Commentary | Town halls a sham unless backed by more than rhetoric

A s part of a purported initiative to increase the McGill community’s involvement in university affairs, the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence, and Community Engagement was announced in the spring of 2009. The group “aims to determine how McGill can, in the pursuit of excellence in the achievement of our academic mission, build strategically on some of McGill’s characteristic strengths to enhance the quality for which we are celebrated in our teaching programs, research and scholarship, and the collegiality and inclusive nature of our academic community.”

It’s difficult then to understand how such an ambitious enterprise coming out of Heather Munroe-Blum’s office wasn’t intensively promoted in the McGill Reporter, McGill News, and on the University’s web site before the deadline for written submissions to the task force (January 8, 2010). Similar deafening silence was echoed by the absence of internal reminders or memos from higher-up offices. This task force may prove to be merely a public-relations exercise without substance unless there is audible and active support to establish a clear mandate for the group.

A core provision for “the pursuit of excellence” is “the collegiality and inclusive nature of our academic community.” To the principal’s credit, the establishment of town hall meetings represents an outstanding effort toward activating people in the workplace by recognizing their opinions and encouraging their involvement. What we see here is a well-intentioned attempt to energize the community and awaken the natural human inclination toward full participation through self-motivation.

Unfortunately, these open forums have not resulted in substantive changes in policy and practice; they have lost their initial momentum; very few people attend them anymore. This lack of attendance is a reminder that although useful, town halls cannot be a substitute for an empowered task force geared toward identifying and rectifying existing problems. The concern here is that with an enfeebled task force and ineffective forums, the likely outcome will be a distracting public relations exercise that neither effects improvements nor consolidates our “characteristic strengths.” It would be somewhat disingenuous if the only result of these activities were a compilation of wishful projects and well-meaning advice to be passed on to the next administration in the final report issued in 2012. Having such a compilation might give the impression of a well-planned, well-coordinated transition from this administration to the next but, in effect, it will amount to a lost opportunity to make improvements in the way McGill works.

The key elements for potential improvements are collegiality and inclusiveness. These attitudes need to be reestablished and consolidated in our community after years of deterioration. Simply invoking these terms, though, does not influence the way things are. Inclusiveness is the cornerstone of democracy, which requires the kind of involvement that leads to empowerment, action, and change.

The principal’s town hall meetings are a stepping stone in that direction. They should obligatorily be held two to three times a year for each faculty of the University and organized by local administrators. The highly centralized bureaucracy and power structures of McGill have too many networked but not necessarily competent administrators. A push toward greater democracy at basic levels and the devolution of this bureaucracy would be a move in the direction of greater inclusiveness. We need many platforms for the airing of grievances and other issues so that they can attract greater attention in both the affected and the broader McGill community. This may in turn force the deans, chairpersons, and directors of the separate administrative units to address openly raised concerns in their areas.

Not all administrators will feel enthusiastic about participating in these required interactions; and in fact, many of their subordinates will not dare share some of their own deeper reflections, for fear of possible retribution. If these forums are truly successful then we can transform the principal’s town halls into a forum for more general and even philosophical discussions about the future of our educational system, and similarly, essential deliberations about important details at the lower levels of the University structure. These forums, in addition to a task force that can formally report on and recommend solutions to the problems discussed at them, will provide the necessary dynamism for “the pursuit of excellence.”

Slawomir Poplawski is a technician in the mining and materials engineering department. Interested in excellence? Contact him at slavekpop@yahoo.com.