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It was a time to talk, it was a time to question. Principal Heather Munroe-Blum held the first Town Hall meeting, on November 30 to take questions from the McGill community on a wide variety of subjects. She noted that, come January, she will celebrate her second-year anniversary as principal at McGill.
"I came to McGill with great expectations, but I couldn't appreciate the tremendous quality of the people here," she said. McGill's people are our assets, she added, along with the quality of McGill's research, and its international profile.
McGill is doing its best to attract professors from across the globe, as are other universities. "However, we're living in a time of intense competition. Not just locally, but from around the world." It's because of this competition that McGill must advance. "If we were to stay the status quo, we run the risk of sliding back."
She told the crowd gathered in the McIntyre's Martin Amphitheatre that we need the infrastructure and the services to equal our top-notch students, but the reality is that we are dramatically underfunded. McGill is working with government, philanthropists and NGOs to address this, she said.
The questions started with Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences professor Lawrence Mysak, who asked about the possibility of guaranteed stipends for graduate students.
Munroe-Blum said that we ought to be able to guarantee minimal support, and McGill is working with the federal government and looking to resources from Quebec. But "we're not there yet," she said.
Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies and Associate Provost (Academic Programs) Martha Crago, who moderated the event, added that three years ago she did her best to drum up support for graduate funding. Then, McGill wasn't willing to go as far as University of Toronto was with its guarantees, but she's gearing up for another round of agitation.
In response to a question about funding, Munroe-Blum reiterated that McGill is dedicated to there being no increase in tuition fees without improved student aid.
There were questions about the libraries: on space constraints, the digitalization of the Islamic Studies Library collection card catalogue, and the inconvenience of interlibrary loan systems for newer books that McGill should own.
Munroe-Blum was delighted that there was so much concern over an area she holds dear. The university is very aware of the problem, and is looking at creative solutions, including the possibility of off-campus storage, she said.
Kendall Wallis, McLennan Librarian, later corresponded with the Reporter to say that they've begun to convert catalogue access to the Islamic Studies collection to machine readable form, thanks to a generous gift from the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU). However, this will cover only about one quarter of the collection. He also wrote that a pilot project has been in operation for a couple of months whereby books that are in print and available from Amazon.com are bought and rush catalogued.
Law student Jeff Roberts asked about lunch. Food services are an integral part of university life, he said, and he's concerned that the institutional-run services are seen as an "operational detail" subject to administrative whims rather than a school-wide decision.
A later questioner also emphasized the importance of food providers to students in residence, of which 90 percent subscribe to meal plans. Will quality go down, costs up, and accessibility become a problem? As well, how can students be assured service is provided in an environmentally efficient way?
She pointed out that half of the food services are not run by administration, and reiterated that no decisions have yet been made. "The notion that advice is not taken is wrong, as is the notion that there will be one provider."
One professor was concerned about time limitations on research abroad for faculty, who are required to return to McGill to teach. For Munroe-Blum, one of "McGill's great strengths is that professors are committed to teaching and research." With the majority of faculty collaborating with colleagues outside the countries, we don't need further internationalization strategies, because we're already borderless, she said. As well, McGill would like to provide international opportunities for students, another point that comes down to resources. Although there are policy implications to there being a Liberal minority government in Ottawa, she said, "the Prime Minister is extremely interested in Canada's place in the world."
To administrative assistant in Microbiology and Immunology Joan Longo's concerns about the crumbling infrastructre and caps on popular courses, Munroe-Blum replied, "We are grotesquely underfunded. The most conservative estimate is that Quebec universities are underfunded by about $400 million."
Some money has come in but in very specific areas, she said. "Dean of Engineering John Gruzleski is chairing a master plan task force that will look at our needs and requirements, as well as environmental impacts. Our aim is to leverage everything we get from provincial and federal support. I urge you to let chairs and deans know what you need."
A student, concerned with social and environmental issues, queried the Principal about the role of universities and the vision of McGill.
He said McGill should serve the public good, and should prioritize policies to support this. Munroe-Blum responded that the university's mission is academic, but agrees that McGill's interactions affect all kinds of areas, including the environment, "I don't think we've gone far enough" she said. But this is a group effort, "from the way students treat lower campus during frosh week, to how we treat our buildings, to the way we interact with communities around us."
The student also wanted to know about McGill's ability to stay rooted in the community given its international outlook and global recruitment efforts. Did she see a contradiction between the two?
"Nous sommes une université Québécoise," she replied. The two goals are not mutually exclusive.
McGill's recent trip to Chicoutimi to meet researchers and some of the 150 alumni there celebrates just such community collaborations, she said. Having a strong internationally competitive program in learning and research serves the people of Quebec, who deserve no less. And having people from Quebec, of Quebec, working side by side with people from around the world lends a tremendous richness to the province.
Personal questions were posed, too. Staff member Slawomir Poplowski said that the Principal, being in a position of authority, is a role model to many. He then asked Munroe-Blum about her role models, and whom she's afraid of.
She couldn't think of any role models on the spot, but went on to say, "One of the great pleasures of my job is learning. Every day I interact with faculty, staff and students." She sees the role of Principal as a "stewardship job, preserving McGill's values and taking them forward," she said.
As for fears, "I grew up with five brothers, so not much!" she laughed.
SSMU president Andrew Bryan asked about prayer space provided for Muslim students (the current one will be unavailable as of February 1). Also, the president of the Muslim Student Association talked about how the proposed Birks room is inadequate for their needs.
Munroe-Blum agreed that there are many religious groups on campus who feel the non-denominational space doesn't serve their needs and she'd be happy to meet about the issue. She said that McGill does the utmost to accommodate different groups, yet there will always be judgment calls on how best to do so, and she hoped that SSMU will also help promote diversity.
Chemistry professor emeritus John Harrod, who had spent much time in Europe, wanted to comment on the lack of ease for French students to learn about McGill and take advantage of our bilateral agreement in which they pay home tuition fees. He suggested that students and staff who go to Europe get a little package to distribute to anyone interested in McGill, perhaps something easily downloadable from the web.
Munroe-Blum liked the suggestion, adding, "alumni want to be ambassadors, how can we mobilize them?"
The final question of the day was simply: if there were one thing you would want to see changed, what would it be?
"That's tougher to answer today than two and a half years ago," she said. "Simply, the resource base to allow the talented members of our faculty to use their talents fully."
The tentative dates for next Town Halls are Friday, February 4, and Tuesday, March 15, from 12 to 1:30 pm. Venue to be determined.