Principal addresses Arts faculty

by Eric Smith

In one of a series of meetings planned with McGill faculties, Principal Bernard Shapiro outlined for members of the Faculty of Arts last week his strategies for dealing with the University's financial difficulties.

The principal shared three assumptions he is making about the priorities for the future. "McGill will continue to regard itself as a research-intensive institution," said Shapiro. "Second, it will continue to be a relatively comprehensive university, though not completely comprehensive. And third, we will not be satisfied to be in the middle of the pack. We will continue to seek to have a distinctiveness that will enable us to think of ourselves as the best university in Canada and one of the best in the world."

These assumptions are the basis for choices to be made over the next few years in deciding how to reduce the University's budget. The principal affirmed that the Arts Faculty is fundamental to the assumption of comprehensiveness. He said it was no coincidence that the first three faculties he is addressing are Arts, Science and Engineering, because these three are necessary in a university which claims to be comprehensive. But he added that in Arts, as everywhere else in the University, change would be required to meet new academic and fiscal challenges.

The principal expressed the hope that meeting academic challenges would remain a priority and that fiscal challenges should be approached in the context of academic ones. "Change in our academic agenda drives fiscal issues more than the other way around," he said.

The principal went on to explain how he sees his assumptions driving change at McGill in the context of broader changes in higher education in Canada. There is a tendency, according to Shapiro, towards greater differentiation of universities. In this context, it will be important for McGill to demarcate itself as a research-intensive institution.

But he added that "the unit cost of research is rising so rapidly that it is no longer empirically possible to be at the frontier of knowledge in all disciplines. We need to identify where it is we can be truly great."

A parallel tendency, said Shapiro, is the increased specialization of research. For the principal, this presents the pedagogical challenge of making sense of graduate research in an undergraduate program, or of figuring out "how to come back from the frontier to talk to young people."

At the root of the fiscal challenge is the fact that "the model by which Canadian universities have been financed is collapsing." The model assumes that "higher education is a public good, and should come at a relatively low cost to the student." That this model is now collapsing doesn't reflect a philosophical problem with the model itself, he said, but with the capacity of governments to support it.

In determining how to replace this model, some basic questions should be asked, said Shapiro. First we should consider students: "How many and who? What do we need to do to have the student body we want?" Second, we need to consider McGill's relationship to other universities and "how these relationships might help us."

He stressed the importance of undertaking the exercise now. "It is our reponsibility to do this. The danger of not taking up the gauntlet ourselves is that someone else will do it for us." And he added that the University is in a better position than the government to evaluate its priorities and determine its course of action.

The principal suggested one "easy solution" for solving McGill's budget difficulties: to lower everybody's salary between nine and 12 per cent. But he added, "Though this would resolve the problem in the short run, it would be a disaster in the long run for the academic life of the institution." The challenge of the current fiscal exercise, he said, is to make "more right judgements than wrong ones when we look at this down the road."

Several Arts faculty members pressed the principal on fiscal strategies after the talk. McGill faculty who have been attempting to reduce budgets in University departments have been running into difficulties that would have solutions in private enterprise, but which seem unresolvable in a university environment.

The principal addressed two of these constraints: the inability of the University to allow the market to set the price of its main product with tuition fees, and its inability to have large-scale layoffs because of tenure and staff job security. Shapiro vowed to continue to pursue the question of tuition fees with the provincial government and said he anticipates some success. He also said he was lobbying for compulsory retirement at 65. And although he stressed this measure was not a reflection on the work of more senior McGill staff and faculty, he underscored that compulsory retirement is fundamental for McGill's faculty to be able to renew itself.

Another faculty member expressed concern that the reduction of academic hiring at McGill would slow the University's progress towards gender equity. She also voiced concern over the recent decision to fold the equity office into the office of the principal and asked whether budget constraints were putting women's progress at McGill on the back burner.

The principal agreed there was little opportunity under current fiscal conditions to bring more women into the University, but said that equity considerations continued to be a special obligation in cases of hiring. One way the equity dossier could continue to move forward is by "making sure women are appropriately represented inside the institution." He cited last year's appointment of McGill's first woman vice-principal as evidence.

In response to a question about the abolition of tenure, Shapiro stated: "I'm not sure that abolition would be a good thing. It seems to me that the academic freedom arguments against abolishing tenure are stronger now than they were 10 years ago because of the current political climate."

He added that the only value in abolishing tenure is in cases where "there is a lot of dead wood. If that were the case at McGill it would be easier to jettison the idea of tenure. But I don't think that's true anywhere at McGill."