The plans for the new McLennan-Redpath library, referred to as Fiat Lux, are ambitious. Although the university hopes that this impressive crystalline addition will epitomize the 21st century, propelling the university into modernity will take more than a shiny design. The most wide-ranging consultation with students took place on whiteboards across the campus, showing an administration out of touch with the needs of current students. Since releasing the renovation plans, little has been done to educate students further about what disruptions may be expected, and how the changes will be beneficial. The obvious question for students, professors, and researchers alike, then, is: What are the renovations meant to achieve? Believing that a new building will modernize the campus cannot feel like anything other than a band-aid solution to the more pressing but typically ignored maintenance problems. The university would do well to recall that the 21st century is here, with or without Fiat Lux.
Of course, Fiat Lux has not come entirely out of the blue. It is surely intended to improve the financial prospects of McGill, as well as its academic rank as more modern infrastructure may attract higher calibre students. But the fact that students can only speculate as to why this is the next big thing on McGill’s horizon is indicative of a lack of consultation. The university does not have a good record when it comes to construction and renovations; current students know only too well how long it took to complete the past renovations in a myriad of locations on campus. A new library is not an issue in itself—in fact, it is exactly what universities should provide—but it is an issue when placed in the context of the other infrastructure problems on campus.
The façade of the Arts Building, a quintessential image of campus, has been under construction for a month longer than anticipated, and the construction was put off for years. Library spaces, which are actually numerous, are being reduced as hours are restricted and access limited to members of certain faculties, or, in the case of McLennan, to certain floors past midnight. This is certainly an issue for night owls. While these concerns are individually small, together they create a bigger picture of an administration that has adopted a macro perspective at the expense of current students who will not necessarily be around to see the benefit.
The administration must therefore balance the needs of the present with the objectives for the future. This can be done by working on creative solutions to current problems and downsizing the scale of the McLennan renovation plan. The plans cause some to worry that creating a centralized mega structure will suck the resources otherwise spread across libraries, and will reduce access to the smaller libraries even more. Flexibility, however, must be incorporated into the process in order to accommodate the needs and concerns of both the current and incoming generations of students. The risk: Alienating the immediate pool of alumni already bruised by years of austerity and tuition increases, to whom this plan feels like a grand irony.
The solution: Compromise. Advertising, and extending the hours of, other study spaces would go a long way to helping the current accessibility and space problems. These solutions are minor, and would alleviate the micro inconveniences without limiting the school from sustaining and improving its reputation in the long term.
It is up to the administration to envision the future of the university, and ensure that it remains a competitive institution. Attending a university with a strong reputation is a perk of being a McGill student; however, the small daily grievances should not be overlooked when attempting to reimagine McGill as a 21st Century school. If the Class of 2016 or 2017 were instead the Class of 2026 or 2027, students would most certainly appreciate a modern, functional library with big windows to the current decrepit infrastructure. The standpoint from which students launch critique should not, however, be a point of discredit. Instead, it should be a basis for compromise so that future alumni and contributors to the community are not alienated by disconnected ambition.
If McGill is going to convince students that it can afford Fiat Lux, it must do more than ask us to trust it. It must show that it can provide more than the minimal amount of maintenance, end cuts to courses, and restore optimism within the McGill community. Fiat Lux appears to be the result of idealistic tunnel vision rather than a pragmatic course to 21st Century education, leading one to question who matters the most in creating McGill’s priorities. This is a question that the administration must address urgently.