The Optimism Underground: An Open Letter from Vision 2020

As McGill mops up from Monday's flood just in time to contemplate looming budget cuts, the Vision 2020 team has a simple message for the community; if we work together, our future, and the University's future, is bright.
Photo: Claudio Caligaris

First, let’s state the obvious: 2013 is not off to a great start for McGill. With budget cuts looming and uncertainty lurking in many corners, there is justification for gloom. The mood on our campuses, already grim, crossed the line to apocalyptic in the aftermath of this week’s flooding.

So, to preface all of what we’re about to say: we get it. We slogged through the same debris that you did, and we’re having the same hard conversations about what to cut and how to keep moving forward on the things we care about when, frankly, it sometimes feels like the ground is sliding out from under us.

But here’s the thing: in spite of all this, we are really excited right now. Vision 2020 has been working since February 2012 to build a sustainability strategy for the McGill community. We have a vision and goals. They are big and ambitious and challenging and messy — and they came from you. The entire Vision 2020 vision and goals report is built from the answers that McGill students, faculty and staff gave to the question “What do you want McGill’s sustainable future to look like?”

From the start we have been astonished by the cathartic, liberating power of that question. In event after event and meeting after meeting we have come to the table expecting guardedness, caution, even cynicism. What we have gotten, time and again, is a veritable flood of ideas, hopes and amazingly candid observations about both what is and what could be.

After nearly a year of this we should no longer be surprised by this response, but we are – we joke about being accidental therapists to the entire McGill community. Most recently, we’ve spent the month of January meeting with a full slate of decision-makers about the “how” of Vision 2020 – what it would take to turn the sustainability vision and goals into reality. These days people are often a bit incredulous when we come bouncing into the room full of enthusiasm about what’s possible. But by the time our meetings wrap up they usually leave with a bit more spring in their step too.

It is as though optimism at McGill has gone underground. On the surface we’re talking about austerity and adversity and all the forces that are out to get us. But scratch that surface just a little bit and you find a community of people who came here with big dreams and are hungry to share them.

To again state the obvious: there is an appetite for a lot more conversation here at McGill. Throughout the past year there have been a number of efforts by both students and staff to open up a more genuine, constructive dialogue on issues that matter in the McGill community. Vision 2020 is one among these, and to the extent that we can claim success, we owe it to this: by focusing on the future, we give people license to rise above the tangled mess of the present.

Vision 2020 has been framing sustainability as “A future orientation: working together toward a shared vision for a better future in a manner that integrates social, economic and environmental dimensions.” Recent crises in the wider world – from rising sea levels to dwindling pension funds – are forcing societies to grapple with the complexities of that future orientation. The grappling may not be comfortable, but it is needed.

Here at McGill we hope that the current sense of crisis precipitates a similar reflection and reevaluation. Everyone we’ve talked with has expressed hope for the future. But everyone has identified challenges too. Some of these are easy to blame on outside forces: the inevitable limitations of our historic infrastructure, the reality of funding cuts from a cash-strapped government, and the lousy luck of being downhill from a whole lot of water.

Some, however, require a lot more soul-searching: How do we balance a commitment to excellence with an openness to innovation and experimentation? Can we be elite without being elitist? Does our culture of achievement run counter to a culture of wellness? What role does McGill play in Quebec? In the world? Are we preparing our students to tackle the hard questions of the 21st century?

We’re glad that Vision 2020 is surfacing these questions. One of the beliefs that all of us working on Vision 2020 share is that universities have an important role to play in informing and supporting societies as they make the fundamental shifts needed to move toward sustainability. It has been reassuring to us to find that people across McGill embrace this role and its challenges. From our vantage point it’s clear that ideas, ideals, and a passion for informed debate are alive and well here at McGill – pretty good omens for the future, if you ask us.

What’s more, as your therapists, we can tell you that all of you – students, professors, staff, administrators – are raising the same issues and questions. You may not be talking about them with each other yet, and you may not agree about the answers, but we’re here to tell you that you are closer to a shared vision for a better future than you might think. We don’t know what McGill will look like in the year 2020, but if you are serious about following through on the ideas you have shared with us, it could be a pretty amazing place.

–The Vision 2020 Project Team

Justin Berot-Burns, Office of Sustainability, Web Communications Intern

Laura Fraser, Office of Sustainability, Communications Intern

David Gray-Donald, Students’ Society of McGill University, Sustainability Coordinator

Martin Krayer von Krauss, Office of Sustainability, Manager

Josée Méthot, Office of Sustainability, Data Strategist

Will Miller, Office of Sustainability, Multimedia Intern

Kathleen Ng, Office of Sustainability, Environmental Officer

Amara Possian, Office of Sustainability, Vision 2020 Project Manager

Sean Reginio, Office of Sustainability, Vision 2020 Engagement Intern

Julia Solomon, Communications and External Relations, Senior Communications Specialist

Julie Wiams, Office of Sustainability, Vision 2020 Engagement Intern

Lilith Wyatt, Office of Sustainability, Sustainability Projects Fund Administrator

For more information on Vision 2020 or to contribute, click here or here.