News | Senate steps up to the plate

Senate votes to suspend administration’s travel directive and pushes for consultation, postdocs question lack of information on stipend tax

In a meeting yesterday, Senate suspended the implementation of travel guidelines that would restrict curricular and co-curricular student travel until the decision-making body approves them.

Forty-two of the approximately 60 Senate members present at the Wednesday meeting supported the motion, which was proposed by Faculty of Medicine Senator Bernard Robaire.

“[The directive] is not good enough. It deserves careful consideration and will be enhanced in substance and buy-in from students through consultation,” said Robaire.

The directive, drafted by Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Morton Mendelson, would deny undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral fellows credit for research projects and internships undertaken in countries classified as dangerous by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Carl-Eric Bouchard, a student Senator in the Faculty of Medicine, spoke in favor of passing the motion for further consultation. “No one is against student safety, but it’s important for the policy that we discuss it so it is made in a proper way,” Bouchard said.

SSMU VP University Affairs Nadya Wilkinson, who also spoke in favour of the motion, hoped Senate will strike a working group to negotiate the guidelines before they are brought to Senate for approval.

“This directive cannot stand as it is – we have no idea how this policy really works or what the parameters are. It was not developed according to procedures of the University,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson, who has been working on a Senate committee dedicated to reconnecting the body with its mandate, was pleased that the motion passed.

“That was definitely a reinvigorated Senate reclaiming its role as an active member in the creation of academic policy at McGill. Senate is sometimes seen as a rubber stamp; this was Senate standing up and saying ‘We need to be involved,’” she said.

In the University statues, Senate is mandated to “exercise general control and supervision over the academic activities of the University.”

Over 40 post-doctoral fellows lined up along the back row of the Senate meeting seeking answers as to why the University did not inform them that they could pay $7,000 in taxes on their stipends for the first time this year.

Emmanuel Blanchard, who will start his Post-Doctoral Fellowship in the Faculty of Education in January, was upset that he decided to sign a contract with McGill without knowledge of the possibility of the tax.

“Students who started this September weren’t aware that they should have saved money for this year. Would we still have agreed to [our contracts] given the tax?” he asked. “My advisor told me that if I got the [student] status, I wouldn’t be taxed. It makes a big difference. It’s one-fifth my income. It’s huge,” he said.

Postdocs are considered trainees by the Canadian government, and as their stipends – $35,000 annually at McGill – aid in their training, they are not taxed. Beginning in 1992, postdocs who filled out the tax form T2202A could qualify as student status.

But the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) sent a letter to the University of Laval and the University of Sherbrooke in early October reversing their previous policy that exempted postdocs from federal taxes.

After an article was printed in Le Devoir about the letter, the McGill post-doctoral students’ office issued a memo about the possibility of taxed stipends, but no official notice was issued by the McGill administration until November 4. In a letter, the University explained they would collaborate with other institutions across the province to oppose CRA’s position, and lobby for the continued recognition of postdocs’ student status.

Postdoc Senator Dr. Harry Karmouty asked the Senate why the University hadn’t informed students earlier of CRA’s letter.

“[It’s] not clear why postdocs were not advised earlier. Had the article [in Le Devoir] not been published, we would have remained uninformed,” Karmouty said at the Senate meeting.

He further argued that faced with few benefits and new taxes, McGill will have trouble attracting high-quality postdocs.

Dean of Graduate and Post-Doctoral Studies Martin Kreiswirth, however, said the University was not at fault.

“The University community was not informed because the letter was not sent to McGill; it was sent to Laval and Sherbrooke. This is not a simple issue. We have to make sure we have all the information we want to take a conservative, comprehensive stand on this.”

Kreiswirth explained McGill is participating in a working group under the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities (CREPUQ), which formed in response to CRA’s letter and will offer advice to participating universities, leaving each institution to make its own decision about whether or not to issue the T2202A forms.

According to the November 4 letter, the University remains undecided about whether or not to issue the forms for the 2008-2009 academic year and will only proceed once substantial legal and tax information is gathered on the issue in the coming weeks.

Yet Blanchard said Kreiswirth’s response to postdoc monetary concerns at the meeting did little to subdue his stress about his budget for next year.

“It’s a reasonable position for McGill, but it won’t solve any of our problems,” Blanchard said. “I can’t ask my advisor to pay me more because if I’m paid more, other students are paid less.”