September 22, 2014

Commentary | January 10, 2013
What should McGill look like?
Written by

A new year is not just a reflection on the past – it can stimulate conversation about the possible future, and what world we want to live in.

McGill professors were asked to respond to the prompt, “What should McGill University look like in the future?” Here, “the future” may refer to a distant future (say, the year 2050), or a nearby one (next year).

The idea was to gather diverse and creative thoughts on what function a university has in society, what it should have, and where McGill should go from here.

In addition to contributing critical thought about the role of the university, such an exercise may allow readers – staff, students, and professors alike – to think beyond the faults of this institution, and to think about the possibilities within.

Professors are well respected in our society, but while their opinions are heard at conferences and in lecture halls and journals, they are often not heard in the public discourse of the university. Professors are often disinclined to engage in public and political discussions. Education, it is often said, ought to be neutral, and therefore teachers must be silent on contentious topics. These responses were solicited to break that silence. Hopefully these pieces are just the beginning, and the conversation can continue throughout the new year. If you are interested in contributing, please contact commentary@mcgilldaily.com.

—Aaron Vansintjan

***

At 78, it still feels good to stretch my legs and walk across campus at McGill.

The year is 2050, and while the student outfits have changed since 2005 when I started working here, their concerns for the well-being of their fellow students, the environment, and people around the planet have not. On my walk across campus, I see installations about the work that various teams are doing to improve their environment and the lives of others. I stop to read the plaque describing one such initiative, and am pleased to see that the team undertaking this project to recycle phosphorus in campus waste to be used as fertilizer on the campus gardens is composed of students, professors, physical operations staff, and administrators. Gone are the days when it was primarily students participating in these types of activities. Since McGill initiated a policy to recognize and reward staff involved in such betterment projects, both campuses have become flurries of activity and everyone gets involved. The results are dramatic, and not only because of the projects taken on formally. One of the most important effects has been the increased casual communication between students, staff, and the administration that happens while they are working on the projects.

In addition to this policy to seriously reward professors and staff for involvement in local service, McGill has undertaken other important initiatives in the past 35 years. McGill’s decision in the twenty-teens to become the premier place to study ecological agriculture and environment in Canada has really paid off. The Macdonald Campus, still home to programs in agriculture, environment, nutrition, and agricultural engineering, is now also home to programs like ecological agriculture and global food systems. Students and staff now grow, harvest, prepare, and serve most of the food consumed on campus as part of a learning laboratory. People come from around the world to participate in this hotbed of new ideas about food from all perspectives. High-speed rail lines linking downtown to the West Island has made it even easier for students to move back and forth between the two campuses, ensuring that these Macdonald Campus programs are enhanced by strong linkages to existing downtown campus programs.

Invigorated by my walk across campus, I sit on a bench and am thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in this university at such an amazing time in its history.

Elena Bennett

Assistant Professor, Natural Resource Sciences and McGill School of Environment

***

“We are all McGill.” It was a line invoked by many parties over the previous academic year – a year that included the MUNACA strike in the fall, the February occupation of the sixth floor of the James Administration building in response to the voiding of student referenda, and the various protests and picket lines throughout the year associated with the Quebec-wide student strike against tuition hikes, which in November occasioned the first incursion of riot police onto the McGill campus since 1969.

While each of these events had their own cause, they all also raised crucial questions regarding how matters of collective concern are addressed and discussed at McGill, and how decisions are made. One of MUNACA’s demands, after all, was to have greater say over the handling of their pensions; the sixth floor occupiers sought greater student control over the status and funding of their organizations; the student strike and ensuing social movement it awakened sought to reinvigorate the very processes of democratic participation. I would argue that the protests, picket lines, and other forms of dissent we saw last year at McGill were (among many other things) attempts to create public spaces for the consideration of these issues. Their participants were engaged in alternative forms of what the University likes to call “shared governance,” particularly by giving voice to those who are currently without substantial institutional power.

What should McGill look like in the future? In light of these events, I’d say that it should look like (and be) a place that really shares governance. For starters, in my future McGill, faculty, students, and staff would hold more seats on the Board of Governors (the body that has final authority over all university matters). Senate would have its power extend beyond academic affairs. There would be involvement of McGill’s various unions in institutional governance protocols. University initiatives would be developed from the ground up, not through “consultation” but through democratic processes that are laid out with some transparency. And the administration offices would share physical space with faculty and students, rather than operating behind a wall of security guards.

What should McGill look like in the future? It should enact the slogan “We are all McGill” in its institutions and its decision-making practices.

Derek Nystrom

Associate Professor of English

***

McGill should look however the people who work and study here want it to look, while serving the interests of the larger societies and ecosystems that contain and sustain us. How can we tell, and then get, what we want?  Only by having the final say, by democratic vote, over the matters that most concern us. This idea applies not only to the university community as a whole, but to its various departments, faculties, et cetera.

One important area of concern is of course who our leaders and representatives are.  In our municipalities, provinces, and nations we take for granted the right to elect our mayors, legislators, and presidents. Is it not shameful and absurd that in universities we students, staff, and faculty tolerate anything less than the right to elect our chairs, deans, principals, and a majority of our governors?

Businesses that run democratically not only promote far greater equality, but also fulfill their missions more successfully than firms adhering to the standard model that subordinates workers to both managers and shareholders. The germ of democracy cannot, and should not, be quarantined to the ‘political’ sphere. We must bring it into our places of work and study.  Our experiences there will make us more effective in larger polities as well.  Leonard Cohen wrote in a poem that “Democracy is coming to the USA.”  Let us bring it now to his alma mater.

Gregory Mikkelson

Associate Professor, McGill School of Environment and Department of Philosophy

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