There was hardly a backpack in sight when the Town Hall meeting with Principal Heather Munroe-Blum opened the floor to over 60 faculty members and just 10 students at the Shatner Ballroom Tuesday afternoon to discuss “what makes a great university.”
In her opening speech, Munroe-Blum remarked on the low proportion of students in the audience as compared to Town Halls held each semester throughout the past four years.
“This is our first time in a student building, and this is the least amount of students we’ve seen in the group,” she said.
Audience members suggested that student presence was lacking because the meeting was scheduled at an inconvenient time for undergrads – from noon to 1:30 p.m. on a day during midterms and campaign week.
Munroe-Blum countered she held the town hall at noon to encourage staff and faculty attendance, which had been low in previous years when the meetings had been more accommodating of student schedules.
After the meeting, SSMU President Jake Itzkowitz said he was unconvinced that an increase in advertising would have boosted student attendance at Town Hall.
“I would say it’s a combination of timing and apathy,” Itzkowitz said of the poor attendance.
He compared Tuesday’s low turnout to that of February’s General Assembly, which attracted only 120 students at its peak despite the fact that SSMU spent $4,000 on advertising, room bookings, and refreshments for the event.
Following questions on issues ranging from sustainability policies to training for Teaching Assistants, SSMU VP University Affairs Adrian Angus described the stress that students experience when asking for reference letters from professors of large classes.
“My friends worried they hadn’t had enough interaction with the professors and that the letters would just say: this student attended my class and got an A-,” he said, adding that students feared rejection from competitive post-graduate programs based on weak reference letters.
Munroe-Blum said that the reference letter issue was the single item that prompted her to found the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, but that she has yet to hear from any students on the subject since. She assured the audience that McGill makes student-professor interaction a priority through advising and mentoring.
Slawomir Poplawski, a technician in the Department of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering, insisted that Munroe-Blum was out of touch with students because she doesn’t teach undergraduate classes.
Mentioning former Principal Bernard Shapiro’s continued commitment to teaching throughout his term, Poplawski wondered how the lack of feedback from students would impact Munroe-Blum’s understanding of the undergraduate experience with large and crowded classes.
Munroe-Blum defended her personal decision to decline from taking on undergraduate teaching.
“I know my schedule and teaching would make it too disruptive…. It’s an individual decision,” she said.
In a shift to funding issues, PhD architecture student Mehran Gharaati questioned McGill’s claim as an outstanding research university, alleging the Architecture PhD program has no budget.
“How is that possible? Is there some magic spell?” Gharaati said.
Munroe-Blum said Gharaati was the first to enlighten her on the lack of funding in his department.
Having paid $53,000 for his program, Gharaati said he was upset about having missed five conferences due to the Architecture PhD program’s inability to sponsor him.
Munroe-Blum explained that McGill is short $100-million dollars every year because of low tuition fees and decreasing financial support from the Quebec government. The Principal consistently reminded the audience that McGill must uphold its reputation – what she regards as one of the university’s best assets – from an underfunded context.
“We have to be strategic. Every penny has to go towards where we can advance as a university.”