by Eric Smith
Students had an opportunity to express some of their concerns about McGill's current budget difficulties and some of the proposed solutions at a recent forum with Principal Bernard Shapiro.
The forum called for the principal to speak briefly on the challenges facing the University in three areas--financial, academic and administrative--and invited students to ask questions and contribute their suggestions for solutions.
Students expressed concern on a range of issues, from shrinking departments to proposed raises in tuition fees. Many voiced their desire to continue to be involved in the decision-making process as McGill implements changes. Students referred to the Macdonald Task Force report and endorsed its recommendation that the University hold an Estates General to carry out a broad consultation with all members of the University community.
Questioned about the report, Shapiro said, "I thought the Estates General was an interesting idea, but not sufficiently interesting that I would take it up. A process that large and that diverse can lead to frustration. I think it's not helpful just at this moment but I've asked P&P (the Senate's planning and priorities subcommittee) to redo its report in light of the Macdonald task force recommendations."
When asked how students could ensure that their concerns were part of the current process without an Estates General, the principal replied: "I'm glad to hear students' thoughts. I'm glad to come to meetings like this. But students have to use the governance process we have. The University can't be a continuing exercise in direct democracy, but I'm glad to listen to ideas."
Lisa Grushcow, vice-president (university affairs) for the McGill Students' Society and member of the Macdonald Task Force, organized the forum. She said it was set up as "an interim way to get students involved in planning the University's future." Added Grushcow, "My own experience is that students have valuable ideas and we needed a forum to express them."
She confirmed that there is a degree of frustration among students with the decision not to proceed with an Estates General and said, "We need a way to galvanize the whole University community."
Not surprisingly, the question of tuition fees came up several times in the course of the forum. Some students objected to the University's request to the provincial government for a fee hike, saying the administration's lobbying runs directly counter to students' interests as expressed by the Canadian Federation of Students, which is seeking zero tuition for all Canadian universities.
But when another student asked the principal whether he would be willing to compromise by promising not to raise fees higher than the national average, Shapiro simply answered, "Yes."
According to Grushcow, although students are divided on whether or not a tuition increase is warranted, she says there is a consensus "that you can't raise it unless you also raise financial aid, and you can't raise it exorbitantly."
Shapiro argued that tuition is not "what keeps people from accessing the university. The socio-economic status of university students is pretty much the same around the world, whatever the tuition."
And although Grushcow concedes, "There are social factors above and beyond economic factors," she adds, "In the current context, if you change the fee structure radically, you can't expect the student body to stay the same. People who didn't grow up expecting to spend 20 years paying back their loans will drastically rethink whether or not they can go to university."
The principal told the forum he favours an income-contingent repayment scheme to counterbalance the impact of a tuition hike.
Some students took the opportunity of the forum to ask about specific programs or departments that may be particularly threatened by budget cutbacks. Several expressed concern about the future of the Faculty of Religious Studies.
Although the principal expressed doubts about its viability as a distinct faculty, he added, "It is hard to imagine a university without the study of the religious dimensions of questions."
On the question of salaries, Shapiro reiterated the importance he places on increasing academic salaries to a competitive level. "In the short run you can skimp on it," he said. "In the long run, it mortgages your future."
The alternative to cutting salaries is to reduce staff, a process that is already under way at all levels of the University. But according to the principal, attracting new young faculty is equally important. "We have to find a way to maintain a steady stream of young professors coming into the University," he said. "And there's no point in getting them if you can't keep them."
Two students raised objections to the principal's own $191,000 salary, to which Shapiro responded, "After another year-and-a-half in this job, I'll be a bargain at twice the price."