Strong McGill essential

As part of the process of considering the future of McGill, people from outside the University have been invited to share their ideas. Patrick Woodsworth (BA'67, MA'70, PhD'75), director general of Dawson College, recently addressed the Board of Governors. His remarks are excerpted here:

In thinking about my perceptions of McGill, I'm reminded of the metaphor about blind men feeling an elephant. Since each feels a different part, the description each provides sounds nothing like an elephant. Taken together, though, they may well be accurately describing that prodigious creature.

What does my part of the elephant tell me? First, I see McGill as a very fine university with first-rate students, an excellent faculty, world-class research, a terrific reputation nationally and internationally, and a strong and abiding commitment to its primary mission of teaching and research.

McGill's great strengths include a very high proportion of out-of-province and international students, very strong professional schools and a well-deserved reputation for graduate studies.

You have no shortage of fine and capable young people who want to go to McGill as undergraduates, most notably from Quebec, and you do a pretty good job with them while they're here.

Academically, my impression is that a lot is right with McGill and not much is wrong. The only gentle word of encouragement I would offer in this regard is that McGill should be particularly vigilant that good teaching, especially at the undergraduate level, is promoted, celebrated, and formally recognized.

If one were to ask McGill graduates what academic aspect they remember most positively about their undergraduate years here and what had left the most lasting impression, I think they would most often mention the fine teachers they had. This is a powerful message.

Of course academic institutions, especially publicly funded ones, do not exist in a bubble. Financial problems, of which McGill has its share, can sooner or later take a significant toll on the academic life of the university, both in substance and morale.

The best faculty may choose to leave McGill or not come in the first place. The physical plant may fall into further disrepair which can strongly influence the decision of the best students to choose McGill, and the quality of education of those who do come. Administrative processes and systems may be starved to the extent that they can no longer carry out their essential functions, and so on.

Obviously, the challenge facing McGill is to find real and lasting solutions to its financial problems while remaining true to its mission and assiduously protecting those things that make McGill such a fine academic institution.

Universities don't exist in a social bubble either, and in this regard my part of the elephant sends a few impressions too.

All Quebec institutions, particularly English-language ones, have had a pretty hard time keeping up with and accepting the pace and direction of social change over the past 20 years.

Our future seems to grow more sombre as our best brains leave Quebec along with our children, our collective place in society becomes less secure and less favoured than it once appeared to be, and for reasons of demography and finance, our options for the future become more circumscribed.

Faced with these spectres, real or imagined, we have tended to resort to the well-known responses of "flight or fight," either planning to leave--psychologically or physically--or hunkering down in a siege mentality, determined to save what "used to be."

In fact, perhaps because McGill is so firmly rooted internationally and throughout Canada, and has in the past played such a central role in shaping the social and psychological landscape of English Quebec, I think it has had some real difficulties defining and embracing a strong and active role in the mainstream of Quebec political, cultural and social life, as a full partner in Quebec and a natural leader in Quebec's affairs.

Some will say that playing a strong social and political role is not the proper responsibility of a great university, which must be somewhat removed from society in order to fulfil its real role of social critic, and that it is precisely this distance, this deliberate removal from society that is the uniqueness of the university.

I agree that the university must be careful whom it dances with and to what tune. However, I do not believe that the roles of involvement in society and criticism of society are mutually exclusive. In fact, one may see these roles as two sides of the same coin.

It seems to me that McGill must, for its own sake if for no other reason, rapidly redefine its role within Quebec society, claim the space that is appropriate for such an important Quebec institution, and place urgent and sustained emphasis on acquiring the political, linguistic and attitudinal skills and the right strategy to play this role fully. We must not allow the fact that we are a minority in our primary political sphere to act as a barrier to our full participation in that sphere.

Our Quebec society has changed dramatically over the past quarter century, and, as Quebec's pre-eminent university, McGill must not only keep up with this change but in many ways lead and shape it. This is critical, I think, both to McGill's survival and to that of English Quebec.

My impressions, then, are that McGill is academically strong and healthy, financially quite troubled, and in need of some redefinition of its role as a member of Quebec society and as a fully participating, leading citizen.

What does all this mean for McGill's future? How should McGill change and adapt for life in the twenty-first century?

I've already spoken in general terms about the challenges of citizenship that face McGill along with other English-language institutions, including Dawson. Let me return to the implications for the future of the commonalities that our two institutions share.

English-language CEGEPs are natural allies of McGill. Unfortunately, this alliance has so far remained potential and has not yet been fully actualized. To help to consolidate our relationship, I suggest that McGill not view the CEGEPs as unwelcome interlopers into what was--30 years ago--an otherwise perfectly acceptable educational system.

The time has come for us to work together to create and promote both formal and informal liaisons which serve our mutual interests. Let me deal with just three areas of possible cooperation: curriculum, support services, and what one might call "family relations."

One idea that has had much currency recently is that the five years of education that Quebec students usually receive following their graduation from secondary school­two years at the college level and three at university­should be conceived, planned and offered as a continuous program with common general objectives and clearly defined, agreed-upon standards for each level.

This is an idea that I believe has much merit. It assumes formal cooperation between the two levels of undergraduate education in program planning and design as well as structured, active contacts between faculty of both levels that would benefit teachers and students alike.

Moreover, since such an approach has as its focus the programs we offer our students, that is, the set of discipline-based courses that together are planned to support common program objectives, it is instrumental in strengthening interdisciplinarity and promoting the integration of knowledge at the undergraduate level.

Quebec's colleges and universities share the common task of providing a strong, broad, coherent, fairly non-specialized undergraduate foundation, and I believe we must work together to design and support this foundation. I encourage McGill both to think carefully about whether this idea is worthwhile, and, if so, to work in active partnership with the CEGEPs to bring it to fruition.

I think it is also worthwhile for us to consider whether there are certain non-academic services for which there could be some kind of a partnership between our institutions, probably together with other English-language universities and colleges in Montreal.

None of us can afford any longer to replicate the same kind of non-academic services in each of our institutions. Making common cause may help us save money which we desperately need for our academic enterprise. I'm thinking of such services as the computing centre (with which Dawson already has a substantial contract), purchasing, payroll, accounts payable, photocopying, and possibly even such academic services as admissions, the registrariat, and the library.

Finally, I'd like to say a few words about the enormous potential for strong family alliances that McGill has at Dawson and at other English-language colleges. Again, it is a potential that I think is very real but largely unrealized.

Dawson is chock full both of future McGill students and former McGill students who, having graduated, have gone on to be Dawson professors. Dawson College and the other English-language CEGEPs are a great untapped resource for McGill.

We feel strongly about McGill, not only because many of us, like myself, see ourselves as part of the McGill family, not only because good English-language Quebec universities are vital to the future of our students, but most significantly because we believe profoundly that a strong, proud, thriving, academically excellent McGill is absolutely essential to the well-being and wholeness of our English-language community and, quite possibly, of Quebec society.

We know that McGill is anchored right at the core of what we are as a community, and we are convinced that McGill has a fundamental leadership role to play that cannot be assumed by any other institution or group of institutions.

In the difficult years to come McGill will need all of its friends and allies, and all of the members of its family. I urge you to reach out and tap the significant goodwill, energy and creativity that you will find in the colleges.

Finally, I'd like to close with a suggestion. Many Quebec educational institutions have representatives from other levels of education on their boards. At Dawson, we have formal representation from both the school boards and McGill, which is strongly represented by a senior and very active member of your faculty. In order to strengthen relations between natural allies, might it not be time for McGill to make a place for the colleges in its governing structures?

I thank you for your kind invitation and wish McGill the very best of futures in the twenty-first century.