Budget choices loom

DANIEL McCABE | The members of McGill's Board of Governors are attending a retreat this coming Saturday and the nature of their discussions could have a profound impact on the way you're able to do your job.

The board will ponder three major items the budget, the McGill University Hospital Centre and the future direction of the University itself. Speaking yesterday at a Management Forum event, Principal Bernard Shapiro said he expected a charged debate over that first item.

The reason why this is so, Shapiro reasons, is that the time has come for McGill to start spending money on what he terms our "structural deficits."

"Our general situation has not changed a lot in recent years. We've struggled with how to prevent budgetary pressures from driving the academic agenda."

Shapiro said that in many respects, McGill's efforts "have been a huge success." Research programs continue to be highly rated, top-notch students continue to apply to McGill and academic innovations, such as the new McGill School of Environment and curriculum changes in the Faculties of Arts, Education and Law, have been undertaken successfully.

In addition, "unlike other Quebec universities, our accumulated deficit is lower than it was four years ago. In some sense, we can all be proud of these things."

But, said Shapiro, "There has been a huge price to pay for all that. We've gotten there by not taking care of some of the things we should have been taking care of."

Faculty and staff have been underpaid, library acquisitions aren't as high as they should be and the physical plant of the University is in urgent need of renovations.

"To give you one example, we need to approximately double the size of our budget for graduate student assistance to be at all competitive with the other major universities in Canada," said Shapiro.

A recent study was conducted to compare the salaries paid to McGill professors with the money earned by faculty at Canada's other research-intensive universities. "It turns out that if we use a fairly modest criterion to be at the 50th percentile we would need $10 million a year more.

"In the end you have to pay the market rate. Otherwise, you can't sustain the quality of the institution."

The University will soon begin a study comparing salary levels for staff at McGill and other universities. The University's non-academic staff might be underpaid too.

McGill has to start addressing these things, argues Shapiro, and we have no new money to help us out. So he will be proposing an option that he knows governors won't like running a new operating deficit.

"The board is incredibly reluctant," noted Shapiro. Another possibility is to cut departmental budgets and redirect money to things like salaries and repairs.

"To get the money that we would need, [would require] an eight per cent across the board budget cut to all departments and units. Given our obligations to current staff, I don't think it's physically possible and it's certainly not academically possible."

If the board says no to any new deficits, the question becomes what can McGill cut and which of its structural deficits should it address first.

Shapiro says that recent planning efforts at the University from 1991's Task Force Report on Priorities to a much more recent brainstorming exercise involving members of Senate and the Board of Governors "has yielded an odd kind of consensus."

The University community, says Shapiro, "wants McGill to be very much like it is now the same size, the same focus on research, the same sorts of programs. There is very little interest in any other model. What we like is apparently what we are.

"The reason I describe it as odd is that it's not in fact clear that it's available to us as an option. We have a vision for what we want to be, but we haven't amassed the resources. It's a miracle that we've managed to do so well so far, but there is a gap between what we want to be and what we're able to accomplish and its getting bigger."

Shapiro's view, which he acknowledged is "incredibly unpopular" in some quarters, is that there are only two viable areas from which McGill can draw significant new funds. Either the government begins to pump more money into its universities or students have to pay higher tuition fees.

To students who argue against that last point, Shapiro said, that if McGill does become a less able university due to a lack of resources, students will be the ones to suffer.

"If you received [your education] for nothing, you still wouldn't be getting your money's worth." In an increasingly global environment, "students have to compete against the best in the world now. We have to prepare people to compete effectively."

If no new money is found, "then there are only two options available in my point of view. Either we say mediocrity is fine or we completely transform the University into something that has no relation to its own history." A smaller, more focused place presumably. The sort of McGill we don't seem to want.