September 12, 1996

Students, administration share visions

by Daniel McCabe

Some common ground was unearthed when graduate students and professors sat down together for a panel discussion at the afternoon session of the Future Visions Conference. Both Principal Bernard Shapiro and the students in attendance agreed that years of budget cuts have taken their toll on the quality of education offered in McGill's classrooms.

But there were sharp differences of opinion as well. The professors argued that Anna Kruzynski's earlier remarks about university/industry research partnerships painted too grim a portrait of such collaborations. For their part, students criticized the administration for not supporting their one-day strike last month against government cuts to education spending.

Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger noted McGill research is currently supported by about $16 million in industrial funds. Of that amount, only a bit more than $6 million is linked to contract research. The rest comes from no-strings-attached grants from industrial sources. "A grant is a grant. The researchers supported by these grants can publish anything they want."

According to Bélanger, companies are far more interested in supporting educational programs that will train the sorts of students they'll need to employ one day than they are in influencing the sort of research that goes on in academic settings.

For instance, Nortel sponsors a chair in photonics in the Department of Electrical Engineering. The creation of that position has attracted other scientists and graduate students with an interest in photonics research to McGill.

Nortel isn't especially interested in the sort of research carried out by McGill's photonics specialists, insisted Bélanger. The company is far more concerned about attracting well-trained photonics experts to its own labs. By supporting McGill's photonics program, Nortel ensures that talented young scientists will receive a good schooling in the subject. Thanks to Nortel's support, McGill got to establish a program in a flourishing area. "What's wrong with that?," asked Bélanger, portraying the Nortel partnership as a win-win situation.

"When I was the dean of engineering I had some of the same questions [as Kruzynski]," said Bélanger. "Was contract research just busywork or did it meet the standards we set for university research?"

To find out, he examined the contract research going on in his faculty. "Of the 23 research contracts I looked at, 22 had resulted in at least one scholarly publication. That's a good indicator of academic worth."

The vice-principal also argued that applied research can be just as curiosity-driven as basic research. "You can be curious about applications too," said Bélanger, noting that pasteurized milk resulted from Louis Pasteur's applied research interests.

Bélanger declared that McGill already has strict mechanisms in place to scrutinize potential research contracts with outside firms. "We don't always say yes. If the rights of the students involved in [these research situations] aren't protected, if the rights of our researchers to publish aren't protected, we say no."

"I took a job in academia because I'm fundamentally motivated to do basic research," said physiology professor John White. He has collaborated with industry and insisted the experience didn't deter him from doing the type of curiosity-driven research he wants to devote himself to. In some cases, he has had to submit his research findings to his industrial partner 45 days before sending them to a journal.

"But that didn't really result in any delay in publication," he declared. "With the reduction in the amount of government funding for basic research, we have to look for alternatives."

Graduate student Michael Toye was sceptical about Bélanger's claim that companies are happy to lend carte blanche support to McGill's research projects. He suspects the renewal of such grants "would be contingent on the production of knowledge that the industry could use for its own purposes."

Principal Bernard Shapiro said that the major challenge facing McGill was easy to sum up. "How can we maintain the academic and financial solvency of the University at the same time? It's easy enough to do one. It's terribly difficult to do both. We're struggling to find the magic solution."

Shapiro added this was "not a new problem. We were telling the government we couldn't absorb any more cuts 20 years ago.

"What has been McGill's response [to these cuts]? It boils down to two things we can't do anymore. We allowed our student-to-teacher ratios to rise. We don't like to talk about it, but it happened. It does have and has had an impact on the quality of education we're able to offer.

"We also allowed our compensation schemes to fall to the point where we're simply no longer competitive," said Shapiro, adding, "Recently one of our best-paid professors left the University for a job that will pay him a salary three times as high as what he was earning here."

Citing these two trends, Shapiro proclaimed, "That's a hopelessly inappropriate model for the future. A new model has to be found."

The principal stated that in the years to come, organizations of all sorts will seek out workers with sophisticated and highly developed types of expertise--the kind of people McGill employs as faculty.

"Unless we make the boundaries [between McGill and other knowledge-based organizations] more permeable, the University will lose the competition because we can't pay the going rate.

"The traffic doesn't only have to be in terms of contract research," added Shapiro. "Why not have more people from outside [McGill] teaching at the University for a year? Why not have our people do the same?"

The principal credited Toye with making important points about student diversity, adding that in discussions of student enrolment, "The crucial question is, 'Who is it that's included?'" Shapiro said McGill needs to give serious thought to the "classes and backgrounds" of the students who attend the University.

He reaffirmed his support for some form of mandatory retirement policy for older professors. "People don't get stupid as they get older. [But] universities will die if they can't have some flow of younger people into faculty positions. There is a need for other generations to be represented in the University."

Professor Gary Wihl, chair of the Department of English, had his own concerns about the next generation of scholars--namely that McGill isn't doing enough to help its graduate students find employment in an increasingly competitive academic job market.

Wihl said that the most important thing McGill can do for its graduate students is to guarantee that the University's scholarship continues to be highly regarded. "More than anything else, that will ensure that our students will be competitive." But he added that McGill should be more aggressive about marketing its graduates to other universities--particularly in the U.S.

Kruzynski assailed university administrators for not canceling classes when McGill students held their one-day strike against Quebec City's cuts to university funding. "You missed out on an opportunity to send a message to the government."

Shapiro responded that while students and the administration share some of the same concerns, "there is a difference between mutual support and an agreement on strategy."

He added that students don't require the University's official blessing to vent their displeasure over the government's cuts to university funding. "[Don't] wait for someone to tell you that you can do it." Shapiro even offered advice about how students can gauge the effectiveness of their campaigns--"How much trouble can you cause and how many people can you convince?"

There was some heat generated, but not too much fire as graduate sudents and members of McGill's administration and faculty exchanged points of view at last Friday's Future Visions Conference. Organized by the Post-Graduate Students' Society and co-sponsored by the 175th Anniversary Committee, the day-long conference featured presentations from graduate students in the morning and a panel discussion in the afternoon.

The students tackled such issues as accessibility, dispute mediation, TA contracts and university/industry collaboration. Some highlights:

Alex Roshuk, Department of History

Roshuk, who has also studied law, gave McGill high marks for being "very progressive" in establishing its Charter of Student Rights. But Roshuk claimed that at least one of the policies laid out in that charter could do with some tinkering.

He proposed doing away with the grievance process that covers cases involving students accused of violating McGill's rules. Roshuk has been a legal adviser to McGill students in grievance proceedings. According to him, the current system fosters an adversarial, "us-versus-them" atmosphere in which students and faculty are pitted against one another.

Roshuk favours a mediation system in which an unbiased third party would help resolve disputes. He noted that McGill Ombudperson Estelle Hopmeyer often tries to act as a mediator in many of the disputes that come to her attention. Roshuk indicated that Hopmeyer has been effective in this role, "but unless Estelle can convince [the parties involved] that mediation should occur, it doesn't happen." He supports the creation of a formal mediation policy which would lead to students and faculty being trained to serve as ombudsperson-type mediators.

Marcella Trembley, Department of Plant Science

Trembley posited that Macdonald Campus has to search for new ways to attract funding for its activities. Macdonald also needs to uncover more methods for making itself useful to the community.

She pointed to the Morgan Arboretum as a possible model. The arboretum is now run by a non-profit community agency that uses donations and user fees (skiers using the arboretum's trails are charged a modest amount, for instance) to pay for the area's upkeep.

She proposed that Macdonald could set up an environmental analysis service for municipalities on the West Island. Macdonald students would provide residents and civic officials with their expertise--students could analyze soil samples or investigate pollutants in the waterways.

The service would result in new research opportunities for students. "There is still very little that's known about urban ecosystems," said Trembley. The service would be self-supporting--students would charge fees for their work.

Michael Toye, School of Social Work

Toye said that while many university officials claim that higher tuition fees aren't likely to harm the ability of most Canadians to afford post-secondary education, American studies indicate that more expensive fees do have an impact on the types of students who go to university.

Toye argued that higher fees tend to make certain types of students think twice about pursuing university degrees--students from poor backgrounds or students from families where no one has ever gone to university before, for instance. Noting that universities haven't been models of diversity in the past, Toye says new generations of scholars from minority groups and less affluent backgrounds "add the most to the debate about how knowledge is constructed." For that reason, universities need to encourage precisely these sorts of students to attend.

Anna Kruzynski, Department of Psychology

Kruzynski warned of the potential perils involved when universities establish closer ties to industry--specifically through industry-supported research.

She allowed that there were benefits to universities in industrial partnerships, but said it was vital to bear in mind that universities and companies have very different agendas. University researchers choose projects that appeal to their curiosity and they generally want to share their findings with as many people as they can. Industries select projects that are likely to lead to profitable products and they try to keep their processes as confidential as humanly possible.

Universities risk their academic objectivity when they ally themselves too closely with industry, asserted Kruzynski. She pointed to a recent $300 million deal between the University of California at San Diego's Scripps Research Institute and a pharmaceutical firm in which the company has reserved the right to review the Scripps researchers' ties to other companies and even to determine what the university-based scientists should study.

"We don't want university professors to become hired guns," said Kruzynski. She encouraged McGill to set a limit on the amount of research funding it will accept from industrial sources--she suggested that no more than 35% of McGill's research should ever be supported by corporate money.

Christopher MacLeod, Institute of Islamic Studies

MacLeod suggested McGill set up a business bureau that would put small firms in touch with student consultants who could provide expertise in a range of areas--law, accounting or translation, for example. The companies would pay for the advice, but (if the appropriate arrangements could be made) their expenses would be tax-deductible.

MacLeod drew chuckles from the crowd for one of his suggestions--that McGill set up a "Desperately seeking solutions" contest with a $5,000 prize. "I guarantee that you will have every student at the Paragraphe Café or at Second Cup thinking about how to solve McGill's problems."