by Daniel McCabe
McGill is not the only university struggling to redefine itself in an era of government cutbacks, technological change and shifting student demographics. Schools across the continent are wrestling with the same issues. To mark McGill's 175th anniversary, a roster of distinguished panelists has been assembled to talk about the challenges facing universities.
The symposium, called "The University in the 21st Century," will be held at Redpath Hall on March 11 between 9 am and 5 pm, and is one of the major events taking place this month to commemorate McGill's receiving its Royal Charter. The symposium is open to anyone who wishes to attend.
"We wanted to have a variety of perspectives from people involved in universities in Quebec and throughout North America. We also wanted to hear from people who know universities quite well, but who have an outsider's viewpoint," says Employment Equity Office director Honora Shaughnessy, one of the symposium's chief organizers.The morning's session will feature the heads of four universities Princeton president Harold Shapiro (a McGill graduate and twin brother of our principal Bernard), Wilfrid Laurier president Lorna Marsden, Laval rector Michel Gervais and Bishop's principal Janyne Hodder (also a McGill graduate).
The afternoon will offer presentations from three other speakers-Justice Rosalie Abella from the Ontario Court of Appeal (and former Boulton visiting professor of law at McGill), Thomas Brzustowski, the new president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Grant Reuber, chair of the board for the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation.
McGill philosophy professor Charles Taylor will serve as the event's moderator, while Principal Bernard Shapiro will provide the closing remarks.
Reuber, a onetime vice-president (academic) and economics professor at the University of Western Ontario and former president of the Bank of Montreal, believes that Canadian universities need to become increasingly diverse from one another to weather the changes they are encountering.
"Standardized approaches are not likely to serve the interests of universities. This should be an era of experimentation in which each university will have to find its own salvation."
To achieve this, Reuber believes that governments are going to have to give universities more flexibility in determining how the schools are run. "I'm very much in favour of increasing the autonomy of universities. I think universities have done a reasonably good job making the most of the resources in their control. The problem is that they are highly regulated institutions with little room to manoeuvre. If governments are going to cut back their funding, they have to stand back and let the universities decide where to allocate their resources."
Wilfrid Laurier's Lorna Marsden thinks universities will fare reasonably well in the years ahead. "I'm certainly optimistic about our long-term future. I think Canadian universities are more than capable of dealing with the challenges they're facing. But I do think we're in for a bad patch over the next several years.
"We've all become very comfortable with the way things have been and it's difficult to let go of that. I think the key will be in deciding what is at the heart of universities-what must we protect at all costs. I would point to things like a commitment to colleagueship and a dedication to fostering learning as examples of essential characteristics that make universities different from other institutions.
"Do we want to be pale replicas of the universities we've been or do we want to change our structures in such a way that protects our core values? That's what we all have to think about."
Another Charter Month milestone, a special speech by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in celebration of McGill's 175th anniversary, was scheduled take place on Wednesday, March 13. Regretably, it has been cancelled due to what is described as a foreign policy emergency.