In 2003, when outgoing Principal Heather Munroe-Blum began her first of two five-year terms at McGill, her first meeting with student organizations touched on issues that still ring true today.
“I think the contribution of students to the total costs of student education is extraordinarily modest,” she told SSMU Council at that meeting. Such a comment would not be out of place nowadays.
Ten years later, as she prepares to pass the baton to Suzanne Fortier, Munroe-Blum’s term has seen recurring themes surrounding issues like university funding and labour negotiations, constituting an overarching shift in the University’s top priorities that will have repercussions for a long time to come.
Munroe-Blum began her term with the explicit goal of unfreezing tuition rates to allow for increases, while at the same time lobbying for additional funding from the Quebec government. She quickly went to work to achieve these goals.
In her second year of office, Munroe-Blum oversaw the privatization of international tuition, which allowed for significant increases in rates up to 8 per cent a year, and petitioned the Quebec government to lift its former freeze on rates for in-province students. Despite widespread student mobilization against tuition increases since 2012, Munroe-Blum has continued to push for their implementation, and most recently has started a campaign against $38 million in budget cuts imposed by the Quebec government.
Privatization of tuition fees continued in 2009, with the Desautels Faculty of Management MBA program. The administration turned down provincial budgetary subsidies in favour of charging its own tuition rates, which were raised to $29,500 at the time. This engendered a 1,663 per cent hike for in-province students – a move that sparked outrage amongst the Quebec community.
Munroe-Blum has also overseen significant changes in University and administration structure. In 2004, she personally drove a significant restructuring of McGill’s Board of Governors (BoG). In the name of efficiency, the BoG’s body was cut in half, from 45 to 25 members. Student voting seats went from four to two, with the non-voting seat reserved for the SSMU President eliminated. Today, there is one undergraduate seat which is appointed by SSMU. This voting seat is usually held by – but not reserved for – the SSMU President.
Seemingly innocuous changes, such as the implementation of the Principal’s Task Force in winter 2006, led to frustration within the student body – questions directed at the administration involving contentious issues such as the eviction of SACOMSS (Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Students’ Society) from its former setting often met the deflective statement, “The task force is looking into it.”
The privatization of university resources has been another source of controversy: from the renaming of the Faculty of Music in 2005 due to a $20 million donation from businessman Seymour Schulich to debate over the University’s involvement in investing in 645 publicly-traded corporations, including 14 directly involved in tar sands, Munroe-Blum has been accused of pushing priorities oriented toward a more business-friendly model.
This falls in line with other conflicts, including tensions with labour unions such as the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) and Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE). MUNACA went on strike during the Fall 2011 semester, eventually ratifying a collective agreement with the administration at the end of that year.
Ultimately, Munroe-Blum’s term has been characterized by several overarching narratives, often perceived as oriented toward the administration rather than the student body. Certainly, not all reforms have been for the worse – such as the creation of the Arts & Science degree in 2004, among other new programs – and a mere half-page cannot begin to cover the lengthy reforms undertaken during her term. But as students face steeper fees for fewer services and hostility from the administration on a variety of issues, it remains essential to question, critique, and challenge the initiatives taken by the administration over the past ten years.