Alternative budget urges less conservative approach

DANIEL McCABE | Starting last summer, an ad hoc group of graduate students, professors and non-academic staff began meeting to discuss the way the University has been dealing with the wrenching budget cuts of recent years. In a nutshell, they didn't much like McGill's approach.

They felt that the imposition of new student user fees -- coupled with the administration's lobbying efforts for higher tuition -- were potential threats to the accessibility of a university education for some students. They also believed that hiring freezes, early retirement offerings and across-the-board cuts have damaged the quality of McGill's academic programs.

So they decided to come up with their own budget proposals. The end result was recently mailed out to senior administrators, student groups, staff associations and departmental chairs across campus. According to the ad hoc group's Anna Kruzynski, the authors of the Alternative McGill Budget are now anxious to see what others in the University make of their efforts.

"We want to get some feedback. We want to spark some discussions," says Kruzynski, university and academic affairs coordinator for the Post-Graduate Students' Society.

The key proposal put forward in the Alternative McGill Budget involves the University's endowment fund. The fund is currently worth more than $500 million.

The fund is actually made up of a variety of endowments -- gifts made to the University by donors, foundations and corporations over the years. In many instances, these benefactors have targeted their gifts for a specific purpose -- a scholarship or an endowed chair to support a professor's salary, for example. So the University can't spend the entire $500 million on whatever it wants -- the intentions of the donors must be respected.

The University does earn revenue by making investments with the capital of the endowment fund. According to the Alternative McGill Budget, this investment revenue would be in the ballpark of $71 million for 1996-97.

Much of this money is spent to support the areas to which the donations were made -- McGill safeguards the capital and spends part of the investment revenue. That's why an endowed chair requires a donation of roughly $1.5 million. The idea is to have enough money to pay a professor's salary and provide administrative support for years to come.

Part of the investment revenue is used to pay the people who manage the endowment fund. The rest is put back into the fund and reinvested -- McGill's money managers are cautious and they want to protect the University against unexpected inflationary increases or unanticipated market fluctuations.

The Alternative McGill Budget team believes that the University plays it too safe. They argue that between $7.8 million and $15.6 million of the endowment fund's investment revenue should be spent on operating expenses.

In an interview last week in The McGill Tribune, Principal Bernard Shapiro defended the University's approach. "We're in business for the very long term. We're maintaining the purchasing power of the fund." McGill did use $1.9 million of the fund's investment revenue to make a "special contribution" towards McGill's accumulated deficit, but the University's administration is reluctant to adopt that sort of measure very often.

"The message from the administration is that we're saving for a rainy day. I guess they haven't noticed. It is a rainy day," says Kruzynski.

The Alternative McGill Budget makes other suggestions. The document urges that a freeze be placed on all salary increases for staff earning more than $100,000 annually. New staff couldn't be paid more than $100,000. "Exceptions to the $100,000 salary cap policy would have to be justified to the Board of Governors on a case-by-case basis."

The Alternative McGill Budget also suggests that the University take steps to prevent professors over the age of 69 from earning full salaries and full pensions simultaneously.

"That sort of double-dipping just doesn't seem justifiable," reckons Kruzynski. "It's part of the reason there are such big disparities between the salaries earned by the highest-paid and lowest-paid professors at McGill." She says that most of the professors who contributed to the Alternative McGill Budget agreed. "They were gung-ho about this recommendation."

The document also urges McGill to sell off some of its properties, but Kruzynski admits that her group's budget doesn't include much in the way of details on this subject.

"We couldn't get any information on McGill's properties from the Director of Finance's office. We were told that these were internal documents that they couldn't give to us. It seems odd, because we received everything else we asked for. We would make requests for information and in a day, a big pile of documents would appear."

One subject on which contributors to the Alternative McGill Budget agreed to disagree involved the University's accumulated deficit. Kruzynski says some argued that, given the size of the impending budget cuts to McGill, the University should allow the deficit to grow. Others believed that it was important to keep reducing it. The accumulated deficit currently stands at about $60.5 million.

The Alternative McGill Budget supports raising academic salary levels at McGill to a level consistent with the salaries paid at comparable Canadian universities. It urges McGill to stop charging students non-tuition user fees. It also proposes that the University hire more non-academic staff, noting that over 400 non-academic jobs have disappeared since 1992. According to the document, "These cuts are unfairly disproportional to the cuts in other areas of the University community."

The budget also focuses on the Board of Governors. "It may not be in the best interest of the University community to have a board composed of external members who are mostly high-profile lawyers and CEOs. Rather it might be better to include external board members with a proven commitment to high-quality accessible education from a broader spectrum of professional backgrounds."

Economics professor Myron Frankman says he was prompted to join the Alternative McGill Budget team by his "concern about what the budget cuts are doing to the level of education we're able to offer students at McGill.

"My impression is that class sizes have gone up. Early retirements have hit departments in a very uneven way. It's difficult to provide the type of computer access to students that we ought to be offering."

Frankman notes that the principal has been putting forward some fairly radical possibilities for McGill's future himself -- including one scenario where McGill becomes a small, elite, high-tuition institution.

"I think his intentions were to provoke some creative responses. Well, here's one."

Kruzynski took aim at recent remarks that Shapiro made to The McGill Daily. The principal was quoted as saying, "The business of students at the University is to study. The business of faculty is to teach and to do research. I don't think that under the name of democracy, you can usefully meet, and sensibly say that the business of students is to create the budget."

"That's insulting," responds Kruzynski. "The implication to students is stay out of the administration of the University. We're stakeholders. We have the right to be involved in the formulation of budgets."

Frankman agrees. "My feeling is that we need much more open discussion about the budget and more involvement from the community. The example we give our students isn't just what goes on in our classrooms, it also has to do with the way we manage our affairs and govern the University."

Some of the other individuals involved in putting together the Alternative McGill Budget are social work professors Eric Shragge and Barbara Nicholls, educational studies professors Anthony Paré and Winston Emery, East Asian studies professor Tom LaMarre, PGSS executive chairperson Matt Bergbusch and Allan Youster, president of MUNACA, the union for non-academic staff.