Which way now?

Which way now? McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 25, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 15
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Which way now?

Principal Bernard Shapiro sparked a McGill-wide debate about what the University's future ought to be in an age of limited resources when he first arrived in his new job in 1994.

Now in his final year as principal, Shapiro is breathing new life into that discussion.

He has assembled an ad hoc advisory committee composed of administrators, faculty, students and governors to mull over McGill's options for the years to come. He has also asked Senate to sink its teeth into the topic.

The first of these Senate discussions on long-term planning took place last week.

Three members of the McGill community were invited to share their thoughts on the subject and kick off the deliberations -- political science professor Antonia Maioni, graduate student Jon-Tomas Godin from the Faculty of Music, and biology professor Graham Bell.

Maioni, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, talked about her arrival at McGill in the mid-'90s and how downbeat the University seemed at the time, a product, in part, of the era's cutbacks. While things have improved, Maioni believes that the University still seems to lack the kind of confidence that ought to be a natural product of its exceptional track record in teaching and research.

As a young professor, Maioni said it was "a humbling experience" to see just how good McGill professors were at their jobs and that this commitment to scholarship and education were important defining characteristics of the University.

McGill's fame across the country and around the world is another card to play again and again, she said. "No other university in Canada comes close in terms of evoking the same kind of reaction."

McGill's location in Montreal, a thoroughly unique city in North America, is another important defining point.

She urged the University to capitalize on "the physical beauty of McGill," calling it an "oasis" in the midst of downtown Montreal.

She called on her colleagues to take pride in McGill's strengths. "I'd like to see McGill start exuding confidence."

She suggested that the University accelerate its efforts to create new interdisciplinary partnerships, suggesting international affairs as one prime area to be considered. Since most of the expertise needed to make such programs work is already here, Maioni suggested this was a strategy involving "little cost and potentially big payoffs."

Reflecting on her own arrival at McGill and on how she often felt overwhelmed and uncertain in her first days, Maioni also suggested that "we make this place a more welcoming one. I would like to see more mentoring going on."

Godin assailed the prospect of future steep tuition increases for international and out-of-province students, saying that such hikes "do not foster a sense of belonging at the University." He also worried about how an increasing reliance on private funding favours science-related research to the possible detriment of the social sciences and humanities.

He argued that McGill should offer more financial support to its graduate students "even if that means a temporary reduction in the number of graduate students overall."

Godin also suggested that McGill should consider new partnerships with the private sector in the organization of some of its operations -- a private gym might take over the management of the University's fitness facilities if it made financial sense, he offered.

Bell urged the University to hold tight to those aspects of McGill that have "been the keys to our success in the past." He suggested that these features include autonomy -- in terms of both academic mission and finances -- and reputation.

McGill's history as "a self-governing community of scholars must be defended," Bell stated. He sees "numerous enemies" to this characteristic of McGill, but none more threatening than the increasing indifference of the professoriate itself.

He suggested that one example reflecting this trend is the recent selection of McGill's next principal. "Not only did the professoriate play a marginal role in that appointment, there seems to be little awareness about the degree to which [faculty] have been marginalized."

Bell likened McGill's reliance on Quebec government funding as "a rollercoaster ride" in which the University is, by turns, "ineffectually angry" at Quebec City when the government makes cuts, and "unconvincingly grateful" when the government decides to give some of that money back.

McGill's commitment to being a leading national and international university will never excite much support in Quebec City, Bell speculated. The government will always be focused on more local and immediate concerns.

McGill researchers have done quite well at drawing research support, noted Bell, but "we cannot become much more successful" -- the Canadian system of funding research is too geared towards equity to allow any one university to be too dominant.

Bell suggested that McGill has to seek more private support, using its sterling reputation as a draw. Seconding Maioni, though, Bell worried that McGill faculty lack enthusiasm for trumpeting their accomplishments.

As an example, he said that there are no new McGill additions to the Royal Society of Canada this year because professors weren't active enough in nominating colleagues as candidates. "Modesty about yourself is a personal virtue. Modesty about your colleagues is an institutional vice."

In terms of recognition, "the gold standard" is the Nobel Prize, "the only award that the public takes real note of." He suggested that McGill embark on what would be "an expensive and unpopular process" -- doing its level best to win a Nobel for a faculty member.

Promising areas for potential Nobel victories would be focused on and promising young researchers in those fields would be carefully groomed.

"The result would be to withdraw resources from fields like mine," he admitted. "But if we were successful, it would be dramatically effective in burnishing our reputation."

Dean of Dentistry James Lund, responding to Godin's concerns about international student fees, said that the situation looks different depending on how you view it. The $8,000 that international students in dentistry pay might seem high, but it's a bargain compared to the $20,000 that students pay at the University of Western Ontario.

Biology professor Joe Rasmussen was disturbed by Bell's suggestion that McGill devote itself to nabbing a Nobel, suggesting that the effect could be that "McGill would corner the market on being old-fashioned." He would rather the emphasis be placed on ensuring a more diverse student body and an education that offers those students a variety of learning experiences.

Law professor Richard Janda supported Bell's worries about the shrinking role McGill's faculty seem to be playing in how the University is run. He said his recent experience on the committee to select a principal raised concerns for him about how board of governors representatives view academics' contributions to decision making.

Students' Society president Jeremy Farrell believes that "apathy might be the greatest problem facing McGill. What can we do to motivate the people who come here every day?"

Dean of Law Peter Leuprecht, musing about the University of Toronto's controversial plan to dramatically increase the tuition fees of its law students, said, "There is simplistic reasoning around, that the more expensive something is, the better it must be. If we adopted that reasoning, then European universities must be absolutely lousy."

He added that "it would be wise for a Canadian university, that is also an international university, to look not only to the United States for possible models, but to have a much broader outlook."

Pointing to a recent survey of U of T law graduates, Leuprecht noted their concerns about rising debt loads. High tuition fees affect career choices, he suggested. Students will opt for more lucrative career paths to pay off daunting debts incurred at university. The result could be an overabundance of corporate lawyers and a shortage of legal aid attorneys.

Students' Society vice-president (university affairs) Jennifer Bilec supported a notion put forward by several fellow student senators -- McGill isn't especially effective at building a sense of community for its students.

Engineering student senator Ali Shivji said that McGill's future fundraising efforts are linked to what's going on among students right now. If students feel that the University is investing in them, they will be more inclined to reciprocate once they graduate.

Addressing one of Godin's points, Shapiro said that there are legitimate concerns about funding trends favouring science-oriented faculties over their counterparts in social sciences and humanities. But he said it was incorrect to blame the private sector. The greater danger was in how government funding was tilting towards the sciences and increasingly ignoring the arts.

Political science professor Sam Noumoff suggested that "if we are a community, there has to be a willingness among those who are well off to bear a bit of an extra burden" in order to ensure that the have-nots in the University are not left to starve.

"This has been a remarkable step forward," Noumoff said of the discussion. "I urge that this process be continued in this body."

For his part, Shapiro urged senators to discuss the issues raised with their various constituencies and to be prepared to tackle the topic of McGill's future in Senate sessions to come.

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