Bookstore deal debated

KARL JAROSIEWICZ | The Report of the Workgroup on the Management of the McGill Bookstore hit a snag before the agenda for Senate's October 1 meeting was approved. The report addressed the potentially controversial takeover of the McGill University Bookstore by an outside management group. Word of a possible takeover prematurely made news in September when Toronto-based Chapters Inc. publicly announced that it would soon strike a deal with McGill.

"This is out of order," said Professor Patrick Farrell about the document. "There's no signature on the report, there's no background material." He objected to the fact that the report was issued from an advisory workgroup, not from a Senate committee.

"This was not requested by Senate and the material's out of order for Senate's consideration. We're not responsible for this; it's an administrator's concern." He suggested that the item be removed from the agenda.

"I agree with a number of your points, but I arrived at a different conclusion," stated Principal Bernard Shapiro. "I'd like to know what Senate thinks" about the report. He said that he would allow the discussion to take place, but added that his ruling could be challenged. It wasn't.

Before that item came up on the agenda, Senate dealt with another matter  approving the new multi-track undergraduate programs devised for the Faculty of Arts. Dean of Arts Carman Miller explained that these new programs were replacing the faculty's majors programs which he described as being far too similar to Arts honours programs. Instead of being a pale replica of an honours degree, Miller said the new multi-track approach would offer students a very different option. Students would be required to study at least two separate disciplines (cultural studies and political science, for instance) in some depth.

Students' Society president Tara Newell, an arts student herself, paid tribute to Miller and the Faculty. "I've never seen anything like this done in such a consultative way." She added that she believed the multi-track proposal was one which would strongly benefit arts undergraduates. Senate voted in favour of the multi-track programs.

Discussion turned once again to the bookstore. Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Phyllis Heaphy, stating that "this was for discussion and advice only," presented the workgroup report and some background on the issue of outsourcing the bookstore management.

"The proposals [for outsourcing] were unsolicited by McGill." She said that she had to find a mechanism to evaluate the proposals. She commissioned a report from an outside consultant (Samson Bélair Deloitte & Touche) which analyzed the offers and strongly recommended outsourcing as an option. She then asked the Senate University Bookstore Committee to set up a subcommittee to examine the issue, but it refused, in effect tabling the topic permanently.

"Whatever the outcome, the issue deserved a full examination," she said. "So I struck a workgroup to evaluate the management question." (The workgroup included: Steven Alexandris, MACES; Nicholas de Takacsy, Associate Dean, Faculty of Science; Alistair Duff, Faculty of Management and chair of the workgroup; Rosalie Jukier, Dean of Students; Tara Newell, SSMU; Duncan Reid, SSMU; Michael Smith, Department of Sociology; and, John David Stanway, PGSS.)

Heaphy was about to call on Professor Duff, who had been granted speaking rights, to address Senate. However, at this point, Professor Sam Noumoff introduced a motion to table the report, "until it is accompanied by some background material.

"I'm troubled by being asked to discuss a proposal for which there is only two-and-a-half pages of supporting material. I can't provide the informed advice that the vice-principal is soliciting." He said that he had only just received the Samson Bélair Deloitte & Touche report a couple of hours before the meeting and added that the Senate Bookstore Committee's thoughts on this subject should also be aired. PGSS representative Anna Kruzynski agreed.

Heaphy countered that she had forwarded the consultants' report but that it wasn't intended for general distribution. Furthermore, she said, it is incomplete because it was published before the Chapters proposal had been made.

Board of Governors representative to Senate David Cohen said he didn't see what all the fuss was about. "We're here to discuss, not to decide," he said. But not everyone saw it in such simple terms.

"No senators here, unless they were on the workgroup, understand the issue," declared Professor Glynne Piggott. "If the reports that this is based on are absent or incomplete, how can we have an informed debate?"

"But we have the chair of the workgroup to tell their side of the story," said Dean John Dealy.

"I'm against the motion," said Dean Stephen Toope. "The Senate Bookstore Committee only advises the manager in the selling of books, not issues like this."

"'The role of the Bookstore Committee is to advise the manager of the bookstore and help him or her fulfil this mandate' [to sell books and other materials to support the academic activities of the University]," read Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger from the Senate Handbook. "That's not what this is about."

"I don't understand why Senate won't let the workgroup chair answer questions," said Tara Newell.

"We are not here to rubber-stamp initiatives," said Noumoff. "We are here to consider and discuss." He accused the administration of putting a sensitive matter before Senate "only on its own terms." He then called the question and in the ensuing vote, the motion to table was defeated, but not by a wide margin.

Taking the floor, Duff provided some background to the report. He said that five proposals were heard, including one from the current bookstore management. He stated that his workgroup had created very stringent criteria by which to judge the proposals.

First, "the McGill Bookstore must set the standard for university bookstores across Canada in terms of quality and range of products, competitive pricing and level of service." Other criteria included maintaining the current textbook pricing policy, commitment to improving the service to students and professors, expansion of the used books market, maintaining existing McGill employment policies, financing future developments and improvements to the bookstore by the management, not the University.

"We decided that any change to the existing management of the bookstore would have to mean a significant improvement to the current structure."

The workgroup was unanimous in approving the concept of outsourcing and in its selection of one proposal in particular.

"We concluded that Chapters should be invited to enter into negotiation with McGill."

Cohen asked how much the current mortgage on the bookstore building was. Four-and-a-half million dollars, replied Heaphy. He then asked what the sales per square foot equalled. "I can't give you a precise figure," said Duff. "But the Chapters proposal suggested that they could increase it by 50%."

"Will they guarantee increased revenue?" continued Cohen.

"Chapters has guaranteed a significant increase," stated Duff.

"If they're going to maintain the existing pricing structure, what does Chapters get out of this?" asked SSMU representative Anne Topolski. "Will they increase the profit margin on items other than textbooks?"

Duff answered that Chapters plans to increase the volume of merchandise and traffic in the Bookstore. "They'll get more people into the Bookstore. . . they'll provide better service. But they will maintain existing pricing policies." He conceded that "this will have to be spelled out in a contract before it's signed."

He also admitted that, unlike most of the other companies submitting proposals, "Chapters has no experience running university bookstores." But they're eager to get into the business and "they intend to make this the best [university bookstore] in Canada." With McGill's as their flagship university bookstore, they'll begin setting up business at other universities.

"They'll do it right for them and for us!"

Professor Wilbur Jonsson raised the question that has been on McGill Bookstore employees' minds for quite a while. Heaphy's answer: all employees will remain McGill's; only the management will change.

Some senators criticized the current bookstore management. Professor Leon Glass complained that the bookstore employed too few students and praised the downtown Chapters for its "vibrant" atmosphere. Professor Richard Janda, comparing our bookstore to American university bookstores he has visited, found ours wanting. He claimed the U.S. stores are better stocked.

"We chose a Canadian company," said Newell, emphasizing that this was an important consideration for students. "They also will provide better service on textbook provision and more student employment."

The bookstore's current management was defended by Duff who said that heavy mortgage payments on the new building had taken their toll and a change in the accounting procedures had further reduced the usual operating surplus this year. Bélanger, however, was less sympathetic.

"We might all agree that the bookstore is well managed. But if service, customers and stock can all be increased then this is a no-brainer: go with the better proposal!"

The discussion would have gone on longer, but a call for quorum revealed that too few senators remained and Senate was adjourned. The issue was left unresolved, but presumably the discussion will continue at a future meeting of Senate.