Bookstore again dominates discussion

KARL JAROSIEWICZ | The issue of management of the McGill Bookstore continued to dominate Senate's attention at the October 15 meeting. Two items on the agenda added fuel to the flames: the follow-up to discussion on the Report of the Workgroup on the Management of the McGill Bookstore and the Annual Report of the University Bookstore Committee.

Professor Sam Noumoff proposed that Senate move into a Committee of the Whole for a period of 30 minutes. This it did. In theory, a Committee of the Whole would have provided the discussion with a much needed formal structure. In fact, no one wanted to discuss the Workgroup report without first addressing issues contained in the Annual Report of the University Bookstore Committee. Because Senate rules don't allow a presentation of a report to be added in this fashion, the Committee of the Whole soon dissolved.

This paved the way for James Archibald, who had been granted speaking rights, to present the Annual Report of the University Bookstore Committee.

He stated that while other business had been conducted by the Bookstore Committee during the past year, only one item merited attention  the outsourcing of the Bookstore management.

Actually, the annual report consists of only two parts: a partial explanation of why the Bookstore Committee refused to consider outsourcing and a series of quotes from members of the committee who opposed the idea. Nearly one-half of the report is a quote from committee member Nicholas Hoare, who calls Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Phyllis Heaphy's subsequent creation of a workgroup to reconsider the various outsourcing proposals a "cavalier action," condemns the whole exercise as "political expediency" and concludes that "if the spectre of outsourcing" is resurrected he "will have no option but to resign."

The report concludes with the following recommendation to Senate: "That the University shelve any proposal to outsource the management of the University Bookstore sine die." Apparently, the recommendation had the support of three-quarters of the committee members.

Noumoff helped get the discussion on track by turning this recommendation into a formal motion on the Senate floor.

Professor Nicholas de Takacsy, a member of the Workgroup, warned Senate to be "careful about telling units how they should go about making administrative changes." He attacked the Bookstore Committee's report for being "based on preliminary data...superseded by the Work-group's investigation."

Noumoff stated that the process was an attempt by the administration to force a decision on the McGill community.

"Is the current Bookstore management capable of providing good service and profit? Yes! However, with Chapters we're losing some control over these things." He then asked Heaphy whether she would take Senate's advice or "is this a vacuous waste of time?"

"I fought to bring this here," exclaimed Heaphy. "And I for one will take what Senate has to say very seriously."

This issue has even divided student groups, with the Students' Society (SSMU) supporting the recommendation to outsource and the Post-Graduate Students' Society (PGSS) aligned with the opposition.

Faculty representatives on Senate largely support outsourcing, but for a variety of reasons. Professor Leon Glass claimed he supports outsourcing because currently he "can't find the most recent books" in his field. He said that a lot of improvements could be made in the academic book collections sold by the Bookstore.

Archibald claimed in turn that the Bookstore was complying with all of the recommendations made in the 1995 review by the National Association of College Stores. "We are focussed on improvements. We're not saying there's not room for more."

Steven Alexandris, representative for the McGill Association of Continuing Education Students (MACES), dropped a bombshell when he stated that some members of the Bookstore Committee hadn't even understood what they were voting on when the vote to shelve the outsourcing issue was proposed. He said they were already discussing adding another corporate proposal to the list when the vote to shelve investigation came up. Alexandris is the only member to have sat on both the Bookstore Committee and the Workgroup.

"Seven months later, we're presented with this report by Dr. Archibald that no member of the Bookstore Committee has seen until today."

Tara Newell, president of SSMU and a Workgroup member, called the annual report "an insult" to the Bookstore Committee because it had done other work during the year. She also characterized the findings as inappropriate and out-of-date.

"The Bookstore Committee did no interviews, looked at no proposals...there's no basis to stand behind this motion."

Students' Society vice-president (university affairs) Liz Gomery noted that outsourcing had the support of the SSMU and MACES, two very sizable constituencies of the McGill community.

In response to criticism that the Workgroup document was very light on facts and details, de Takacsy said that the two-page document was intended "not to ask Senate to make a decision, but to try and inform Senate of an impending change."

Senate's attention was brought back to the recommendation to shelve the outsourcing idea by Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger. "This proposal stops all discussion, all negotiation." Dean of Students Rosalie Jukier echoed this concern.

"It's a very serious motion. It could potentially table the discussion forever. Do we stop discussion on an issue in an academic community? It's not even based on any investigation," she added.

Professor Richard Janda noted that "the University's key constituents, the students, are in favour of outsourcing the Bookstore management." He asked Archibald if there was "an as yet undisclosed reason" for the Bookstore Committee opposing it.

Archibald replied that the recommendation was very much a product of "a specific point in a timeline. The current bidder (Chapters Inc.) was not even on the table." This statement appeared to be a retreat from the committee's recommendation and at this point, Noumoff withdrew his motion.

The 1996-1997 Financial Report to the Board of Governors contains some good news that points to sound financial management on one hand, and fortuitous interest rates on the other.

"We reduced our accumulated deficit by more than we anticipated," said Vice-Principal Heaphy. "I'm not proud, but I'm not deploring it. However, the University has suffered a great deal in meeting government cuts to the operating grant." She credited low interest rates, good returns on McGill's investments and a one-time sale of University-developed software with easing the burden of the accumulated deficit.

"We've set aside $5.5 million in the next budget for future technology-related expenses. That's a vague description and it's meant to be!"

Heaphy also reported that "we've paid off the entire early retirement plan" exercise that took place in 1996.

However, she cautioned that the deferred maintenance of the University's physical plant is growing and called it a "building deficit."

Heaphy noted that business operations have come under closer scrutiny recently. The Business Operations Office was disbanded because it was unprofitable. Printing Services has been reorganized and has succeeded in reducing its operating deficit and is working towards a "break-even position in 1997-98." The Custom Course Pack Project "didn't work and we got rid of it." Furthermore, "the Conference Office operations are being looked at" as a result of a deficit of $171,000. "There'll be an announcement in the next few weeks about this operation."

The Board Committee on the Regulations Concerning Complaints of Sexual Harassment cleared its last hurdle when its final recommendation was approved by Senate. The remaining issue was a procedural one that called for an amendment to the Regulations Relating to the Employment of Academic Staff. The resolution related to a change in the composition of a "hearing committee struck pursuant to a recommendation of discipline concerning a complaint of sexual harassment" and called for a student to be selected whenever "the complainant is a student."

Professors Malcolm Baines and Ted Meighen objected that the change altered the "generic composition" of the hearing committee and "muddied the voting procedure." Baines said, "To award primary status to one group unbalances this."

The student representatives claimed that the recommendation represented a compromise to a situation that had been debated for five years. PGSS representative Anna Kruzynski said, "Everyone on the Board Committee agreed with this, including the professors."

Other senators found leaving the selection of the student to the Dean of Students unacceptable, a responsibility which Dean Jukier said she'd gladly hand over to someone else. Others objected to the students being selected from among the members of the Committee on Student Discipline, until it became evident that the students on this committee are very well trained for the task.

Eventually, through debate and compromise, Senate accepted that the Principal would make the selection based on the advice of the Dean of Students, and voted to approve the recommendation.