Town Hall trifecta: Getting to the heart of McGill’s mission

"Our goal here is to get out in front rather than running after the government," says Principal Heather Munroe-Blum.
"Our goal here is to get out in front rather than running after the government," says Principal Heather Munroe-Blum.

By Doug Sweet

Talk about a broad brush. A recent series of three “academic Town Halls” featuring Principal Heather Munroe-Blum and Provost Tony Masi covered great swaths of big-issue territory and generated sometimes fervent discussion about what the University is and what it should be doing as it steps into the next decade of a still-new century.

The meetings revealed McGill to be what one would expect of a leading university that sets demanding standards, expects to function at the highest levels, engenders natural competition between faculties, schools and departments and which provokes debate amongst those who teach and research and administer here about what they should be doing and how and why they should be doing it.

Signalling the start of another planning cycle at McGill, a time when big pictures are drawn, longer-range targets are set and the University fashions a roadmap to a point it wants to reach about five years hence, the meetings were less about setting an agenda than about listening to what faculty members in different parts of the University have to say about what ought to be on an agenda.

Munroe-Blum noted that planning today means something different the the planning that has gone before.

“The world has changed,” she told the first session. “Government is getting unbelievably strategic… Our need to know our own metrics has never been more important than now.

“Our goal here is to get out in front rather than running after government.”

The Town Halls were divided according to the granting councils from whence research funds flow – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (medicine, life sciences), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (arts, in the broadest sense) and the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Each drew a crowd of roughly 50 people who discussed topics as diverse

as tenure policy, interdisciplinarity, how to attract post-doctoral fellows, whether new technology is actually driving students out of the classroom, equipment maintenance, ever-increasing workloads for faculty, growing class sizes, how to balance the proportion of graduate students to undergrads, how best to reward good teaching, and so on.

Big, meaty stuff, all of it, and getting right to the heart of what the university is and what it does.

“The mission of the University hasn’t changed,” Masi told Town Hall No.3 (NSERC) in a Macdonald-Harrington lecture hall. “We’d like to add some things to it.”

Where a public institution like a university tends to part company with the corporate sector, is the extent to which participants don’t pretend that everything is just as it should be. In the best tradition of academia, the leadership is challenged and questioned – in public. And it expects to be. Positions are advanced, debated and weighed. Munroe-Blum noted more

than once that there are areas where McGill is actually not the best at everything it does. The University needs, for example, to accelerate the comparatively leisurely pace at which graduate students complete PhDs, she said. Stubbornly low student-engagement scores were mentioned as another area for attention.

“We want there to be a broad consultation,” Masi said, kicking off the first Town Hall. He noted that four years ago the administration was surprised by a barrage of questions from faculty who said they had not been consulted about long-range planning – this following a period of what was thought to have been broad consultation.

If a thread could be found that ran through the three sessions where both audience and leadership agreed, it would seem to lie in the need for more grassroots participation in the planning process.

“The biggest mistake we could make,” Pharmacology professor Bernard Robaire told the opening session, “is for the University to say, ‘Here are three things….”

“We agree totally,” Munroe-Blum said.

Robaire continued: “It has to come from the bottom.”