Somber Senate discusses McGill’s response to government-imposed cuts

Posted on Friday, February 22, 2013

By Neale McDevitt

Greg Dudek, Director of McGill’s School of Computer Science, spoke for many in attendance at Tuesday’s Senate meeting when he said “I wouldn’t trade jobs with [Provost] Tony Masi for anything on Earth right now.”

Masi had just finished presenting a grim report outlining the government-imposed cuts to McGill’s operating budget – $40 million has to be slashed within the next 15 months. “This is a fairly devastating picture,” said Masi.

It was Masi’s fifth such presentation in a week, including four Town Halls (see above article) in which he met with members of the McGill community to outline the cuts and the potential impact they would have on the University, and to get suggestions on how and where reductions could be made.

“We will add $33 million to our deficit this year,” Masi told Senate.

To compound the problem, if McGill doesn’t comply and make at least 50 per cent of those cuts by April 2014, the government may delay or even withhold an additional $32 million in the form of a “conditional grant.”

All this just when – exactly as planned in the five-year budget forecast – McGill was one year away from starting to turn a modest profit.

Every option to be explored

Masi stressed that every possible option to reduce costs and save money is being explored, including early retirement incentives, across-the-board hiring freezes and salary rollbacks.

However, the Provost stressed that all cuts must be strategic and “targeted” so as not to damage McGill’s core mission. “We need to consider what the implications of anything we do are for the University as a whole and for positioning ourselves to come out of this,” said Masi. “The worst would be if we are in a hole that somebody else dug and we dig a deeper one for ourselves.”

And while the Provost agreed that McGill’s core teaching and research mission must be preserved as much as possible, no one unit is going to emerge unscathed.

“We want to protect the quality of our fundamental academic mission but the quality of life surrounding it will be affected,” said Masi, noting that students could feel the affects in reduced library hours or fewer course offerings, for example.

Other suggestions that surfaced during the discussion include cutting the number of TAs, using fewer outside consultants, establishing two-year degree programs, dipping into McGill’s endowment, and even moving from Montreal’s expensive downtown core to less expensive environs on the South Shore.

It’s all about the people

As Masi pointed out, some 75 per cent of McGill’s operating budget goes toward salaries. Senator Frank Ferrie suggested that anyone collecting a McGill paycheque take a 6-per-cent cut – the exact amount that would cover the budget shortfall.

Senator Catherine Lu raised the issue of the salaries of upper administration. “If all administrators from the Deans up took a five-per-cent salary cut it would barely amount to $250,000,” said Masi. “So this isn’t going to be the panacea.”

One of the few moments of levity during the budget discussion came when Arts Senator Max Zidel suggested the possibility of raising funds by having students voluntarily agree to pay more fees – “a tuition increase through student referenda fees,” said Zidel, who seemed somewhat unconvinced on the idea himself.

“Have students hold a referendum to increase their own tuition?” asked Masi with a wry smile. “Sure. Go for it.”

Masi was firm in his resolve that, no matter what happens, McGill must continue to adhere to the qualities that have made it one of the world’s top universities. “If we cease seeking excellence we are no longer going to be McGill,” he said. “It won’t be the place that we signed on to.”

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