Bracing for the future

Bracing for the future McGill University

| Skip to search Skip to navigation Skip to page content

User Tools (skip):

Sign in | Friday, November 30, 2018
Sister Sites: McGill website | myMcGill

McGill Reporter
March 8, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 12
| Help
Page Options (skip): Larger
Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > March 8, 2001 > Bracing for the future

Bracing for the future

The people who make up McGill are fairly clear about the sort of university they want this place to be; it's pretty much the same university it already is. What isn't clear, says Principal Bernard Shapiro, is whether that's possible.

Shapiro spoke at the Students' Society's McGill in the Millennium gathering, an event designed to foster discussion amongst students and others about McGill and where it's headed.

He says there is a consensus among McGill's members about what the University's chief characteristics ought to be. It should continue to be a comprehensive university with a wide range of professional and liberal arts programs, high academic standards, professors who perform well in both teaching and research and a large engagement on the international scene both in terms of the students it attracts and the research that goes on.

However, said Shapiro, "there's no guarantee that can be realized."

The stumbling block, of course, is money. Understanding the reasons behind that requires a quick refresher course in history.

Over the last 50 years, Shapiro related, universities have become far less elitist in the sense that higher education is offered to far more people than was once the case.

Shapiro argued that this growth occurred because public policy-makers twigged to the fact that, in order to do well economically, countries need to have lots of well-educated people. So, sending more and more folks to universities made sense to them.

For the students actually trooping off to university, higher education became increasingly desirable because it was becoming plain that a university degree "sorts out who, in general, gets the better paying jobs and who doesn't."

But this expansion hasn't commanded a commensurate increase in financing. The result is the system "is simply falling apart.

"We can talk as much as we like about what the government should do," Shapiro said. He doubts however, that talk will have much impact. If push comes to shove, he said, governments are likely to favour safeguarding access to universities over protecting the quality of the institutions.

Shapiro has no qualms about the importance of access, but it means we have to find other ways to protect quality.

One possibility is increasing tuition fees. Anticipating groans from his audience of mostly students, Shapiro elicited a few chuckles by stating: "Sometimes I think students regard universities the way music fans regard Napster. They don't much care about the musical artists, they just want their music for free."

Increased collaboration with the private sector is another option, as is exploring "more effective ways for delivering the University's teaching and research."

Shapiro says he's optimistic that McGill will find a way. But he warns against not having "an exit strategy" to fall back on. Some thought has to go into planning for a scenario where things don't work out, where McGill doesn't have the resources it requires to be the university it prefers to be. It could, for instance, remain a quality institution but with a narrower range of programs.

What he warns against is becoming a university that deludes itself into believing it is "delivering goods we aren't in fact delivering. People will catch on.

"My worry is not so much the fiscal one. It's that we'll misrepresent the purpose of a university education." Placing too much emphasis on McGill's abilities to offer job-related training would be a mistake. It's part of what we do, but it's not our raison d'être.

Shapiro related how the new president of Brown University was recently grilled by a 60 Minutes interviewer about the questionable value of philosophy and physics programs when what the world really needs is more engineers.

"Her response was that education is food for the soul. She believes it and I believe it." What a good university does is "make people into more fascinating people."

On the academic front, Shapiro called for a greater emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches.

"The enormous explosion of knowledge" we're currently experiencing is unprecedented in human history and the knowledge being created doesn't fit into neat and tidy compartments.

"We're not organized in that way," he says of universities. "We're organized on the assumption that this sort of change doesn't happen."

Universities are organized on the basis of different disciplines, but the changes coming at us don't respect disciplinary borders. Guided purely by a discipline-centric view of the world, scholars would be "much less sensitive to where the really interesting research questions are."

That goes for teaching programs too. "The world doesn't come across to people [labelled] as 'psychology,' 'physics,' or 'Greek.' The world is a series of issues and conundrums."

Clara Peron, the vice-president of university affairs for the Students' Society and the chief organizer for the event, spoke about what students want for McGill's future.

After a brainstorming session in January, Peron concluded that enhancing the quality of McGill's libraries is "the number one concern of students." It's no accident that students have voted on several occasions to donate fees towards improving the libraries, she said.

In addition, she believes that undergraduates long for opportunities to play a greater role in McGill's research efforts. Equipping classrooms with the latest teaching technologies is also a cause that's important to many students.

She called on McGill to place more resources in student advising. Good advisors play a pivotal role in helping uncertain new students fresh out of high school or CEGEP "feel cared about" when they first arrive at McGill.

view sidebar content | back to top of page