Community engagement through research and innovation was the theme of this year’s joint meeting of the Board of Governors (BoG) and Senate, which took place on November 4 in the ballroom of the McGill Faculty Club. Student representatives present at the event criticized the focus on enterprise, claiming that the discussion focused on what McGill could gain from community engagement, instead of what it could give back.
The joint meeting has no immediate decision-making power, but a formal report will be created and presented to Senate on November 19 and to the BoG on December 2.
The meeting began with a short panel discussion that explored the relationship between “innovation projects and engagement,” after which attendees participated in roundtable discussions on the topic of community engagement. Mostly speaking in generalities, four panelists – two professors, a student, and the acting senior director of Hydro-Québec’s research institute (IREQ) – focused on their interpretation of innovation and their experiences with entrepreneurship and industry partnerships in the context of research at McGill.
“The way innovation is linked to society is to create wealth,” said Gaétan Lantagne, acting senior director of IREQ. “We expect that this will benefit companies, but it’s a benefit to society as well.”
Cécile Branco-Côté, an International Development student who won the McGill Dobson Cup entrepreneurship competition with her idea to build a business incubator in Lac Mégantic, disagreed.
“My conception of innovation doesn’t necessarily mean increasing money at all, but increasing values,” she said.
Although a period for questions to panelists was planned on the agenda, the moderator, Associate Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) Sarah Stroud, decided not to take questions. Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) Rose Goldstein, who led the planning of the event, explained in an email to The Daily that this was done because “the event started late.”
Students criticize industry focus
In an interview with The Daily, Medicine Senator David Benrimoh deplored the focus of the panel on entrepreneurship and industry partnerships.
“When we got into the meeting, there was a large industry focus, there was a large focus on what we could gain from community engagement […] from the innovation [and] research side of things,” said Benrimoh. “There wasn’t a very clear idea of what community engagement meant [or] why it was important.”
Sharing Benrimoh’s concerns, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan expressed frustration at the fact that the panel had been, in her opinion, disingenuously presented to participants as centred on community engagement. She also spoke against the cancellation of the question period.
“They eliminated the question period without notice […] that was very disappointing,” said Stewart-Kanigan. “Particularly given the drastic shift in what we were led to believe this conversation was going to be about versus what it was actually about, a space for questions would have been very much apprecited.”
“This [focus] severely limited the conversation that was had here. There was very little space for critical dialogue on what community engagement should mean,” she added.
Benrimoh said that students had planned to ask Lantagne about Indigenous resistance to Hydro-Québec’s projects. “We thought it would be good to ask a partner of McGill about their social justice record, which we think is totally relevant – it’s only fair that if we’re going to partner with someone, we hold them to account on what they do.”
Discussion broadens after panel
After the panel, attendees broke out into discussion groups. At each of the ten tables, a student senator facilitated the discussion and later reported back on it. Although the discussion questions were pre-selected, most groups discussed community engagement more broadly than in the panel. An overarching consensus among all the participants was that applied research at McGill should be responsive to the needs of the community, and not done solely for the sake of innovation.
“[We] talked a bit more about having problem-driven research in the community. We [need to] make space for communities to define their own needs, to make sure that when we’re creating solutions, they’re for […] the community members,” said Stewart-Kanigan, reporting on her table’s discussion.
“We also discussed service to the community,” said SSMU President Courtney Ayukawa. “It is in McGill’s mission statement, and there is a call for recognition of this from […] specifically the upper administration.”
Some attendees noted a contrast between the background readings and the panel, both of which focused on business and industry partnerships, and the discussion.
“Interestingly enough, every single table of the ten tables that reported their discussion, they didn’t focus on [business and entrepreneurship] – they focused on what McGill could give to the community,” said Medicine Faculty Senator and Senate Representative to the BoG Edith Zorychta in an interview with The Daily.
For Stewart-Kanigan, however, the tone of the discussion did not alter the overall framing of the event. “[The discussion] does not assuage my concerns about the definition of community engagement that McGill is currently operating on, and seems to seek [to legitimize] through this forum,” she said.
Stewart-Kanigan also noted the level of commitment necessary to truly engage with the community.
“It takes a lot of work to engage in that kind of approach to community engagement, it takes oftentimes years of relationship building,” she said. “I hope to see it organized in a way that acknowledges that that is a long-term project, and not something that you can deal with by setting up a forum one time a year.”