Report sparks Senate debate

by Karl Jarosiewicz

Bold and daring, or timid and cautious? These are the two polarized views in a broad spectrum of opinion that greeted the long-awaited release of the Planning and Priorities (P & P) Subcommittee report during a committee of the whole at the May 15 meeting of Senate.

Forty-two separate recommendations for changing the shape and direction of the University deal with issues ranging from rewriting the timetable to include an extra semester, to critical reviews of the usefulness of certain programs and units. Along the way, the P & P report touches on both superficial and fundamental changes to academic and staff policies. For example, the report calls for a "formal post-tenure review for academic staff whose performance is perceived to have fallen below the standard for which tenure was granted." A similar "periodic review of performance" would apply to non-academic staff.

Perhaps the most pivotal recommendation of the report is the penultimate recommendation, which calls for "a large consultation of [the McGill] community taking the form of Estates General to be staged in the fall of 1996." To facilitate this venture through an "informed and constructive discussion of the issues confronting the University," the last recommendation calls for the P&P to prepare a series of discussion papers on "different possible development scenarios for the medium and longer term."

Ironically, this report, which began life as a series of discussion papers presented at hearings, recommends resuming the same process. However, the report states that decisive action is needed.

"P & P clearly recognizes that the preparation of the Estates General should not be a reason for further delaying action on most of the recommendations formulated earlier in this report."

The exercise which became known as "Towards a New McGill" actually began in October 1994, when Principal Bernard Shapiro announced that a fundamental budget process review was essential if McGill was to survive both government cuts and a heavy debt load.

The P & P Subcommittee of the Academic Policy and Planning Committee (APPC) was assigned the job of consulting with the community and producing a long-term policy paper. Last December, P&P submitted a draft to APPC, which in turn appended its comments.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 1995, Principal Shapiro published a paper called "Towards a New McGill" which generated some controversy, but set in motion a community-wide discussion. He then created the ad hoc task force led by Professor Rod Macdonald which reviewed the P & P report and published its own report. P & P was then invited to consider and incorporate both the task force's report and the APPC comments.

Vice-Principal François Tavenas, as chair of P & P, decided that his committee would integrate as much of the Macdonald Report as possible.

"We decided that it wasn't appropriate to incorporate the whole document. It stands on its own and should be considered by the community."

Opposition to the P & P report began early in the discussion. Professor Michael DuBow said he found the document to be an example of decision making "from the top down. I believe that the process should be more horizontal."

"If that's the impression, then I'm sorry," said Vice-Principal (Academic) Bill Chan. "We saw the recommendations coming from the general community." In fact, the report contains a complete list of the recommendations with the source of the idea noted beside each one. Chan restated that he didn't want these recommendations to be imposed by APPC, but implemented in response to suggestions from the community itself and from Senate.

Director of Libraries-Elect Frances Groen said that she felt that some decisions simply need to be "from the top down as a method to get things done."

However, much of the criticism centred not on what's in the report, but on what's missing. Professor Robin Yates lamented that the document doesn't once refer to Quebec, nor to its system of CEGEPs. Student representative Don McGowan, speaking for himself and Dean of Students Rosalie Jukier, said that they decry "the absence of students in the report, except for a couple of references where they are treated as commodities."

Senator David Cohen objected to the lack of any mention of anglophones. He noted that francophones were targeted for increased student recruitment, but complained that "McGill has a responsibility to young anglophones to help keep them" in Quebec.

Dean of Law Stephen Toope distanced himself from Cohen's remark saying, "For practical reasons we must appeal to the francophone community. The anglophone community is getting smaller and the existing pool of students is shrinking."

Critical of Recommendation 7 which asks that "Senate and the administration should look with favour on daring and ambitious plans to advance programs and units," student representative Chris Carter criticized the phrase for being ambiguous enough to "open the back door to privatization." In fact, this remark was made more than once by student senators.

Playing with the phrase "daring and ambitious," Professor John Ripley launched the most cutting attack on the report, saying that instead, "it danced around most of the contentious issues. The rest of the document is timid in the extreme." He cited examples of language used in the report such as "to consider issues," "to evaluate units," and "to increase efforts to recruit" to reinforce his point that the report refused to go far enough in its recommendations.

"We're only authorizing the administration to do the job they're mandated to do. Why are we spending an afternoon discussing this?"

Tavenas defended the cautious tone by declaring that so far the comments he'd heard at Senate were only negative.

"I haven't heard any support for a new direction. The challenge is to consider the recommendations without this aversion to change."

Commenting on the Estates General and the preparation of papers Associate Dean Lydia White said, "This will only extend the agony." Ripley picked up on the same theme.

"What will be left to talk about in this committee-obsessed culture?" he said. "We have the notion that by multiplying ignorance we'll get wisdom. Somebody at some point has to take responsibility and say, 'This is my vision! Will you buy into it?'"

McGowan, defending the Estates General, replied that the "average professor, staff member and student needs to be consulted."

Professor Leonore Lieblein said that an Estates General was needed because "we don't have a vision."

"No vision can come out of a consensus," said Yates. "One can have a democratic process and consultation in the appropriate bodies," such as Senate. "If the community has not been consulted and if senators have not been providing feedback, it is the fault of the senators. Visions have to be refined year after year through speeches, discussions and committees, not resolved by one deliberative process."

Student representative George Lozano had asked earlier in the discussion, "What happens once we've been through these recommendations?"

"This is a general discussion on issues," answered Principal Bernard Shapiro. "The next step is to decide what to do about them."

A special session of Senate has been scheduled for May 29 for further discussion.