Volume 29 - Number 14 - Thursday, April 10, 1997

The Principal's Column

I had intended to devote this Reporter column to the vital contribution which our research activities--so often taken for granted--make to McGill's very identity and its hopes for the future.

Indeed, on the research front, I have surprisingly rich and encouraging news, all of which will be the subject of a future Reporter column as well as the focus of various press releases and media stories as time goes on.

In the meantime, it seems more appropriate, if only to dispel some of the anxiety in the community, to deal with how McGill will respond to the Quebec government's bill to reduce manpower costs in the public sector.

Under Bill 104, which was passed into law on March 22, public sector employers (and universities are explicitly included) are required to reduce their salary base by 6% as of July 1, 1997.

In response, I can assure you that we will do everything possible to protect current salary levels and, of course, sustain our academic mission.

McGill staff associations and unions are being consulted with respect to the implications of Bill 104, and over the next few weeks various options will, I am sure, emerge. I would like, however, to sketch briefly some of the assumptions and principles which I believe should inform our considerations.

First and foremost, salary and benefit cuts should be only a last resort. Instead, the thrust of our approach to Bill 104 should argue that the special early retirement measures which McGill undertook in 1996 but whose results will emerge only in 1997-1998 and later, together with the careful and differential use of attrition in not necessarily replacing staff who leave or have left, should satisfy the requirements for a 6% base cut in each sector of the University's salary mass.

Second, we will continue to honour our employment security arrangements. Thus, while there must be an overall reduction in the number of positions on McGill's payroll under Bill 104, the University will make every effort to reorganize its operations rather than let people go.

In other words, we should try to cope with this extraordinary imposition by the provincial government by ensuring that the steps we have already taken are counted and by pursuing a general strategy of accommodating the law by reducing the number of positions.

Our plans will, however, require government approval and we cannot, therefore, be certain in advance that the proposals we bring forward will be accepted.

Of course, the impact of Bill 104 must be viewed in the context of the entire budget situation affecting Quebec universities now and in the immediate future. The most recent government announcements have meant that McGill's budget preparations for next year must be rethought in order to consider not only the concerns of Senate and the Board of Governors, but also to help us cope with both next year and the two following years, i.e., 1998-1999 and 1999-2000.

According to the information given to Vice-Principal Heaphy last week, the expected reduction in the provincial funding for Quebec universities will be $205,000,000 over the next three years.

This figure would break down, broadly speaking, as follows: close to $100 million for 1997-1998; $80 million for the following year, 1998-1999; and then $25 million for 1999-2000.

This assumes that student numbers from outside Quebec and around the world will continue to remain at their current level and that the quality of Quebec university education will remain at a sufficiently high level to make it worthwhile for students to come here.

The overall estimated cut of $205,000,000 for the entire Quebec university network provided by ministry officials translates to a $29 million cut for McGill, approximately $14 million of which must be managed in 1997-1998.

While we continue to reel from these successive punches, we must keep our eyes on the horizon. Among the assumptions guiding our development of the McGill budget to deal with these dramatic external changes are the following:

  • We will continue to refrain as long as possible from adding to the accumulated deficit.
  • We will continue to lobby for better public funding of the universities.
  • We will continue to press Quebec on the issue of a more flexible retirement policy, especially as it relates to staff 69 years and older who draw pensions as well as salary.
  • We will continue to look for ways to ensure that McGill faculty salaries are, on the average, no lower than the 50th percentile of the other research-intensive Canadian universities.
  • We will continue to set aside funds for scholarships and students, and we will continue to provide for some academic renewal each year.
  • We will also continue to search for new sources of revenue, again on the principle that the burden of sacrifice in this context must be shared.

One final point should be stressed. It seems quite clear that McGill will not be able to count on any increases in the foreseeable future in the tuition fee levels set by the provincial government.

With so many negative changes sweeping across the fiscal landscape, I mused aloud recently that the excitement and satisfaction of leading a university of McGill's calibre was somewhat diminished.

And then I looked around at all the evidence of hardworking and talented people producing amazing results in the classroom, the library, the laboratory, the office, the playing field, and I took heart.

The extraordinary achievements of our students, our faculty and our staff are what continue to sustain me and all of us who care about McGill. They are what will enable us not only to survive but to emerge, eventually, a better institution. That belief is what makes the enterprise worthwhile.

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