"We must resolve the Estates General issue," stated Vice-Principal (Academic) Bill Chan at the start of the second round of Senate discussions on the Planning and Priorities (P&P) Subcommittee Report on Wednesday, May 29.
The report, which contains 42 recommendations for the future direction of McGill, was first brought before Senate on May 15 (see the May 23 Reporter). At that time, reaction to the recommendations revealed sharp divisions among senators, and the ensuing discussion produced no clear sense of how to resolve the impasse.
In an effort to keep the report and its recommendations alive during the summer months, Chan proposed a motion to approve the final two recommendations. Recommendation 41 states that "McGill University should prepare for a large consultation of its community, taking the form of an Estates General to be staged in the fall of 1996." Recommendation 42 says that "P & P should undertake to prepare a series of discussion papers on the issues confronting the University and on different possible development scenarios for the medium and longer term."
Professor Leonore Lieblein immediately rose to defend the motion.
"What can an Estates General accomplish?" she asked. "It has the potential to differ dramatically from previous consultations. Structurally, it allows all units across the University to have access to the same kind of information and questions. Substantively, we don't always have the same information to make priority decisions."
"I'm not convinced that an expensive operation will help," said Associate Dean Lydia White. "It will slow us down! It's too late!" She added that the process would be a time-consuming and costly exercise. "We already have consultation mechanisms in place." If there are people who haven't participated yet, the reason is "they're not interested in discussion."
Referring to the original round of papers presented to P & P, Professor Malcolm Baines said that it was "only a small minority of individuals and groups which participated."
"I'm hesitantly in favour," declared Dean of Law Stephen Toope. "All forces given this job have recommended this Estates General. Maybe we should start to listen." He admitted that the "process will never satisfy everyone."
Student representative Eric Beaudry supported the idea because "we must start to look outside of our committees" for the answers to our problems.
"I'm for it," said Students' Society president Chris Carter, "for the same reasons others are against it: Everyone will have an opportunity to speak. There will be closure." He denied that the exercise would be costly, stating that probably the money would be recouped "through implementation of the suggestions made. It will also make everyone feel good."
"It won't be a decision-making body," Principal Bernard Shapiro reminded the assembly. "All it can do is elaborate certain recommendations and provide some feedback from the community."
"An Estates General provides catharsis," said Professor Michael DuBow. "I don't see how it will work or how we'll get more information we don't already have. And it will only make us feel good for a few days."
"I'm afraid that there's no sense of urgency," said Dean of Engineering John Dealy. Criticizing this discussion and the notion of an Estates General for steering the community away from the real financial and organizational problems, he said, "We'll never see things the same way."
"It's time to fish or cut bait," declared SSMU vice-president Don McGowan. "We haven't seen any vision yet to vote for. There must be something more which has to be done." Expecting the process to reveal a still unseen direction for the University, he said that "people with nothing to say won't show up. We can at least say that we all had our chance to have our say." Breaking ranks with the other students, graduate student George Lozano stated that the Estates General was "a bit of a waste of time."
"We hope for greater consensus and achieve greater dissension," said Professor John Wolforth.
"The Estates General was first held by the French Revolution," observed Vice-Principal (Planning and Resources) François Tavenas, providing an historical insight. "The results are sometimes pleasant and sometimes not so pleasant."
Support staff representative Sharon Bezeau, who was a member of the Macdonald task force, declared her support for the Estates General. (It was the Macdonald task force which earlier this year introduced the idea of a University-wide consultation process.)
Said Bezeau, "We must move towards turning the recommendations into realities. The only way to do this is to bring them to the community. This is the opportunity to show the community how urgent it is."
The motion was voted on and defeated.
Professor Bruce Shore, a member of the P & P subcommittee, tried to salvage the report. "I've reviewed the comments and want to revise the P & P document," he stated. "The Estates General wasn't even part of our original plan. It was added as part of the process that incorporated the Macdonald Report." He declared that it was his "intent to work over the summer... There has been good input from these discussions which I'll incorporate into the document."
Lieblein supported the revisions and added as a "general point, consider the language of the report. Remove 'consider,' 'weigh,' 'evaluate' from the document." Stating that more decisive recommendations made in stronger terms were necessary, she announced that it was time to "shit or get off the pot!"
Noting the defeat, at least for the summer, of the Estates General process, Tavenas added that "we still need a more elaborate forum for discussion."
Calling for caution in the discussions, Professor Ted Meighen said that the publication of the previous Senate discussion in the McGill Reporter had upset many academics who had learned that the recommendations called for performance reviews. He criticized the Reporter for revealing details from a public document (the P & P Report) which were "simply recommendations," not actual decisions.
"It doesn't help to see it in this form. It's not useful."
The discussion ended without any firm process or direction decided. Because Senate will not meet again until next fall, the status of the P & P report was thus left in limbo.