A forecast for the future

DANIEL McCABE | They're back. McGill's students, who transform the University each autumn from a sleepy downtown oasis to a bustling city within a city, have arrived. The new academic year is now officially underway.

With that in mind, we wondered what the hot issues might be for McGill over the next several months. What will spark debates in Senate? What will dominate lunch-time conversations at Thomson House or at the Faculty Club?

To find out, we canvassed more than two dozen members of the community -- senior administrators, student association executives, senators, deans, faculty and staff association leaders and Board of Governors representatives -- for their thoughts on the subject. Here are some of the predictions that caught our eye.

Waiting for Legault

In terms of university funding, there just might be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Quebec's new minister of education, François Legault, hopes to convince his cabinet colleagues to send more money to the province's universities. If he succeeds, the reinvestment in higher education would be announced in the next budget.

As a first step, Legault has called on the universities to supply him with position papers containing their thoughts on how Quebec ought to be spending its higher education dollars and on the role that universities play in the province.

Legault will respond to these documents and the universities will submit their responses to his response. This process will play a large role in determining the nature of Legault's pitch to his cabinet colleagues.

"I think the ministry's review of government funding for universities will be the first, second and third item on everyone's priority list," says Chuck Adler, director of the University Planning Office.

Several McGill administrators express guarded enthusiasm for Legault's quest for more funds. Principal Bernard Shapiro advises against getting too excited just yet. "There are a lot of issues for the government to contend with," he warns. The labour demands of the province's teachers, nurses, pharmacists and other public sector workers might play a big role in determining how much cash is left in the province's coffers to spend on universities, for instance.

The need for new blood

Professor Maggie Kilgour, chair of the Department of English, believes that recruiting new faculty will be vital to McGill's future prospects. "We need to work really hard to rebuild departments." Kilgour notes that the Department of English has shrunk from 44 professors to 27 during her years at McGill.

Deans and chairs are cautiously optimistic that they'll be able to hire some exciting new academic talent. "There's certainly a more positive atmosphere," says Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Deborah Buszard

Minister Legault's drive to increase funding for universities is one factor. There are also some welcome new programs, through the Quebec granting agencies and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, for helping universities afford to hire and support new faculty.

"We can't wait for professors to retire before hiring new ones," says Dean of Medicine Abe Fuks. "The nature of the biomedical disciplines are changing. There have been new areas of technological development. There is the growing importance of genetics. We need people who can supply us with new skills and knowledge in these areas. We can't afford to stand still."

Buszard agrees. "This is the time for us to make strategic choices. It's an opportunity for us to grow into areas that are going to become increasingly important in the future. We have to start changing the University to make it the place it needs to be 10 years from now." For Buszard, that means looking for new professors with unique talents in biotechnology or environmental matters. Other deans are making their own assessments.

Of course, McGill can sometimes be a difficult sell to scholars from other parts of the world "given the, shall we say, complexity of living in Quebec," says Professor Mary Maguire, associate dean of the Faculty of Education.

Who owns what?

Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger will be seeking Senate approval at some point over the next few months for a revised set of guidelines governing intellectual property at McGill. Proposed changes are currently posted on the Faculty of Graduate Studies web site ( and Bélanger has been discussing the policy modifications with the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT).

The big change deals with who profits how much from a marketable McGill discovery. Currently, researchers who make the discovery, using McGill resources and as part of their McGill job, draw 65% of the profits, while the University receives the remaining 35%. Bélanger believes the split should be 50-50, as it is at many other universities. In a related area, the University is finalizing a new software policy that also deals with copyright issues.

MAUT president Myron Frankman says his association opposes the move to a 50-50 profit split. Vice-Principal (Information Systems and Technology) Bruce Pennycook says, "This really does change the nature of the relationship of the academic community and McGill."

Associate Vice-Principal (Research) Ian Butler notes that the intellectual property issue is also a concern for student groups. The Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, whose members include Macdonald Campus students, has indicated that protecting the intellectual property rights of students will be one of its chief concerns in the year ahead.

Do you know where your laptop is?

Gary Bernstein, director of McGill Telecom, suggests that the University community will be thinking a lot about campus crime in the year ahead. He will be. He's part of a McGill task force that's looking at how to protect McGill's expensive computers and electronic equipment from being pilfered.

There were a couple of large-scale thefts of computers from McGill buildings last year. Bernstein says, like it or not, it's becoming a harsher world. "Things we used to be able to ignore, because they never happened in Montreal, are starting to happen."

Where did all the non-academics go?

"I think workload is going to be a major issue," predicts Trevor Garland, president of the McGill University Non-Academic Staff Association. According to Garland, applications for long-term disability leaves are "rapidly accelerating," something he attributes in part to the stresses and strains people experience when they work too hard.

The reason non-academic staff are working harder these days is because there are fewer of them around to get the job done, Garland contends.

The combination of a long-term hiring freeze and the offer a few years ago of an early-retirement plan that was particularly popular with non-academic staff has resulted in a shrinking number of non-academic staff. But the work still needs to get done by those who are still around. The result in some cases, suggests Garland, is burn-out or injuries caused by someone trying to do too much.

Social work professor Carol Cumming Speirs, McGill's ombudsperson for students, sees another consequence to not having enough non-academics around, particularly in units that deal with students.

She says several students have been complaining to her that they're having difficulty getting through to or receiving help from McGill offices. "We're under-resourced and students are becoming frustrated."

A recent survey of professors in the Faculty of Arts also notes the impact of declining numbers of support staff. Professors complain that they're taking on more clerical and administrative chores, work that cuts into the time they spend preparing for teaching, because secretaries and other support staff are so busy.

The training thing

"We haven't spent much money on training in the last few years," warrants Robert Savoie, executive director of the Department of Human Resources. He is hoping to change that soon. For one thing, McGill is going to need a more technologically savvy workforce to deal with the increasingly digitized nature of work. "Jobs are changing constantly," Savoie notes.

Training is also a vital tool for maintaining a contented workforce, says Savoie. According to him, a number of reports focusing on the information technology industry, where workers are in high demand, have recently indicated that opportunities for training and promotion play a vital role when people decide where they want to work. He suspects the same holds true for staff in most occupations. "It's not just about salary."

The world at our doorstep

McGill already has the highest proportion of students from other countries of any university in Canada. The international student population is expected to keep growing.

"I think it's wonderful," says Dean of Science Alan Shaver. "It's clearly one of the things that makes McGill special. But it will colour the way we plan for the future." There may be a need for more student residences, he speculates. McGill might consider offering more language courses to help newcomers master English or allow students to do more of their coursework in languages other than English.

Shaver wonders if we might want to revisit the concept of requiring students to know at least two languages before they graduate.

Political science professor Sam Noumoff believes the University has to pay special attention to how it recruits international students. "Particularly with the Third World, the economic burdens associated with an education abroad makes it possible only for the super economic elite in those countries. I'm not sure that's the sort of university we want."

Noumoff suggests McGill could take steps to address that by taking advantage of the fee waivers enjoyed by countries that belong to the Francophonie, for instance. Since students from these countries can enjoy Quebec tuition rates rather than the higher fees charged to international students, McGill might focus part of its recruitment efforts in these nations.

Yikes! Y2K

Director of Libraries Frances Groen suspects there will be "more concern over Y2K in the two weeks leading up to the end of the year than there has been in the last six months." She says the libraries have been busy ensuring that their computerized systems don't start mimicking HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey come January 1, 2000. She wonders if everyone at the University has been as diligent.

Technology and teaching

As noted in our "Kaleidoscope" section, a number of professors are having difficulty coping with the new demands technology makes on them. Mary Maguire isn't against technology per se, but believes the hype surrounding it might be drowning out a more thoughtful approach to how to best use technology to support university teaching.

"The assumption that if it's on-line it must be good needs to be challenged. In my mind, if you take a crappy course and turn it into an electronic version, it will still be a crappy course."

Maguire says technology raises other questions as well. "If you're teaching on the Web, you have to think about who has access to that information; it raises questions about confidentiality and privacy when you use things like chat groups."

But technology might also make our lives easier in the year ahead. Vice-Principal (Information Systems and Technology) Bruce Pennycook says the community can expect to see "a major effort to improve customer service in the whole information technology area -- everything from using your telephone to using the Web."