Commentary  Maybe it’s just a ploy for a game of extreme musical chairs…


Dear Daily,

The Faculty of Arts at McGill is, like so many academic units in Canada, the UK, and the U.S., under financial and administrative duress – a situation worsened by the recent cuts in McGill’s budget by the provincial government. In order to address such exigencies, Dean Manfredi of the Faculty of Arts has organized an initiative entitled People, Processes and Partnerships, with a planning committee consisting of 75 members, 55 of whom are administrators, and ten students, leaving only ten positions for faculty members – a sign already that something is amiss with this planning.

The current planning group has proposed two scenarios to address the pressures involving limits of space and personnel faced by the Faculty of Arts. Both scenarios are unacceptable according to professors across the Arts faculty present at an over-packed Town Hall meeting set by the Dean on Monday, March 18.

The two scenarios involve a first stage of extensive renovations to one Arts building (Leacock), with costs budgeted at approximately $2.5 million, and, far more worrisome for the long-term health of intellectual, pedagogical, and collegial life at McGill, the dispersal of certain departments (most notably History) and what the Dean calls the “clustering” of administrative staff – effectively their consolidation into group offices physically and psychologically separate from departments, separating them from the very programs they must help administer. The key difference between the two plans is whether chairs and the departmental administrative officers (AOs) will stay together in the department (with all other support staff moved away) or whether the chair will remain with the department and the AO go with other support staff.

Both of these latter scenarios would be catastrophic for the intellectual and pedagogical life of the students and faculty, as well as for the working environment of the support staff.

Before coming to McGill in 2010, I taught for six and a half years at the University of Manchester in the UK where I witnessed the short- and long-term financial, institutional, and emotional and psychic costs of just such an administrative reorganization (the key element being the consolidation of support staff and their removal from proximity with departments). I can attest to the absolute devastation wrought by this type of initiative on everything that is positive about working and learning in a university environment. Here are some of the costs of clustering and removing administrative staff from their knowledge base in departments:

1. Support staff become deskilled and disconnected in relation to what departments actually do academically, resulting in a loss of overall efficiency.

2. Support staff become isolated, alienated, and unhappy, leading to extremely high levels of turnover, and thus a loss of overall efficiency as well as a rapid lowering of morale.

3. With administrative staff moved out of departmental offices, students have no public interface, with disastrous effects on their feeling of connectedness to programs and departments.

4. In this situation, faculty members suffer because we end up being the only ones physically located in departments to answer questions and provide a public face for the department. Again, this creates a massive loss in efficiency (academic staff are by no means efficient sources for basic departmental or university information) and a parallel loss of the capability of professors to pursue research, as well as a lowering of morale amongst professors and students.

5. Faculty members bear more and more of the brunt of the high turnover amongst support staff and the unhappiness among students.

6. Without departmental offices run by administrative staff, the department as a whole has no “centre,” and hence loses its intellectual identity and public face.

We appreciate efforts by the Dean and his committee to find solutions for the current retrenchments. However, if the stated goal is to achieve higher efficiency in departments and the running of our programs, then clustering and isolating administrative staff away from students, faculty, and departments as centres of learning is not the answer. To the contrary, such a restructuring destroys the unseen efficiencies of working in coherent communities aiming at achieving group goals, not to mention rapidly eroding morale and creating an unpleasant and alienating workplace for both academic and support staff, and hence a negative environment for students. By consolidating administrative staff and taking away their physical proximity within departments you remove the glue that brings us together as intellectuals and teachers, as well as eroding their job satisfaction by removing the direct signs of their contribution to departmental goals. You remove the public interface for both faculty and students. Instead of teaching and research, faculty are left desperately trying to make up the loss of specialized and locally available administration staff; students suffer, support staff members suffer, research declines, and McGill becomes an inhospitable place to work and study.

—Professor Amelia Jones
Grierson Chair in Visual Culture