Before returning to McGill and Montreal, the city where he had been born and raised, Shapiro worked in several different senior positions, including vice-president (academic) and provost at the University of Western Ontario, director of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and deputy minister for universities and colleges for Ontario.

What is your first memory of McGill?

My first memory of McGill as principal is walking into the Arts Building, seeing my name on the wall that listed all of McGill’s principals, and finding it hard to believe that I was that Bernard J. Shapiro. 

Is there a historical figure from McGill’s past who particularly inspires you?

My main inspirations were the professors who had showed me as a McGill undergraduate what the excitement and value of living an examined life could be.

What was the biggest reason why you accepted the offer to become McGill’s principal?

I accepted the job of principal for at least two reasons. First, I was flattered that I had been given such an opportunity. Second, I believed that I could bring added value to the ongoing history of the University.

What was the most important thing you learned about McGill during your first year as principal?

During the first year, the most important thing that I learned was how resilient the University was in responding to difficult financial and intellectual challenges. 

What was your most memorable day in that role?

The most memorable day in that first year was the day I spent with an undergraduate who had won a Student Society of McGill University contest. The prize was being able to be with me from breakfast through dinner, doing whatever was on the principal’s schedule that day. Later that semester, I shadowed him for a day.

What was the greatest challenge you faced in your years as McGill’s principal?

In my first years as principal, the greatest challenges were, first, getting to understand and appreciate McGill’s greatest strengths, second, to ensure that whatever the budget challenges were, the University would continue to add to and renew the faculty, and third, to provide budgets to programs of great value, whether or not they were entirely fiscally solvent.

What was the best part of the job?

The best part of the job was the constant interaction with smart people, whether faculty, staff, or students.

What advice would you give to the principals who will lead McGill in its third century?

My best advice would be to remind the principal that he/she can do it if he/she can keep smiling, while constantly keeping his/her eye on the ball. After all, the experience is a blast!


Heather Munroe-Blum

Principal Emerita Heather Munroe-Blum, DSc’17, served as McGill’s principal from 2003 to 2013. She was the first woman in McGill’s history to take on the role. Before arriving at McGill, she was the vice-president (research and international relations) at the University of Toronto. She was a founding director of the Toronto-based Medical and Related Sciences Discovery District (MARS), and of Genome Canada, and has served on several different boards for corporations, hospitals and community organizations. She is currently the chairperson of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

What is your first memory of McGill?

My first memory of McGill is of walking through the campus when I was a young girl. I fell in love with the place on the spot, and quietly committed myself: “Someday, I’m going to come here.”

Is there a historical figure from McGill’s past who particularly inspires you?

I am tremendously inspired by David Johnston, McGill’s 14th principal, both as a person and as a leader. He has achieved historical status in his own lifetime.

What was the biggest reason why you accepted the offer to become McGill’s principal?

It’s McGill! When I was 14 years old, I dreamed of coming to McGill without knowing what that really meant. When I was 52 years old, I knew that McGill was the best university in Canada, and one of the best in the world. I knew what that meant, and I was ready to make a contribution to this great university along with the community of people who make McGill McGill.

What was the most important thing you learned about McGill during your first year as principal?

That the themes driving the great North American public research-intensive universities forward may be similar, but the expression of them differs greatly. McGill’s international and Quebec contexts are equally important, and have special implications for serving at a high level our undergraduates, as well as our graduate and our professional students, and the communities within which we operate.

What was your most memorable day in that role?

Every convocation stays with me as that special memory. There was nothing better than celebrating our students with their friends and families, and paying respect to and giving recognition to faculty and staff and other honourees.

What McGillian – past or present – had the greatest impact on you personally?

I remain inspired by our alumni – from the Quebec musician who won the first Golden Violin Award, to the graduate from mainland China who travelled 12 hours by train to shake my hand at a McGill alumni event before returning home, to the alumnus from the Caribbean who progressed from student leadership into human rights activism. In a world that is struggling between descending into tribal nationalism or ascending on the arc of social justice, our graduates make a difference.

What was the greatest challenge you faced in your years as McGill’s principal?

The heart-wrenching impacts of the city-wide and campus-based strikes of 2011-12. From the periphery, it’s easy to view any group as completely right or completely wrong. From the center, it’s much more complicated – you have to trust your inner compass while listening hard, and learning. And you have to act.

What was the best part of the job?

Running McGill is a big, all-consuming job. There are big joys and big challenges inherent in it. The best part of the job was knowing that whatever the big challenge we were wrestling with, you could step out, walk across campus or enter a lab or a classroom, and interact with students, faculty or staff, and feel fabulous about them, excited and re-energized about the work at hand.

What advice would you give to the principals who will lead McGill in its third century? 

Savour every moment. Stay meaningfully connected to all constituents of the University. Listen and learn. Focus unrelentingly on furthering the sustained enhancement of McGill’s distinctive reputation, and its academic and research excellence.

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