Task forces to tackle effects of economic downturn

McGill's Principal and Vice-Chancellor, and now Great Montrealer, Heather Munroe-Blum. / Photo: Christinne Muschi
“It would be deeply unwise,” McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum said, “to think we could continue with business as usual.” / Photo: Owen Egan

By McGill Reporter Staff

The global economic crisis is prompting McGill to set up two task forces to ensure the University does all it can to weather a looming financial storm and “sustain and, indeed, advance our priorities of academic excellence … and research,” Principal Heather Munroe-Blum told Senate yesterday.

In wide-ranging opening remarks that dealt largely with the challenges facing the University as a result of volatile markets, the loss of 20 per cent of the paper value of McGill’s endowment and the uncertainty surrounding government responses to the crisis, Prof. Munroe-Blum said tough decisions lie ahead, but she also hopes the University can respond to adversity with creativity in order to avoid the kind of across-the-board, unplanned budget cutting that was characteristic of the 1990s.

“There is no question,” she said, “that as we look at the ups and downs of markets (and the history of economic ups and downs) there are elements of what we face right now that are different.

“It would be deeply unwise,” she continued later in her presentation, “to think we could continue with business as usual.”

Prof. Munroe-Blum noted that other universities have imposed hiring freezes, lowered enrolment expectations and frozen capital projects as a result of the severe economic downturn beginning to be felt from small undergraduate universities to big American Ivy League schools, where greater amounts of university income (45 per cent in the case of Princeton) flow from enormous endowments that have been shredded by market losses.

McGill’s endowment, Prof. Munroe-Blum reported, has dropped from about $920 million to $740 million in value. “That’s a lot of money. That leads to a pretty significant contribution to our academic program.”

One task force, to be led by Provost Anthony Masi, will focus on the University’s financial situation. It will proceed, the Principal said, from a framework of planning to manage in the worst circumstances while sustaining the best of what McGill does.

The other task force, to be led by the Principal herself, will focus on excellence, accessibility and diversity at McGill.

Task force members will be drawn from faculty, staff and students and will undertake wide consultation. Terms of reference for each should be drafted shortly and the groups should begin work by the end of next month.

Both the federal budget to be revealed next Tuesday and the provincial budget due in March will be important to McGill, she said. From the federal budget, which the Principal said she and others have worked hard to help shape, universities are looking for no cuts in spending, and an infrastructure-based stimulus that will target, among other things, renovation and renewal on campuses.

Another challenge facing Canadian universities, Prof. Munroe-Blum said, is in the new initiatives promised by U.S. President Barack Obama in his inaugural address Tuesday. The new president’s commitment to increasing support for scientific research and university education will mean greater competition for top-notch professors and researchers.

“We are at risk of losing people who have been here long-term or who have joined us recently,” she said, pointing to similar initiatives in France under President Nicolas Sarkozy.