Correction appended December 14, 2012.
A group of approximately 25 students, community leaders, and one professor gathered outside the James Administration building yesterday to demonstrate against austerity measures announced by the provincial government on December 5.
The demonstrators also presented a motion to McGill’s highest governing body, the Board of Governors (BoG), for the administration of the University to go on unlimited general strike.
The strike motion
The protesters began their march on campus at 3:30 p.m., going through the Leacock building and the Arts building, finally exiting through a side door onto James Square – renamed ‘Community Square’ by students following the events of November 10, 2011. Protestors held a banner that read “HMB en GGI.”
At 3:45 p.m., 15 demonstrators entered the James Administration building through the side entrance and attempted to enter the meeting room on the third floor, where the BoG meeting was scheduled to take place at 4:00 p.m. They were denied access by security guards.
The meeting commenced in a closed session at 4:15 p.m., after being relocated to the principal’s office on the fifth floor.
One of the organizers of the demonstration, Mona Luxion, a PhD student in Urban Planning and a Daily columnist, said a source of inspiration “for the demonstration was the MRO [email] that the principal sent out last week, which sounded eerily similar to the sorts of frustration students were voicing against the tuition hikes in the spring.”
The motion the demonstrators brought forth addressed the cuts of $124 million that the provincial government recently asked Quebec universities to slash from their budgets by April, and outlined the successes of student strikes in the province. It concluded by calling on the administration and the BoG to go on strike immediately, create a working group to enforce the strike, and provide funds for strike-related initiatives.
“I don’t think anyone thought the McGill admin would go on strike, but there’s a long history of demonstrations using irony or humour to reveal contradictions in the systems we oppose,” Luxion told The Daily.
“I thought it was a really clever way to draw attention to the situation and to raise consciousness for the people who weren’t following what was going on,” East Asian Studies professor Adrienne Hurley added.
At 4:25 p.m., a police car was seen outside the front entrance of the building.
The University’s Twitter account stated that, “Police were not called. They came on their own accord and have been informed that there [sic] assistance is not needed.”
It remains unclear how the police were notified.
Luxion read the proposed motion on a loudspeaker in the direction of the original meeting room at 4:35 p.m.
Michael Di Grappa, vice-principal (Administration and Finance), told The Daily that it was not audible inside, since the meeting had been relocated two floors up.
“I think everyone is opposed to the cuts and the Board today took a position as well on those cuts so that I think in that everyone can be united,” Di Grappa added.
Asked about the demonstration, Di Grappa said: “it’s their opinion, their freedom to express their opinion.” No other members of the administration could be reached by press time for further comment.
The meeting began an hour-long open session at 5:30 p.m.
Inside the boardroom
Principal Heather Munroe-Blum briefed the 25 voting members and two observers on the recent austerity measures imposed by the provincial government, the Quartier ambassadors, and the status of the Manfredi report.
The measures “threaten the very future of Quebec,” Munroe-Blum said. She added that the cuts undo eight years of planning and the work of the University to break even after close to two decades of underfunding.
Although Munroe-Blum described the Quartier program, a development project in a mixed income neighborhood, as “not a commercialization venture alone […] or a tech transfer venture alone,” Post-Graduate Students’ Society Secretary-General Jonathan Mooney raised concerns about its potential disconnect from academic priorities.
Next, Provost Anthony Masi presented the updates for the budget of fiscal year 2013 and the challenges the University will face in fiscal year 2014 and beyond.
According to the budget report presented, the University could be facing a $26 to 30 million deficit, which is 30 per cent of what was accumulated in one decade.
Masi called this measure an “assault on higher education” and added that it is a “despicable display of not thinking through the consequences.”
The strategic goals of the University were outlined – including advancing the academic success of the University and equaling the advancements of research with quality of student learning – as well as the ten budget objectives.
Masi described the “austerity agenda imposed on McGill” and recalculation of the budget as “directly attributable to the government’s inability to fulfill its promise to McGill.”
Citing that the budget was changed four times this year, Masi added that the problem is “not because we don’t know how to manage our University but because we have uncertainty.”
Masi cited competitive pressures and McGill’s ranking at number one on Maclean’s University Rankings as items to be maintained. McGill professors only rank 11th or 12th in the country and it makes it hard to recruit and “hard to [raise] under these budgetary circumstances.”
Today, McGill’s Principal Heather Munroe-Blum sent a message to the McGill community denouncing the budget cuts by the provincial government and stated that the administration will “take every measure necessary to persuade the government to withdraw these harmful and ill-timed cuts.”
Munroe-Blum also pointed to a motion passed on Thursday by which the Board of Governors of McGill University “deplores the cuts in provincial funding to universities and research granting councils announced by the Minister on December 6 as both excessive and injurious.”
The motion also asks for the retroactive cuts to be withdrawn and for “commitments to university funding that were in place at the time the Board approved the University’s 2012-2013 budget, be fully restored.”
Munroe-Blum stated that McGill did not receive notice of possible budget cuts until last week.
Not united in austerity measures
“One thing that concerns me is the way the principal’s letter named salaries and pay equity payments as costs the university was burdened with, but not capital investments or building projects,” said Luxion. “That, to me, suggests that the University will attempt to use this to cut in areas they’re already attacking, rather than to reevaluate their priorities.”
Hurley explained that “one way to handle it would be to look at people who are employed by McGill, who make more money than they need […] what happens a lot of times is that staff positions are cut but the work still needs to be done.”
Luxion said McGill’s drive to compete with “specifically [research intensive universities] — directs the priorities for McGill’s administration.”
“This attitude directs university funding towards supporting ‘competitive’ research projects rather than student services and better teaching,” they said. [flickr id=”72157632240855427″]
An earlier version of this article referred to the Quartier program as the Cartier program.