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McGill University in Montreal is in the eye of a storm over the compensation paid to a top, but short-lived, executive - information revealed just as the university's principal, Heather Munroe-Blum, starts to deal with cost cutting.

Last week, public documents showed that Ann Dowsett Johnston, a former editor at Maclean's magazine who took the post of vice-principal, development, alumni and university relations, in February, 2006, and departed 19 months later, was paid $439,788 in wages and benefits while there and $321,471.95 when she left. She had been hired to lead the university's major fundraising campaign, with a goal of raising $750-million by 2012, but left two months before its launch. A McGill spokesman declined to tell us why Ms. Dowsett Johnston left, citing confidentiality. But the corporate-style compensation package has surprised those in academic circles and been the talk of Montreal dinner parties.

Yesterday, Ms. Munroe-Blum released a statement on the economic downturn and its effects on McGill. She said "many" in senior administration had volunteered to take an immediate pay cut of 3 per cent. She also said that the university's endowment fund has lost about 20 per cent of its value and that some donors are lengthening the time frame of their gift obligations. She has created a task force to come up with suggestions for cost cutting and revenue generation by the end of March.

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Fine wine, plonk prices

An upscale Toronto restaurant frequented by the city's business elite is adapting to the new economic reality by slashing the prices on its top-dollar wines as a way to move bottles and reward customers.

Centro in midtown Toronto (whose majority owner is CI Financial's Bill Holland) has reduced its markup on older vintage wines. A 1977 Sassicaia, for example, is going for $300, a third of what it would have cost in the good old days.

Other wines, such as first-growth Bordeaux, are selling for less than they can be bought for at the liquor store.

Armando Mano, manager of the restaurant, says business is down only 3 to 4 per cent, but that corporate gatherings are not spending top dollars the way they used to. "We've lowered prices considerably," he told us, but noted: "It's nothing we haven't done in the past. I don't believe my wine cellar is a museum. It's here to be sold."

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