The unanimous choice of McGill's Board of Governors, Fortier has accepted a five-year term, becoming the university's 17th principal and vice-chancellor.
"I really have a strong attachment to the university," said Fortier, who graduated from McGill with a BSc in 1972 and a PhD in 1976. "It really was a launching pad for me — an institution where I got a fantastic education, that opened [me] to the world. Not only the world geographically, but the world of ideas, the world of discoveries, the world of culture."
Fortier has had an illustrious career as a scientist, educator and administrator, most recently as president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) in Ottawa since 2006.
Prior to that, she was Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at Queen's University, where she was also a chemistry professor.
Experienced at cost-cutting
She said as head of NSERC, she had to guide the government-funded council through a round of internal administrative budget cuts, an experience that may help her at McGill, which faces a tuition-fee hike limited to the cost of living and another round of cuts imposed by the provincial government in its budget last fall.
Fortier said from her vantage point on the west side of the Ottawa River, she has been following closely — in both French and English — the past year of student unrest and the debate over the future of higher learning in Quebec.
She knows what's in store.
"You need to, as a community, really be clear on what are your values, goals and priorities," Fortier said.
She said it can't be a top-down exercise. At NSERC, she said, they focused on the key areas that needed to be preserved and managed to protect research and research training.
Fortier's appointment comes just as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2012-2013 were released. McGill, along with the University of British Columbia, slipped to 31st spot, after tying for 25th spot last year. Only one Canadian institution, the University of Toronto, ranked higher, remaining in 18th place.
But that six-place slide in the always-controversial ranking system doesn't faze Fortier.
"McGill is still in the very top league of universities in the world," she told CBC Radio Noon host Bernard St. Laurent. "That has not changed."
"Nations around the world see people of talent as their most important asset," she said. "It is truly a race. McGill has the opportunity to be in the top league, but it is a very competitive world, and you have to continue to keep in your institution — and in your heart, also — that competitive spirit."
"If you don't get the result you want, then you must sharpen your skates and get in the race again."