By Neale McDevitt
In one of the most spirited Town Halls in recent memory, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum fielded some two dozen questions Tuesday night on a variety of hot-button issues including the Architecture Café, bikes on lower campus, study space and tuition increases.
An estimated 100 people squeezed into the common room of Molson Hall residence for the 90-minute Q&A session with the Principal. Organizers scheduled the event later than usual in order to attract more students and their efforts paid off, with all but one question coming from a highly engaged student body.
Not surprisingly, the contentious issue of the closing of the Architecture Café was raised almost immediately, with Munroe-Blum being asked about “the secretive way in which the… issue was dealt with” and the lack of consultation during the process.
The Principal refuted suggestions that the administration has acted unilaterally in the matter, pointing out that the issue “was openly discussed within the School of Architecture… and the Faculty of Engineering.”
Acknowledging that the administration was “surprised” by students’ strong negative reaction to the process, Munroe-Blum said the experience has opened an even broader debate. “One of the overarching issues here is what does consultation mean in a university of 45,000 people and how do you take decisions at a local level effecting local programs in a way that gets the best information about those who are most effected?”
While noting that some people felt excluded from the process, the Principal said the administration has decided to have a working group that will deal with matters of consultation. “How will we approach issues that affect students, but also others in the University community, in a way… that reflects the fact that many of the decisions that are taken in the University develop on a multi-year basis and the implementation of those decisions also happens on a multi-year basis?” she said.
“Given the fact that student leadership changes every year, those who are involved are often not here when they are implemented and those who receive the outcome of those decisions often feel like they just happened without them being consulted,” she continued.
Emily Essert, a PhD student in English Lit, brought the Principal’s attention to the dichotomy within the graduate experience, where “the haves” (those grad students lucky enough to benefit from things like grants, accessible study space or research assistantships) have a very different experience than the “have-nots.”
Munroe-Blum acknowledged that the situation for grad students is far from perfect. “But we have narrowed the gap in support for our graduate students so that we are moving closer and closer to where we hope to be – that is [to be among] the top three, four, five universities in Canada.”
The Principal said that gap is being bridged on a variety of fronts including by establishing relationships in industry and through philanthropy, noting that the majority of resources being raised through Campaign McGill will support financial aid for undergraduates and fellowship support for graduate students. “Don’t think for a moment there isn’t a concerted effort,” said Munroe-Blum.
She emphasized, however, the “the major way of getting support is through government support and that’s true at the undergraduate, the professional and at the graduate levels.”
But this support is increasingly difficult to come by, with the Munroe-Blum citing recent studies that show an $800-million gap in the level of government funding between Quebec and the national average. The funding – or underfunding – theme remained central to much of the rest of the Town Hall discussion.
When AUS senator Tyler Lawson grilled the Principal on alternatives to proposed tuition increases, Munroe-Blum reiterated that tuition fees are but one small piece of the underfunding puzzle. “Tuition fees have their place if they are accompanied by a commitment to student financial aid, but our first stop is federal and provincial government.
“We work very hard with philanthropists. We work with governments both in Ottawa and Quebec… We worked very closely with the student leadership of the day in developing those positions,” the Principal continued. “That doesn’t mean there’s been agreement on raising tuition fees, but it means we’ve had strong student agreement on all components of this.”
Continuing the line of questioning, Myriam Zaidi, SSMU VP External Affairs, asked if it was any way possible for the Quebec government to come up with extra funds to help fill the $800-million gap thereby reducing the need for fee increases. “Quebec has amongst the lowest GDP in North America,” said Munroe-Blum. “I think you’d be dreaming in Technicolour to say that they will come up with a billion dollars to fill the gap.”