by Diana Grier Ayton
Last October Principal Shapiro established a small task force and handed its members a big mandate--with a very tight deadline. Their job was to significantly advance discussions on the future of McGill by evaluating "the academic and financial feasibility of a range of models" and suggesting how one or more of those models might actually come into being. They were given a little more than two months to consult, deliberate and produce a report.
Remarkably, the 70-page report was released on schedule and its author, law professor Rod Macdonald, chair of the task force, says his team is proud of the final product. "Nothing is ever perfect, but I think we pretty well got it. The committee was terrific."
Acknowledging in the preface that the task force had been "more restrained" than their mandate required, the report sets out the team's findings in four chapters. The first outlines the problems facing the University. Cuts in government grants, a shrinking anglophone population in Quebec and political uncertainty are added to the "internal" challenges. These include promoting equity and access, sustaining the complex and expensive research apparatus and defining McGill's role in society. According to the report, "Šfar more than most universities, the geographic area implied by the term 'society' has multiple dimensions for McGill: Is it anglophone Montreal? Montreal? Quebec? Canada? Or even the world at large?"
Important issues also surround the central mission of teaching and learning. With an increasingly diverse student body comes a similarly diverse set of "student abilities and expectations. We can no longer take for granted that every student will have a common core of background knowledge and experience. Traditional assumptions about the content of what is to be taught in any given area are being put to the test."
But overriding all other challenges, says the report, is the urgent need "to reverse, to the greatest extent possible and in the shortest time possible, the decline of morale that appears to afflict large numbers of faculty, staff and students....Without a coming together to confront and overcome the present mood of pessimism, there is no reasonable likelihood that the energy and enthusiasm needed to meet the other challenges facing McGill can be marshalled and directed towards the achievement of solutions."
Despite the rather dire tone, Macdonald says his committee found grounds for optimism. "Nobody felt that all is rotten in the state of Denmark. McGill has lived on a knife edge for most of its 175 years. The rosy periods might amount to 40 years out of the whole history. We saw signs of real engagement in the kinds of things that people were saying and the energy they brought in making submissions to us. That's what makes us optimistic."
The second chapter reviews some of the models suggested in the document Towards a New McGill released at the beginning of the academic year. One of the options put forward is a fully privatized McGill, which the report calls "unthinkable."
A major drawback is that the University would be unlikely to attract enough students who were either willing or able to pay the full cost of their education, especially if other institutions remained public. Under such a model, students might be ineligible for government loans, and access to government research grants might be at risk. Within faculties, however, certain programs might be privatized "within a general framework of University-wide guidelines and academic approval by University-wide bodies."
In addition, research could be marketed through the licensing of inventions, for example, and computing, printing and library services could be provided on a full cost-recovery basis. Another option would be to consider whether McGill should still be funding non-academic services like physical plant operations, McGill-Queen's press and the Faculty Club.
"All such operations could be reviewed for possible contracting out, and providing that doing so does not compromise the academic missionŠthey might well be sold off."
As for the question of a smaller McGill, the task force concludes that reducing student numbers is not a viable option until the accumulated deficit is paid off or substantially reduced. The suggestion that the ratio of graduate to undergraduate students should be changed also presents problems.
"While graduate students bring more dollars per capita into the University, they also require proportionately more professorial timeŠIt would be necessary to evaluate on a department by department basis the relative cost benefit of changing the student mixŠIt would also be necessary, given the limited opportunities for future employment in some disciplines, to consider the ethical implications of increasing graduate enrolments."
Other possible solutions such as reducing reducing faculty and staff numbers, amalgamating administrative functions, rationalizing programs and selling property must all be carefully considered in the light of academic priorities.
New models for the University have also included proposals for building links with other Montreal schools and for creating an international virtual university, offering "courses and programs that exist in cyberspace."
Commenting on this option last week, Macdonald said "I don't think it had been generally perceived that at many fundamental levels, these two options work at cross purposes. The one anchors us more firmly in Montreal and the other disassociates us from where we are. Getting the right balance between those kinds of structural arrangements has enormous implications financially and politically."
The fact that so many of the suggested possibilities for McGill's future course have similarly significant and double-edged consequences prompted the task force to emphasize throughout its report that blanket solutions are out of the question. Each idea must be considered at the local level, bearing in mind the overall vision for the University.
Moving on to processes in the third chapter, the report notes reports that currently these "seem, in certain situations, to function as much to produce delay, to protect acquired territory, to prevent joint action and to induce us to lose track of what we are doing as they do to advance the academic mission of the University."
To counter this institutional inertia, and in light of the sheer number of challenges facing McGill, the task force calls for an "extra-ordinary event"the immediate convening of a campus-wide Estates General.
Says Macdonald, "We thought, basically, just shut the University down in order to allow everyone at McGill to attend. We envision the Estates General as a way to induce reflection across our existing institutional structures. We wanted some way for people to come to the realization that a) they're not alone and b) other units have very similar problems."
As proposed by the task force, the Estates General would consist of three, one-day sessions taking place on consecutive weeks. At each session, the morning would be devoted to one of the vice-principals outlining issues in his or her area, while afternoons might consist of roundtable discussions of how these issues apply in departments and units. The vice-principals would attend all sessions and the principal would act as rapporteur-général.
Macdonald says he recognizes that "you can't announce something like that and just expect it to happen. A lot of homework would have to go into it. We were pleasantly surprised at how much information is out there. But we need to get that in the public domain and get it organized. The key to assimilating information is to have a structure of inquiry. Without it you just drown in the detail."
The report's fourth chapter reviews the challenges and presents the questions which need to be considered in connection with each of them. It also makes some further recommendations for action.
For example, it calls for creation of an inter-university planning commission with a representative from each Quebec university. The commission would be independent of the universities and CREPUQ, and would have the job of presenting recommendations to the government on funding formulas, resource sharing, tuition, distance education and so on.
The report makes other intriguing recommendations-that an informal McGill Institute be created where professors could take on-campus mini-sabbaticals to work on problems with colleagues from other disciplines; that members of the Board of Governors be encouraged to "adopt" an academic area in which to become involved; and that the University consider a trimester system.
If the task force came up with more questions than answers, but Macdonald says defining the issues to be decided was necessary in order to focus the discussion about McGill's future.
"We are entirely in agreement with the Principal's observation that the task is not simply to say 'We've got to save money.' The real issue is deciding what we want the University to look like at the end of the process, and then in respect of each and every potential decision, asking the question 'Does this get us a step closer or a step further away?'"
The other members of the task force were Sharon Bezeau, Gordon Echenberg, Lisa Grushcow, Martin Lechowicz, Leanore Lieblein, Charles Perrault, Judes Poirier and Robert Ritchie.
The full text of the task force report can be found on the new University Relations web site at http://www.reporter-archive.mcgill.ca/Read/read.htm. Copies are also available at reference desks in the McGill libraries.