Volume 29 - Number 11 - Thursday, February 27, 1997

Academics on the move:

Some top talents are being lured away, but most professors are staying put

by Patrick McDonagh & Janice Paskey

People come and people go. English Montrealers know that well. Since the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, the province has seen the largest exodus since 1982, some 7,500 people. McGill is no ivory tower in that regard. Some big name professors have gone, including every single political theorist.

In the last three years, McGill has lost 172 professors (60 to early retirement) and hired 85. And though there is no way to know how many left because of politics, some say it was a key factor.
Despite continuing political and economic uncertainty, McGill is still attracting outstanding young academics such as brain researcher Dr. David Kaplan


Yet there is no shortage of professors who want to come to McGill or to live in Montreal, a city ranked as one of the most livable in the world. Not to mention cachet. Montreal is the largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris.

At the same time, McGill is money-hampered. The Quebec government cut McGill's grant by $14.5 million in 1996, and plans another $18-million to $19-million cut next year. Add political uncertainty to that. To stay or to go? In examining the situation, one must untwine a complicated confluence of politics and economics.

After the narrow defeat of the sovereignty option in the '95 referendum, Principal Bernard Shapiro said recruiting and retaining top faculty could be affected by the perception of political instability. Currently, there is little trouble attracting entry-level professors, as jobs are scarce in academia. But the best professors are mobile and frequently offered better-paying positions. Some are assessing their futures.

At one end of the spectrum are Professors Bart and Vivian Hamilton, formerly of the Departments of Economics and Medicine respectively, who left McGill because of Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau's infamous comment on referendum night blaming defeat on "argent et le vote ethnique." The referendum night comment was widely interpreted as casting English speakers (seen as the rich in Quebec) and non-pure laine francophone voters as outsiders.

Vivian, who is of Asian descent, was struck by the racist implications of Parizeau's speech. "I didn't feel welcome in Quebec, mostly because of the Parti Québécois. I have lots of francophone friends, and without the political unrest, I would have been happy to stay." Their decision was instantaneous: "I didn't stay up for the final referendum results, but when Bart came to bed, he said, 'That's it, we're leaving.'" Both are now at Washington University in St. Louis, a privately endowed institution, earning double their McGill salaries.

Yet both expressed regret at leaving Montreal. Says Bart, "We liked McGill and have lots of friends there, but it's hard to believe that you can buy a house and raise children with the instability. We liked living in Montreal, but who needs it? Why not go to the U.S., where you know you'll be in the same country in five years?"

Ron Brown, who recently left to chair the Department of Chemistry at the University of Northern British Columbia, also attributes part of his decision to Parizeau's speech. "If not for the referendum, I wouldn't have left McGill--I was very happy there, and wouldn't have put my name in the competition. But after the referendum, Premier Parizeau's speech helped me decide what to do when I got the offer."

Sitting in his McGill office, Principal Shapiro outlines the factors affecting professors' decisions to come to a university and settle there. Job availability. Salaries. Intellectual excitement. Living environment.

"Everybody worth having has options. The challenge for us is to be competitive at financial and intellectual levels in very difficult budget circumstances. The final issue becomes, 'What's Montreal like as a place to live?'"

Politics aside, most agree Montreal is a great place to live. "Vibrant, bilingual, multi-cultural, gastronomic and safe," in the words of a visiting professor. Derek Drummond, Vice-Principal (Development and Alumni Relations) adds, "The city is not only safe, but it has activity and life. People are strolling the streets downtown at 3 a.m. Compare that to the core of most major cities."

But do Montreal's charms compensate for political instability? Says Vice-Principal (Academic) Bill Chan, "The political issue is a factor and has been since 1976. From my observation, it plays both ways--one is that it does deter some people from coming, or encourages some to leave, but on the other hand it also offers a challenge to people who are willing to take cultural risks. It very much depends upon the individual."

There are many such people. For example, brain researcher David Kaplan. He says his upbringing in New York prepared him for Montreal's linguistic idiosyncracies. Kaplan, 40, left the National Institute for Cancer Research for the Montreal Neurological Institute, affiliated with McGill's Faculty of Medicine, to co-direct a new Brain Tumour Research Centre.

In his first months, the indefatigable Kaplan, who completed his doctorate at Harvard, co-founded Exogen Neurosciences, a new company with a mandate to combat neurodegenerative diseases. He is also the first recipient of the $350,000 Howard E. Johns Award from the National Cancer Institute of Canada. Kaplan says McGill's appeal lies in its research environment. "The pool of talent and skill here is terrific." Another draw is the self-effacing "Canadian persona." "Research seems to involve less ego in Canada than in the U.S.," he says. "It's easier to bring people together to work for a common aim."

Kaplan knows about bringing people together: the centre is hiring four more neuro-scientists. "Certainly the candidates are concerned about the political situation, but when we show them the facilities and the city, they want to come," he says. The new team is even bucking the local real estate trend: so far, they're all planning to buy houses ("Either they don't read the papers, or they want to stay," observes Kaplan). Montreal has the cheapest rents and housing prices for a city its size in North America, and an ample supply--there are about 20 houses on the market for every buyer, and hundreds of available apartments.

Other departments are successful in recruiting, if they have the budget to hire. William Rowe, director of the School of Social Work, was surprised to have a dozen well-qualified candidates for a recent opening despite an ongoing threat of Quebec separation.

Dean of Medicine Abraham Fuks, says, "I am far more worried about the economic environment than the political environment. If we have budget cuts that make it difficult to offer the research opportunities we do now, then we could experience difficulty recruiting."

Echoing Fuks, Vice-Principal Chan says, "I'm most concerned with salaries." McGill's average salary for all professors is $68,399, whereas the average for the top 10 research universities in Canada is $75,155. The difference is more dramatic for junior faculty, the future of any institution: the minimum salary for an assistant professor at McGill is $43,000, the lowest of any Canadian research university.

When Americans Peter Gibian, a McGill English professor with a PhD from Stanford, and his wife Wendy Owens, assistant director of museum services at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, moved to Montreal, they renewed their French skills and sent their twin girls to French-language daycare. Their lively four-year-olds have reaped the benefits. Gibian says, "They're completely bilingual--they've become good at mediating between French and English kids. And the unilingual anglophone and francophone adults we know are pretty envious of them."

The family recently bought a new home in Westmount. "I left a good job in the States and came here in a spirit of adventure. I thought it would be exciting to be at a major English research institute in the heart of a French city. Montreal is a multicultural society that really works."

American universities--many of them offering high salaries and stellar research facilities, have lured away some top talents from McGill. Yet other professors reject the American option. Consider the case of British-born sociologist John Hall, who was offered a position at Boston University at double the salary, but felt the lure of Montreal strongly enough to remain at McGill.

"Montreal is a great place for an academic--the diversity of people here is fascinating. For a sociologist like me, it's a laboratory," he says.

Principal Shapiro theorizes, "In talking to people about this, there are people of two different kinds. There are people for whom the francophone fact of Quebec makes it unusual and exciting, and there are those for whom that's daunting and not attractive. It doesn't relate to the quality of people; it relates to what makes them tick."

A deep attachment to Montreal is easy to understand, as most people who have lived here can attest. Will Straw, director of both the Graduate Program in Communications and the Centre for Research in Canadian Cultural Industries and Institutions, will remain even if Quebec separates.

"As long as there is a commitment to maintain English universities, I'll be here. I love Montreal. I love Quebec. I think that Quebec has a right to determine its future, and I want to be a part of it."

This article was originally published in the McGill News and appears here with the permission of the magazine's editor, Janice Paskey.

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