Senate highlights

Karl Jarosiewicz

Professor Gerald Ratzer presented a motion at the January 31 meeting of Senate calling for a complete re-evaluation of McGill's intellectual property and software development.

Naming the Academic Policy and Planning Subcommittee on Copyright as the agency by which this study should be carried out, Ratzer asked that it "discuss and study all intellectual property generated in the McGill context and report back to Senate."

Why study software?

The stated purpose of the study would be to "assist McGill in generating revenue from McGill intellectual property." He suggested that this revenue could be used either for library acquisitions or to support campus-wide computer facilities.

"The whole area is very sensitive," conceded Ratzer. However, he said that the problem was that McGill considers software to be subject to patents and that is not the right category for it.

"Software is intellectual property. The Canadian government classifies it as such." Therefore, under law, it is governed differently from patents which protect new inventions.

Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger countered that he wished to defeat the motion because "it calls for all intellectual property to be studied, which is way beyond the mandate" of the committee named.

He added that the "present policy governing software development at McGill does in fact generate income. There's no need for a new policy." There is, however, no specific policy on royalties. Bélanger stated that over the years, some professors have developed software and started companies to market their products, leaving McGill with no compensation whatsoever. He said that this problem will be addressed very soon. The motion was defeated.

Keeping up with technology

The document Information Technology for McGill in the 21st Century: Part II--Implementation was presented by Vice-Principal (Planning & Resources) François Tavenas.

Noting that this was the second part of a document that had been in the works since 1993, he stated that it was the result of a long process of consultation with all faculties.

"It serves as a framework to provide guidance for faculties when they need to make decisions on future action," he said.

Itemizing the key concepts addressed in the document, Tavenas mentioned that "computing is now a universal commodity."

He also said that most areas of the University are now part of the network. The most important effect of this networking is that "it has the significant potential to improve efficiency across campus."

An "open architecture" that allows multiple operating sytems to access information is part of the overall goal of the University's efforts.

Although the purchasing and installation of new equipment will be more centrally controlled, different needs in different areas require a decentralized budget.

In summing up the report, Tavenas said that one of the challenges facing the University is the "rate of evolution of technology, which makes it difficult to predict where it's going."

Other important issues include the role of technology in education, training personnel to use the equipment and understand the technology, and ensuring coordination of all initiatives.

Computing comments

Student representative Lisa Grushcow complained that the document implied that future students would be obliged to own or purchase computers.

"No study has been done on resources and access for students, such as bulk purchasing. This has been done at other universities," she stated.

Tavenas claimed that statistics available from the Registrar's Office show that the proportion of students with computers has been steadily increasing, and that by the year 2000, the number of students who do not own one will be insignificant.

Vice-Principal Bélanger noted that software companies have realized that universities are a good market and are tailoring packages to meet their needs.

Their products are often more cost efficient than software developed in-house in departments like McGill's Information Systems Resources.

"The key function of ISR should be to keep a watch on new trends and software, and less and less on software development."

Tavenas said that he was prepared to modify the report to reflect this principle.

"There is almost nothing in this paper that can't be done immediately," said Professor Maier Blostein.

He added that calling this a vision for the 21st century was "disproportionate" to the actual contents. "Has anyone at McGill been tracking information technology and how it will change universities, how we will pay for it all? We're quite a bit behind other universities."

Acting Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Garth Coffin stated that the distance between the two campuses made video conferencing very attractive. "It's cheaper to move information than to move people back and forth."

Dean of Education Ted Wall noted that the next generation of students would come to expect on-line teaching at McGill. Pedagogical strategies were therefore very important.

Professor Malcolm Baines noted that these very computer skills were "undervalued in tenure track assessments."

Tavenas stated that the issues are complex and require forceful solutions. However, he said, "We can't just slap a layer of technology over what we do. We have to change the way we do things, too." He stressed the need to move cautiously.

"The objectives in this report are stated as general principles of direction." He predicted that many of the articles would have to be modified and some even abandoned as the technological situation changes.

Statutory dilemma

When the clerical and technical staff at McGill voted last year to unionize and formed MUNACA, they did more than reduce the ranks of the non-unionized administrative and support staff. The newly certified group actually threw a monkey wrench into the finely-tuned rules of Senate.

Section 6.1.1 of the University Statutes stipulates that Senate shall have six members drawn from the ranks of the non-unionized staff. Where does that leave the 1,938 members of MUNACA?

As Professor Michael Smith stated, "This disqualifies them to run for Senate."

An attempt last year to change the wording of the Statutes to allow MUNACA members to run raised hackles among some senators who worried that the academic mission of Senate would be jeopardized by the influx of unionized staff.

If the clerical and technical staff could hold seats, they reasoned, why not the janitorial staff as well?

The matter was deemed serious enough to require the Senate Steering Committee to form a subcommittee to review the case.

After several months of deliberation, including reviews of "submissions received by the Principal from members of the University community," the subcommittee, composed of Smith, Ms. Honora Shaughnessy and Professor Roger Rigelhof, presented its conclusion.

To lop or not

The presence of unionized staff was judged too problematic to deal with at this time and a decision not to include them in the University Statutes was reached. One rationale given was that union members might vote as a block, a strategy that goes against the collegial process.

Furthermore, because the non-unionized staff are now reduced from 2,719 to 781 members, the subcommittee proposed that representation should henceforth be reduced from six seats to three seats in Senate.

Associate Vice-Principal Lydia White was the first to voice her opposition. "We must recognize the support given by non-academic support staff."

She cautioned that with fewer members, only the most senior and established staff members would ever have a chance to win a seat on Senate.

"When you consider the sizes of the three units they represent, two is not too many and one is not enough."

Professor Gaetan Faubert reasoned that Macdonald Campus might end up with no representation. Several others sided against the proposal and supported the services of the support staff.

However, Dean of Engineering John Dealy wasn't swayed by their arguments.

"Membership on Senate," he said, "is not to reward contributions, or to look out for the interests of constituents. It's to look out for what's best for the long-term academic mission of the University."

He added that each of the faculties would still be represented by academics.

Staff representative Sharon Bezeau called for defeat of the motion precisely because it would reduce campus-wide representation. "Each area's needs are different," she said. "It is useful to discuss how issues affect each area. We need input from all."

Professor Kohur Gowri Sankaran stated his opposition, "because it is not a constitutional representation, but to provide their expertise in academic areas" that the six members are needed. "This reduction marginalizes them."

Dean of Law Stephen Toope not only supported the proposal, but called upon Senate to take the matter one step further. He said that Senate is not a representative body, but a deliberative body and questioned its effectiveness due to its size.

"I urge Senate to seize the occasion to review the composition of the whole of Senate," he said.

Replied Smith, "An appropriate response to a specific problem is a narrow response. Don't go beyond the scope of the original question," he cautioned.

Support staff supported

Professor Robin Yates, siding with the support staff, said that "staff have a memory of the institution that some academics who stay for shorter periods of time do not. Six members doesn't cost us anything."

Shaughnessy then rose to speak out against her own subcommittee's conclusion.

"I erred," she said. "My colleagues have changed my mind. What we would lose is diversity, not representation."

Staff representative Robyn Wiltshire reminded Senate that support staff fulfill the academic mission of the University and not some agenda of their own. Many of the decisions reached by Senate would not be followed through without the diligent work of administrative staff.

"Many implementations are left to support staff within the departments."

As Principal Bernard Shapiro reminded the assembly, a change in the Statutes requires a two-thirds majority vote. When the question was called, the motion to reduce non-unionized administrative staff was defeated by a slim majority.