Senate highlights

by Daniel McCabe

Parasitology professor Gaetan Faubert queried the administration about the fallout from recent events in the Department of Facilities Management. Four managers in that unit have left McGill following irregularities turned up in the course of an internal audit and amid speculation in the media that up to $900,000 of the department's budget has gone missing in recent years. Faubert asked whether, in light of the allegations, the situation had any serious economic repercussions for the University. He also wondered if the administration was taking steps to ensure that these events wouldn’t happen again.

"My concern is for the future," said Faubert. "We are funded, in large part, by private sources. It doesn't help our cause when people read about this sort of thing in the newspapers."

Vice-Principal (Administration & Finance) Phyllis Heaphy responded that "in my opinion and that of the internal auditor, (these events) have not had a significant impact on the present financial situation of the University."

Heaphy added, "We are in the process of strengthening the controls in place to ensure that the possibility that these events could repeat themselves is very low."

Software policy

Computer science professor Gerald Ratzer raised his concerns about the University's proposed policy on software commercialization and asked if Senate would have a chance to debate the policy before it was put into practice. Ratzer declared that while the policy being contemplated might be intended to promote an environment in which both researchers and the University can profit from software advances, its implementation would likely have the opposite effect.

For one thing, in Ratzer's view, the proposed policy doesn't pay enough attention to copyright matters. He argued that the University needs to carefully reassess all of its policies relating to intellectual property. Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger answered that Senate would indeed have an opportunity to consider the policy before it was put into effect. He added that, because the proposed policy deals extensively with financial concerns, the Board of Governors would have the final say. The software policy would also be discussed with the various staff associations which might be affected by it, said Bélanger.

Library matters

Biology professor Graham Bell presented the Committee on Libraries' annual report. Bell reinforced Ratzer's view that McGill must reconsider the way in which it deals with copyright issues. He said his committee was asked to look at copyright as it relates to the libraries but decided not to, since the issues raised were so comprehensive the committee believed the University should address them on a community-wide basis.

Bell mentioned that his committee, following the lead of the Academic Planning and Policies Committee, recommended that the libraries be given special consideration when the University decided how to apportion its discretionary funds for special needs. The committee also urged that if discretionary funds were sent to the libraries, they should be used for acquisitions.

Board of Governors representative John Hallward asked Bell how the libraries were contending with increasing computerization. "The libraries are switching over to the latest electronic technologies, while maintaining their previous collections as well," responded Bell. "Essentially they're doing two things at once. What can be computerized and what can't? This is an academic issue that must be addressed."

Vice-Principal (Academic) Bill Chan presented the most recent APPC report to Senate, reiterating APPC's recommendation that the libraries' acquisition needs should be given sympathetic consideration when McGill decides how to spend the discretionary portion of its budget.

Discretionary debate

Dean of Science Alan Shaver took exception to the APPC recommendation. While sympathetic to the plight of the libraries, he felt it was wrongheaded for APPC to take such a pronounced stand on McGill's discretionary funds. "We're prejudging how we should use our discretionary allocations," said Shaver. "We have no way of knowing what the other requests will be. This isn't a proper way of proceeding."

History professor Robin Yates argued that the libraries stood out as an area that had a profound impact on the teaching and research that goes on in all faculties. He added that APPC's recommendation wouldn’t prevent the libraries from searching for other methods to reduce their budget–seeking alliances with other Montreal university libraries, for instance.

Chemistry professor Patrick Farrell sided with Shaver. "The libraries deserve our support, but this isn't the way to do it. It would be difficult to sit on the Budget Planning Group, trying to decide who should get the discretionary funds and then be told, essentially, 'This has been decided for you.'"

The APPC's recommendation was supported by a majority of senators, but more than a third of Senate's members voted against it.

Cuts and allocations

Vice-Principal Heaphy then presented the latest news on McGill's budget. She announced that, earlier this month, McGill was asked by the Quebec government to put together a comprehensive plan to show how it will pay off its accumulated deficit of about $66 million.

"Our response was, 'How can we put together a plan when we have no idea what our future funding will be?' So the government gave us some information."

According to Quebec City's still unofficial estimates, McGill faces $25 million in cuts over the next two years–about $12.5 million each year. "We were told to expect a steady state of affairs after that–no more cuts." Heaphy added that the message from the provincial government was clear. "We have to get rid of our deficit. We have no choice."

Heaphy stated that, in preparing McGill's budget, the administration has set aside funds for particular areas of importance. Five million dollars has been earmarked for discretionary allocations to support "new initiatives, new ways of doing things and cooperation between units." Of this, $3.5 million will be added to base funding, the rest will be used to support temporary undertakings.

A further $1 million will be used towards merit increases for faculty and administrative and support staff, and $1 million will be used to improve academic salaries. A half-million dollars is to be used for the pay equity process. Heaphy reminded Senate that Quebec City has set aside close to $4 million to assist McGill in addressing pay equity, but that agreements must be reached with MUNACA and MUNASA on how to spend the money.

Heaphy said that major budget decisions will soon be finalized. Deans and directors will be presenting their final budgets next month and the Budget Planning Group will make its decisions on discretionary funding by the end of February.

Other options

Heaphy said that government officials avoid talk of increased tuition fees. "It just doesn't look like it's going to happen any time soon."

She stated that a modest increase in McGill's tuition fees would have a pronounced effect on the financial situation.

"Ontario is looking at tuition fees of $3,000. If Quebec fees went up to just over $2,000, that would provide the University with an additional $10 million a year, and our fees would still be nowhere near what I suspect the Canadian average will soon be."

Principal Bernard Shapiro said that the administration was close to putting the final details to an early retirement package for employees, but cautioned senators that such a package will require difficult choices.

For one thing, while it would ease the University budgetary pressures in the long run, it would lead to increased debt in the short term.

"All the various plans we're looking at assume that a good proportion of the work done by the people who leave can be assumed by the people who stay."

Shapiro stated that there were other dangers implicit in offering early retirement packages. McGill is likely to be a more focused place in the future in terms of the academic activities it undertakes–it probably won't be involved in as many scholarly areas as it currently is.

But these decisions should be made for academic reasons, said Shapiro. "The great danger with these plans is that academic units can be undone by accident if a number of people in an important area all decide to leave.

"There are questions we have to answer regarding an early retirement scheme," said Shapiro. "Should we make the plan available only to administrative staff?" The principal wondered if it should be offered University-wide or only in those areas that are likely to be downsized anyway.

Looking for help

Graduate student senator George Lozano asked if the University was active in trying to drum up grassroots support for its cause.

Shapiro replied that it wasn't something he was involved in, "not because I don't think it's a good idea, but because I don't have the capacity for it." Perhaps reflecting on his own government experience, Shapiro stated that "public support, especially support from outside the University, that's what works."

Shapiro said that he lobbies government officials at least once a week. "The suggestions we are making to them are not connected to giving us more money. We are asking them to make changes to government policies that can help us in areas such as mandatory retirement, tuition fees and the legislation surrounding university foundations."

In looking at the task of cutting $25 million over two years, Shapiro said, "It's unlikely we can make more than half that cut using the ordinary methods we have been using for the past 10 years."

He added that figuring out areas that can be cut isn't a solution by itself. "We have to find ways of increasing our revenues."

The principal said it would be easy enough to swallow the funding cuts by reducing the salaries of all McGill employees, "but I regard that as a disastrous option."

He emphasized that McGill is committed to improving the salary levels of McGill academics, at least to a point where they would be in the middle-range of what faculty are earning at Canada's 10 top research universities.

Macdonald Campus student senator Alain Roy asked if McGill was investigating the benefits of merging some departments and activities. Chan replied that this was an ongoing concern. "In my area, we are looking at merging the Registrar's Office with Admissions. Medicine and Dentistry will be sharing first-year courses."

Heaphy added that it was no accident that discretionary funds have been targeted towards units looking at new ways of cooperating. "It is very much something we are encouraging."