University continues to grapple with budget cuts

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As the Fall semester starts up, McGill students return to a campus that has been altered by the university’s continuing attempts to address  $38.3 million in budget cuts this year.

The provincial government announced the cuts to McGill’s operating grant last December. Throughout the summer, the administration released several emails detailing their strategies to meet the $43.5 million expense-reduction target by the end of next April. This included a Voluntary Retirement Program, which 250 employees opted for according to an email from the Media Relations Office (MRO) in July.

Other cost-reduction measures included three per cent salary reductions for members of the senior administration, a hiring freeze on vacant administrative and support positions, and cuts to the operating budgets of faculties and administrative units.

“We are working hard to ensure the availability of the most important services right from the beginning of the fall semester, our busiest time,” former deputy provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson wrote in an email dated Jul. 16. “We will regularly apprise you of the progress of our reorganization plans and of changes you can expect when the Fall semester resumes.”

 

The McGill community reacts

Some members of the McGill community have expressed their frustration with the way McGill has handled the budget cuts. David Kalant, vice president finance for the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA), said McGill should not have attempted to implement the cuts in one year, when the provincial government had provided another option.

“Every other university in Quebec accepted the government’s proposal to defer the pay cuts over a period of years and not have to lose personnel,” he said. “It’s true that [McGill] may profit a little bit more in the long run, but now McGill [is] losing experienced people, and may not be having enough people to perform all the work that needs to be done.”

The administration decided against taking this course of action in the spring.

“Doing so would double our accumulated deficit in less than five years, which we will in any case have to repay sooner rather than later,” reads an MRO dated Apr. 4. “Spreading the pain will make it twice as painful in the long run.”

Kalant also criticized the way the Voluntary Retirement Program was introduced to eligible employees.

“A few of our members felt there was some pressure on them to retire,” he said. “Their supervisors kept asking ‘What are you going to do?’ well before the deadline when they had to make a decision.”

Raad Jassim is the chair of the course lecturers and instructors unit of AGSEM, a union that represents teaching assistants, invigilators, and course lecturers and instructors. Jassim criticized the lack of consultation between the administration and the university unions.

“There is no input from us whatsoever; even when we ask questions they are not welcome,” he said. “These are not consultations, but are rather informational sessions.”

Jassim said it is impossible to know exactly how many lecturer positions have been eliminated due to the budget cuts, and that there is always more than a month-long delay before the university relays information about course lecturer positions to the union.

“Of course, the administration is saying that [the reduced positions] are because they have to fulfil the demands of the students, but it seems that this is being overdone,” he said. “It’s being systemically done by unit directors who are manipulating the situation to hurt us.”

Katie Larson, president of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), encouraged the administration to focus on communication as the year progresses.

“What I hope to see this fall is a commitment to continuing to explain what has been affected, and to listen to student concerns,” Larson said. “In the hardest hit places, Libraries and IT, we need to hear from students [about] what is and isn’t working so that SSMU can effectively communicate these to the people at McGill who can solve the issues.”

 

End to the the Laptop Lending Program

Services offered by the McGill Library have already undergone several changes as a result of the budget cuts. One change is the replacement of the Laptop Lending Program (LLP) with a Laptop Bursary Fund to support students who may not have the financial resources to buy their own personal computer.

According to Merika Ramundo, communications officer representing senior members of the library staff, the lending program was taken into consideration because of its cost­—over $200,000 per year.

“With the reduction of staff in both the library and the technical support teams, increased parts and laptop replacement costs, and a reduced budget, it is not possible to continue the service,” Ramundo said.

She said both SSMU and the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) have been consulted about issues with the Laptop Lending Program over the past year.

However, SSMU Vice-President University Affairs Joey Shea, said SSMU was “simply informed” that the program was ending.

“SSMU had no prior knowledge about the termination of the program before it was mentioned in this meeting,” Shea said. “We feel there should have been more in depth consultation with students before this decision was made.”

According to Erica Anderson, U3 Engineering, the end of the program could have serious implications for students at McGill.

“I used the [LLP] for two to three weeks because my laptop got stolen in my second year,” Anderson said. “If [that] ever happened again to me or to any other student, I think it would be really detrimental just because computers are such a necessary part of education now.”

Anderson said that if her laptop were stolen again, her only choice would be to stay on campus, which brought up other concerns such as the slow speed of library computers.

In lieu of the cancelled program, the Library launched a Laptop Bursary Fund on Aug. 1. Accessible through Minerva, the fund will provide scholarships to students for whom acquiring a laptop would otherwise be a financial strain.

“The new bursary program will run over the course of the next two years,” Ramundo said. “The costs associated with implementing the bursary are significantly less [than the LLP], but we believe this targeted money will meet the needs of the students who are truly in need of this service.”

Shea, however, thinks the bursary program might not be as effective as the Laptop Lending Program.

“SSMU is dubious as to whether such a fund will be able to adequately replace the Laptop Lending Program,” she said. “The LLP served a very different function than that of this bursary program; it was incredibly convenient to be able to check

out a laptop on a moment’s notice if yours had been stolen, or crashed unexpectedly days before the due date of a major assignment.”

Ramundo said that, despite the budget cuts, the library continues to attempt to maximize the services and resources they provided to students.

“Our energies are focused on supporting and serving the teaching, research and learning needs of the McGill community in ways like collection development, providing access to more e-resources 24/7 and embedding librarians to assist students, faculty, and staff in all facets of teaching and learning here at McGill,” she said.

Shea linked the end of the program to wider issues at McGill, as the university attempts to balance its budget in the wake of cuts.

“The suggestion that the remainder of the Library Improvement Fund cover the expenses of the LLP speaks to wider trends—the financial burden of essential services continues to shift more heavily to the shoulders of undergraduate students.”