McGill has come under fire for awarding former principal Heather Munroe-Blum an honorary doctorate on Oct. 31. The university highlights her “unprecedented renewal of McGill’s outstanding professoriate” and her “unwavering efforts to find necessary resources to maintain McGill’s excellence.” Yet, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and on-campus labour unions note that multiple caveats exist in Munroe-Blum’s commitment to accessible education—notably, her lack of support for on-campus staff, cutting funds for student services, and advocacy for tuition hikes. While the accolade does not reflect these controversial policies, Munroe-Blum’s legacy is not an issue of truth. It is an issue of narrative—specifically the narrative constructed around McGill as an institution—and who controls it. It is true that Munroe-Blum increased the university’s prestige. It is also true that she promoted policies that hurt students and staff. These seemingly conflicting accounts can and should exist alongside each other, without one eclipsing the other.
The disparate legacies of Munroe-Blum point to a larger issue: The lack of trust between students and administration. In the face of administrative decisions that cut funding for student services, students often believe that their interests are not the interests of the university administration. For example, the recent restructuring of McGill Mental Health and Counselling Services left many students feeling that their basic needs are being overlooked. Creating one-sided narratives that diminish the complexity of a McGill principal’s legacy does not help. Both students and the administration have an obligation to create an environment of openness, honesty, and responsibility, so that the difficult-to-breach gap between the two groups—and their diverging ideas of what it means to better McGill—can be bridged. This begins with addressing how both parties communicate with each other.
The goals of McGill University as a research facility, a financial entity, and a prestigious institution are not necessarily analogous with the goals of students, who tend to focus on the university as a source of support and education, rather than one of profit or prestige. For example, the restoration of various on-campus buildings is essential to the university’s image and infrastructure, but might seem superfluous to employees facing salary cuts.
It would be unrealistic and disrespectful to demand that McGill rescind the honorary doctorate. However, the university could respect those simultaneously disadvantaged under Munroe-Blum’s administration by acknowledging statements from on-campus labour unions, or dissatisfied former students. In the wake of decisions that—while serving the administration’s goals—left students and staff without certain resources and support, the university is obligated to pursue dialogue with those affected. In doing so, it must work toward more satisfactory policies for everyone on campus.
Whenever the administration undertakes a new initiative, it must ask, “Who is this initiative serving: Is it our alumni and competitors, or our students and staff?” If the initiative is meant to serve students, they should then be made an active part of the decision-making process. Consulting student members of the Board of Governors is not good enough—university administration must make a concerted effort to reach out to the broader student body. This will prevent policies with good intentions, but misguided application. Furthermore, crucial decisions, such as the revamping of Mental Health Services, must be made not just with students in mind, but with the support of multiple, varied student voices over a period of time. This is not to say that McGill never attempts this: This summer, for example, McGill Counselling and Mental Health Services emailed students with a survey on the efficacy of the program. Consultative initiatives like that have the right idea—to be effective, however; they must be done regularly and comprehensively.
Conversely, it is students’ responsibility to respond in kind. Although there may be a tendency to mistrust or ridicule any administrative initiative or communication, this is not conducive to the implementation of student-first policies. In an ideal situation, students would use the available democratic institutions, such as SSMU, to influence the administration’s decisions. This is impossible if students do not see these institutions as agents for dialogue. Statistics show that most do not, with only 21 per cent of students voting in the 2017-18 SSMU executive elections. The lack of trust and engagement indicates that, just as the administration must improve by championing student goals, the student body must revive its use of official channels for self-advocacy. Even if justified, anger and withdrawal from democratic institutions are ultimately self-destructive.
An award such as Munroe-Blum’s by nature reflects only one thread in many narratives that shadow her tenure. These are written by mistrustful students, on the one hand, and bottom-line focused administrators on the other. Sometimes these stories align, but more often, they are contradictory. Students must look deeper than these highly public flashpoint moments; students and administrators alike must seek the kinds of conversations that lead to a respectful and sustained dialogue. Only then can the opposing narratives of students and the administration be reconciled.