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Ten minutes before the re-scheduled Town Hall on November 29, and the four security personnel outnumbered members of the audience. Could it be that the McGill community had finally lost its spirit of curiosity and combativeness? Was the cloud of apathy hanging over the campus? To quote Eliza Doolittle; "Not bloody likely!"
By showtime, the ballroom of the Faculty Club had all but filled out with students, faculty and staff members looking for their chance at the mike. Martin Grant, Dean of the Faculty of Science, warmed up the crowd by telling them that, as moderator for the proceedings, he was a cross between Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer.
In a brief opening statement, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum talked about the "joys of the job" and its many challenges.
An undergraduate student got the ball rolling, questioning Munroe-Blum about the university's lack of adequate study space. "It is ridiculous that in a school this size, there isn't a 24-hour study space paid for and provided by the university."
"Space is our scarcest commodity," admitted the Principal. "This is one of the main reasons why we are in the midst of the Master Plan and why it is a dominant issue for the Task Force on Student Life and Learning. We must maximize our use of space and it's an issue that we are actively addressing."
After leveling some criticisms about recent faculty and staff appointments, the next questioner suggested that the Principal be more accessible to the McGill community. "The people immediately around you try to isolate you from us," he said. "You need a more direct way to communicate with us." He even suggested Munroe-Blum write a regular column in the McGill Reporter.
Munroe-Blum stretched out her hands and said "I'm here." She also reminded him that she chairs Senate and that she sits on numerous boards and committees — all of which are open to public participation.
Although Munroe-Blum had once considered contributing to the McGill Reporter, she dismissed the idea on the advice of her daughter who thought it could be construed as an effort to manipulate the media.
A former librarian at the Macdonald Campus questioned the administration's commitment to preserving the McGill's architectural heritage, citing several examples of older buildings that had been left to degrade significantly or that had been repaired without maintaining the original architectural integrity.
The Principal assured him that the preservation of historical buildings is in the forefront of the administration's overall vision, pointing out that "deep elements" of the Master Plan address this specific issue in enormous detail. The problem, she said, isn't a lack of will, it's often a lack of way. "We are grotesquely underfunded. We make tough decisions every day."
Funding, or the lack thereof, proved to be at the crux of a number of the issues raised. But while the Principal stressed how the university regularly meets with the provincial government to discuss issues of underfunding, she also admitted the school cannot rely solely upon Quebec as a source of revenue. "We are committed to growing the pie," she said, "by working with the federal and provincial governments and with philanthropists."
This dovetailed into a discussion about the role of philanthropy in the future of McGill. The Principal told the audience that, aside from their generous endowments, the university's recent benefactors, have worked hand-in-hand with the administration to increase government support. "Most recently, Marcel Desautels challenged the provincial government to match his $22-million donation."
Munroe-Blum was frank about her vision of the university and the areas that need improving. "Every student should get good advising and every student should have access to the rich array of interdisciplinary activities we offer without getting lost," she said. "We've created these great programs but the mechanisms still need tweaking."