Student awards stir Senate debate

Student awards stir Senate debate McGill University

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McGill Reporter
February 21, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 11
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > February 21, 2002 > Student awards stir Senate debate

Student awards stir Senate debate

A mild winter and some smart shopping have added up to almost $1 million in savings for the University.

Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Morty Yalovsky updated members of Senate last week on McGill's budget for the current year. The University originally expected to end up with a deficit of over $5.9 million, but it now looks as if that figure will be about $5 million instead. Yalovsky attributes the savings to McGill's ability to cut some good deals for fuel. Warmer than usual temperatures in December and January also contributed to the savings.

International students in deregulated programs, the MBA for instance, can expect their tuition fees to rise next year by eight percent. Yalovsky added that the fees will continue to increase by an additional eight percent in each of the two subsequent years.

Twenty percent of the money brought in by these fees will be used for student aid directed at international students.

While it is becoming more expensive for these international students to attend McGill, the University's tuition rate is still "more than competitive" when compared to the tuition fees charged by other top Canadian universities, said Yalovsky.

At the University of British Columbia, international students pay $15,400 in tuition fees. At Queen's University, international students pay between $11,000 and $16,000 "and they're projecting a 10% increase," said Yalovsky.

He emphasized that McGill can't run a deficit next year -- it was one of the commitments the University made when it signed the "contrat de performance" with the Quebec government.

In order to balance the books, Yalovsky said McGill will have to find ways to "slow down" its spending. For instance, discretionary funds -- money used to support out-of-the ordinary academic initiatives -- will likely be halved in the coming year.

Parasitology professor Roger Prichard asked about the federal government's recent commitment of $200 million to the country's universities to help them pay for the indirect costs of their research. He wondered what McGill's share was likely to be.

It might not be much, Yalovsky responded.

McGill carries out about nine percent of Canada's university research, so we should be in line for about $18 million -- maybe a little less if Ottawa decides to be extra-generous with the country's smaller universities.

A sizeable chunk of that money would be heading to McGill-affiliated hospitals where some of McGill's research is carried out. The Quebec government, which is more supportive of the indirect costs of research than most of its provincial counterparts, "is making noises about clawing back" much of the federal money as a repayment for its own contributions over the years, said Yalovsky.

Biology professor Joe Rasmussen noted that McGill hasn't hired very many new professors through the Canada Research Chairs program. He said that, as a recruiting tool, "it isn't working."

He suggested McGill do what most Canadian universities are doing -- use the chairs to retain their finest faculty. Then McGill could save money by killing the James McGill Professors and William Dawson Scholars programs -- programs that were established to use Canada Research Chair-type inducements to keep some of the University's best professors working here.

Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Luc Vinet said that McGill would not be altering its strategy -- the University would continue to use the federally funded research chairs to attract new stars from elsewhere and the McGill and Dawson awards to retain top talents already here. "Just watch us," he counselled Rasmussen when the latter suggested the approach seemed to be heading for failure.

Arts student senator Anne-Marie Naccarato queried the administration about its grade-reporting policy, noting that many students complained about having to wait unacceptably long to find out what their marks were for their fall semester courses.

Students must know their marks in a timely fashion, said Naccarato, because it affects their selection of courses for the winter semester, especially in cases where a course in the fall is a prerequisite for one in the winter.

Also, students applying to graduate school or to professional faculties often have to supply a transcript of their grades from the previous term by the end of January.

Vinet agreed that the late posting of marks was "unacceptable." He explained that all faculties are urged to emphasize to their professors the importance of the deadlines for handing in marks. The deadlines vary depending on the faculty and the date of the final exam, but in all cases, marks should be posted by January 14, if not earlier.

Deans have the ultimate responsibility for dealing with professors who blow these deadlines "and we are prepared to give deans whatever support they require to enforce the deadlines," said Vinet.

In presenting the report of the academic policy and planning committee, Vinet put forward a proposal from APPC about the naming of academic programs and units.

While McGill currently has guidelines about how new buildings can be named after donors, the University has no such regulations governing major gifts to academic programs or entire faculties.

Several faculties of management at other Canadian universities have been named after donors in recent years.

APPC suggested that McGill allow faculties, schools, centres, institutes and programs to be named after donors. The McGill Fund Council would develop guidelines to determine, among other things, how big a donation would have to be in order to merit such a distinction.

In addition, "safeguards would have to be provided so that the University does not become locked into an academic activity it no longer wishes to sustain," the APPC report declared.

The recommendation did not sit well with some senators.

"I'm concerned about this being approved without a thorough understanding of the process that would be involved. The process must maintain the academic integrity of the University," said Prichard, a view that was echoed by political science professor Sam Noumoff.

Mathematics and statistics professor Wilbur Jonsson suggested the subject was important enough to merit an extensive Senate debate in the future.

The motion was referred back to APPC for more finetuning.

Another contentious APPC recommendation called for the abolition of the Dean's Honours List Award for graduate students.

According to APPC, "the present procedure for awarding it does not lead to reliable and valid results." External examiners, who are expected to help determine winners of the award, are confused about the criteria for selecting recipients.

Different departments seem to vary quite substantially in how they go about determining winners. The prize is only supposed to go to the top 10% of graduate students, but about one-third of McGill graduate students end up getting the prize.

The APPC report said that past attempts to come up with a meaningful and consistent approach to the Dean's Honours List Award have eluded deans, APPC and the Council of the former Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research. Put the prize in concrete overshoes and dump it in the river, APPC suggested.

Rasmussen was aghast at the notion.

"We shouldn't get rid of it just because it's difficult to implement. We should be thinking of more ways to reward our students, not throwing out the ones we already have."

Vinet said that the prize was becoming largely meaningless because no clear and consistent mechanism had been created for awarding it. "It's better to not have something at all than to have something that isn't fair."

Associate Vice-Principal (Teaching Programs) Martha Crago said Université de Montréal was the only other Canadian university to offer a comparable award to its graduate students. She knew of only a handful of such awards at other universities throughout the world -- one of the reasons why external evaluators tend to be so confused in trying to determine winners.

"I know this is important to graduate students. They do use it for their resumés and when they apply for positions," said Prichard.

He suggested McGill take another stab at reforming the awards, perhaps downplaying the role of external evaluators.

Graduate student Caroline Kim acknowledged that the Dean's List "has some flaws." She proposed an amendment to APPC's death warrant for the awards, suggesting that Senate call on individual departments to create their own awards for their own top graduate students.

Noumoff spoke against killing the prize. "If there are different points of view, different modes of evaluation, that isn't necessarily a vice. Let's say [the prize is for] a first-class piece of work and if we vary on [how to determine that], so be it."

Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger disagreed. "We've tried to make this work for years and it doesn't work. There is too much subjectivity in the evaluation of theses."

Mathematics and statistics professor Kohur Gowrisankaran concurred. "I've seen tremendous inconsistencies. I've seen fantastic theses that didn't get it because the external evaluators said no. I've seen situations where 90% of the graduate students [in a unit] were all considered among the top 10%. The system isn't working."

Dr. Maria Zannis-Hadjopoulos from the McGill Cancer Centre suggested that maybe so many McGill graduate students get the prize because so many of them are good -- more than 30% of McGill graduate students could well be among the top 10% of graduate students in Canada. External evaluators should not be given a veto power over which students get the prize, she suggested.

Animal science professor Kevin Wade said it didn't matter if most other universities don't offer a comparable prize. "We shouldn't conform to what the rest are doing."

Microbiology and immunology professor Michael DuBow said that the rambling debate in Senate about the prizes "is a good mirror for what happens behind closed doors" when recipients are determined.

While the process may be imprecise, DuBow believes that "in general, the better students get it and the not-so-good don't get it. I think it's rare that the not-so-good get it and the really good graduate students don't."

When a vote was finally called, the motion failed. And the Dean's Honours List for graduate students, though battered and bruised, received a stay of execution.

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