Senators roll up sleeves at first session of new academic year

In the first Senate session of the new academic year, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum looks ahead to what the new PQ government might mean for McGill.

By Neale McDevitt

Principal Heather Munroe-Blum opened the first session of Senate for the 2012-13 academic year on Sept. 20 by telling the packed house “this is a year of transitions in several respects.”

“It’s a year where we will be taking what we learned from the [unrest on campus] last year and putting them into place in appropriate ways…” said Munroe-Blum. “The year had its ups and downs but it also had a silver lining because it helped bring into focus questions of collegiality and communication, and of what it means… to be a member of McGill in the broader Montreal and Quebec communities.”

Munroe-Blum reiterated that Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi will submit his report on free expression and peaceful assembly in early October.

The Principal, who is now in her last year at McGill’s helm, also outlined some of the other big ticket items on the University’s horizon, updating Senators on the progress of various initiatives currently under way. These include such advancements as Phase 2 of ASAP 2012: Achieving Strategic Academic Priorities, being led by Provost Anthony Masi, and the Strategic Research Plan, being spearheaded by Rosie Goldstein, Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations). Masi will present Senate with the ASAP 2012 report at its next meeting in October, while Goldstein will outline her findings the following session in November.

Shifting political landscape

But the Principal dedicated the bulk of her opening remarks to discuss the results of the provincial elections and how a Parti Québécois minority government might affect McGill.

In keeping with her theme of transitions, Munroe-Blum spoke about the change in the political landscape, both as a result of the PQ win and the emergence of the Coalition Avenir Québec as a force in the National Assembly. “Now we have three active parties that will be influencing the policy and political agenda,” she said. “We’ve been discussing with student leadership and with other groups within the University what our government agenda is and it will be challenging in the upcoming year because now we have three parties to work with instead of just two.”

One of the Principal’s main concerns is the impact Premier Pauline Marois’s decision to repeal tuition increases would have on McGill. Unless the government had alternative plans for university funding, the tuition freeze would present McGill with a “significant budgetary challenge,” said Munroe-Blum. “There will be an impact over the next five years of $77 million to the budget of McGill beginning with a $5-million immediate budget deficit over and above our deficit for this coming year.”

Ironically, said the Principal, the people who would be among the hardest hit would be the students. “For the past eight years, 30 per cent of net new tuition increases at McGill go into student support as dedicated student financial support,” said Munroe-Blum. “A decrease in overall tuition revenue will impact the growth of that envelope.”

Focus on advising

Morton Mendelson, Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning), gave a presentation on academic advising. Advising has long been a hot button issue at McGill and Mendelson reiterated that in recent years the administration has taken great pains to improve this essential service.

“We have been working assiduously,” said the Deputy Provost, “and as a community I think we can be proud of some of the advances we’ve made. I think we have established a platform to go forward and the exhortation part of my presentation is that we use that platform to go forward and we seize 2012-2013 to make real strides in academic advising mentoring and supervision.”

A concrete advising mission statement; a revamped website; the creation of initiatives like the Staff-Student Mentoring Program and the advisors-in-residence program; and the establishment new positions like an advisor for Aboriginal students and a behind-the-scenes advisor to whom students can email their questions, have all been implemented to improve advising at the University.

Mendelson highlighted the newly formed academic advising and mentoring board to be led by longtime friend of McGill, Kelly Meighen. Composed of people outside the University, the board is mandated to enhance the quality of advising by drawing attention to any shortcomings in the system. “To be perfectly blunt, we’ve asked them to help us keep our feet to the fire,” said the Deputy Provost. “We want them to look over our shoulders to see that we’re doing what we really should be doing.”

One of the issues that needed to be addressed was the proper assessment of McGill advising that would help identify specific areas that needed shoring up.

Mendelson acknowledged that when asked to rate advising at McGill in the past, students pulled no punches. “The answer we got was quite clear; ‘not very good’ and sometimes ‘really bad.’ But we need a more nuanced assessment of advising.”

Beginning last year, Mendelson and his team have held consultation fairs with students. This year, the fairs will be entirely dedicated to the topic of advising for undergraduates and supervision for graduate students. “This is an opportunity for groups of students to come and speak to administrators or professors people in the faculties and the institutional administration and tell us about issues that we need to know about,” said the Deputy Provost.

The information gleaned from the meetings with students, combined with data from a recently completed census of McGill advisors will help Mendelson’s office compile a detailed survey on advising that will then be conducted in the winter term.

The next Senate meeting is scheduled for Oct. 17.