Letter: Not a time to push panic buttons

Tuesday’s “Campus Conversation” item in the Tribune features four students offering their opinions on whether McGill is in decline. The range of responses covered the entire spectrum: definitely, maybe, maybe not, not really.

I applaud the fact that our students take the future of our institution seriously. I also applaud and welcome the fact that they constantly challenge us to be better.

Kate Sheridan, a student Senator, provided the key to reading this diversity of opinion among student leaders: “It depends on your perspective.”

 PGSS Secretary-General Jonathan Mooney took the tack of examining first the external situation, and noted several facts:

  • Quebec is dead last among provinces in funding its universities’ operating budgets.
  • McGill is a Quebec university.
  • McGill is suffering – but it saved itself by having a strategy of improving the research performance of its professoriate.

Former SSMU President Josh Redel argued that the failure to allow student groups to use the McGill name, a symptom of trying to protect a “brand,” showed how far the University depended on its past glories, and he expressed the view that McGill is doing too little to get professors to take their pedagogical role as seriously as their research efforts.

SSMU Science representative Devin Bissky Dziadyk, while recognizing the external constraints on the University, pointed to the resilience of McGill and the still outstanding quality and performance of its professors, staff and students, and implied that any downhill motion could be checked in time to protect McGill’s reputation.

Ms. Sheridan, in addition to offering insight on perspective and showing she is aware of the external constraints, described an overall positive trajectory that could be used to the advantage of a new Principal and new Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning).

As McGill’s chief academic officer (after the Principal), I take the opinions of these students very seriously and I share their communal sense of ambiguity when it comes to answering a question like, “Is McGill declining?”

So please allow me to take a crack at answering that question and commenting on the thoughtful responses of the four students.

There should be no doubt that McGill, in comparison with its peer group of public research universities, is underfunded. That underfunding comes from two sources: a lower average contribution on the part of the provincial government to the operating budget and much lower average tuition fees paid by students, especially for undergraduate and professional programs.

However, regardless of the financial constraints, there are legitimate questions about what we actually do with what we have. Our scorecard on student-centredness is far from enviable, according to the survey data, yet the examples of the interactions between researchers and students in the various venues across Faculties indicate positive experiences that should be expanded. Facilitating innovative learning environments is, in fact, a pillar of our academic strategic plan.

I do not think it is accurate or fair to say McGill is resting on its laurels. Until the cuts were announced in December 2012, we had experienced 12 years of increased revenues. Over that time, we hired more than 1,000 new professors (400 net), reducing the average age of the professoriate and changing completely the composition of that body.

During those years, the quality of our undergraduates continued to rise. Student aid increased by a factor of 10. Programs of study were redesigned, institutes established, graduate student numbers and quality reached new heights.

Relative performance in research inputs, outputs and outcomes rose as well.

But, impressive as these things are against our baseline, the institutions with which we compete were also making significant gains. So our relative standing among the world’s universities, all things considered, did not improve – at least in the QS and Times Higher rankings. Those who are ready to declare that McGill is in decline might want to look at this year’s Shanghai rankings, where we in fact have recently posted our highest score ever in that set of measurements.

So this is clearly not a time to be pushing panic buttons. New leadership and fresh perspectives will help McGill by reinvigorating the debate and discussion on how well we meet our mission of research-intensity, student-centredness, international reach, quality standards, and public purpose.

Insights like those provided by the four students who engage in the Campus Conversation, have got us off on the right foot.

Prof. Anthony C. Masi
  is McGill’s Provost.


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