News  New provost takes over

Former Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi chats with The Daily

On August 26, McGill’s new Provost and Vice-President (VP) Academic Christopher Manfredi sat down with The Daily to talk about his new position, McGill’s budget, and dealing with the troubles caused by provincial budget cuts.

The McGill Daily (MD): Provost Christopher Manfredi, you held the position of Dean of Arts last year and for a while before that. As provost, what is your vision for the position?

Christopher Manfredi (CM): So you are right, I was Dean of Arts for nine years, from 2006 until I took this job. That was a very rewarding position. […] I want the provost – the office of the Provost and the VP Academic – to be really integrated into the community, be connected with the community, in a really full way. I am at heart a university professor and a researcher, who just happens to have a set of administrative responsibilities. So I want to maintain the office’s close connection to the community and make sure that it’s really integrated into everything that the University does.

MD: How much more do you think the Provost position is, compared with your previous position as the Dean of Arts?

“I want the provost – the office of the Provost and the VP Academic – to be really integrated into the community, be connected with the community, in a really full way.”

CS: One of the challenges, of course, is that, although I’ve been at McGill for over a quarter of a century – and I’ve had some senior administrative roles – as provost […] I’m going to have to learn more about the different parts of the university than I had to as Dean of Arts. That will be a challenge, there will be a bit of a learning curve. […] Obviously, it’s a bigger job. Volume of work will be higher.

MD: One of the most important portfolios of the Provost is managing the budget. That said, do you have any specific plans for the budget right now? What are some of your priorities in terms of directing McGill’s funds?

CM: We have a budget already set for [the 2016 fiscal year] by [ex-Provost Anthony] Masi, approved by the Board [of Governors], which we’ll follow through on. There’s also a five-year plan, which we will adjust incrementally as we see what’s happening on the government side. […] And this year we’ll be engaging in a lot of consultations with the community, with the deans, with students, with the rest of the university community.

One of the things I think Provost Masi did extremely well was keeping open the lines of communication around the budget and particularly being very transparent about how our budget is constructed. […] And that’s something I hope to be able to continue, to make sure […] that we continue to let the community know very well what’s going on with respect to the budget.

MD: Provost Masi would go to various student council meetings and Senate and talk about the budget.

CM: Yeah, so I plan on doing that too. I did that as dean. One of the things [I] asked the staff to set up when I was Dean of Arts – I used to hold regular office hours in the lounge, the Arts Student Lounge, in the basement of the Leacock Building. So I’ve actually asked my staff to do that this year, of course, at a bigger scale, at the SSMU building. See if I can spend an hour once a month, […] for students to come and drop in and talk to me. So that’s something I’d like to do this year.

MD: I want to talk more about the budget, because that’s a very big issue, considering the provincial budget cuts. Are there any updates?

“We’ve got another $70 to $73 million in cuts for this year that the government has announced.”

CM: Well, I hope we’re getting to the bottom of the trough of budget cuts. We’ve got another $70 to $73 million in cuts for this year that the government has announced. Fortunately, they haven’t given us any news that it is going to be higher than that. So that’s good news for us.

You know, Quebec’s fiscal situation is difficult. There is a government policy trying to get back to a balanced budget and all sectors of Quebec society are being asked to do their part: the health sector, the educational sector, and so on. So we can expect, you know, not having a whole lot of injections of new money from the province, at least.

What McGill would like to see is some flexibility with respect to how we build our budget. And one of the things I’ve been surprised by, in the two months I’ve been here, is not so much about the cuts or the budget, but the kind of erratic nature of how the government informs the University of our budget, the rules being changed in the middle of the game, and so on and so forth; that makes planning very difficult.

MD: Even though the University has been asking for more flexibility, it hasn’t really taken a stance against the budget cuts imposed by the provincial government. So, do you think it would be within your vision for the position, or rather, within your purview to maybe lobby the Senate or the Board of Governors to take an explicit stand against the austerity measures?

CM: Well, I think that’s a question for the principal, [Suzanne Fortier]. I mean, she’s the one who’s the most responsible for our relationship with the provincial government. So I think that’s her decision as to how we develop that relationship.

MD: Still, as a professor of political science yourself, and as a person who has a lot of control over McGill’s budget, I am wondering if you would like to talk about your opinions on this.

CM: Well, certainly, we’d welcome a re-investment into education by the government of Quebec. We’d welcome greater flexibility with respect to how we develop our budget. And I think that those are the things we’ve been working on in terms of our relationship with the government.

“On the course cuts, what we actually did was – those were sort of expenditure neutral cuts.”

MD: There are many side effects of the budget cuts on McGill and some of the most ostensible ones […] have been on the Faculty of Arts. There were the course cuts, which got a massive reaction from students. There’s a general feeling amongst students that courses within certain disciplines, such as those in the humanities, are the first to get cut. How would you respond to this?

CM: First of all, on the course cuts, what we actually did was – those were sort of expenditure neutral cuts. The idea was to try to find efficiencies with respect to how we delivered courses, so we could free up money to increase the amounts we could provide for teaching assistantships (TAs). That’s what we did. We in fact were able to increase our TA budget in the Faculty of Arts by somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent. So, what we want to do is to find the best way to reallocate resources from one area to another, because, you know, it’s a bit of a zero-sum. If you want to do more of X, you have to do less of Y. And thatís the choice that I had to make as dean, and that’s the choice that we took.

If you actually look at where professors were hired in the Faculty of Arts, […] you’ll actually find that the percentage of professors in the Humanities disciplines have actually increased at a faster rate than the proportion of professors at the social sciences discipline.

“With respect to principal, former principal, Munroe-Blum, I think she was provided with […] what she was permitted to get under her contract.”

I guess I wouldn’t agree with the idea that courses are getting cut in the humanities more than they were in the social sciences. And, in fact, one of the things we were very careful about was maintaining our ability about delivering language courses. Because those are critical to our humanities disciplines. And those are the ones that tend to have fairly, relatively small courses, because they have to be taught in small sections. So I think we did a pretty good job in protecting that, and we made a significant re-investment in our languages, literatures, and cultures area, with new tenure track faculty and protecting graduate funding and our ability to deliver courses in that area.

MD: I’d also like to ask you about certain allegations surfaced over the summer. It is alleged that former principal, Heather Munroe-Blum, received a full-year’s salary for two years after leaving McGill. In addition, the Montreal Gazette recently reported that McGill has been raising executive salaries in a manner that could be deemed illegal under Quebecís Bill 100. How would you respond to these allegations?

CM: Yeah, so I think, with respect to principal, former principal, Munroe-Blum, I think she was provided with what her contract – what she was permitted to get under her contract. On the other issue, I think the best person to talk about that is [Vice-Principal (Communications and External Relations) Olivier Marcil], who has been working on that field.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.