University Rankings 1996: Challenges

This fall, poetry has finally found its place in the concrete monolith on de Maisonneuve. Standing in a sunny corner of the ground floor are four aluminum and granite tables, each chiselled with words chosen by the families of the slain professors.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 25, 1996

This fall, poetry has finally found its place in the concrete monolith on de Maisonneuve. Standing in a sunny corner of the ground floor are four aluminum and granite tables, each chiselled with words chosen by the families of the slain professors.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 25, 1996
Dalhousie University
Dalhousie was founded in 1818 based on the standards of Edinburgh University (photo by Sherman Hines/Masterfile).

University Rankings 1996: Challenges

 For 30 years, there was no poetry in the Henry F. Hall building at CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY. There was no poetry in the grey concrete, jutting out over Montreal's de Maisonneuve Boulevard, and certainly none in the 14 storeys of steel escalators and boxy offices within. Once considered a modernist beauty, the so-called heart of the downtown campus has long been viewed as a monument to brutal modernism. And that opinion was only underscored by the cruel events that took place there on Aug. 24, 1992, when Prof. Valery Fabrikant gunned down four of his colleagues in a rage against alleged academic misconduct in the engineering department. What unfolded from that day - two external inquiries of the university's academic, administrative and financial operations - left the university demoralized and shaken.

This fall, poetry has finally found its place in the concrete monolith on de Maisonneuve. Standing in a sunny corner of the ground floor are four aluminum and granite tables, each chiselled with words chosen by the families of the slain professors. Framing the four tables are four columns, with ivy just beginning the upward climb on each, a symbol of rejuvenation. For Frederick Lowy, a psychiatrist and former dean of medicine at the UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO who took the helm at Concordia a year ago, the unveiling is a critical milestone: "Symbolically, it marks the end of a four-year mourning and the beginning of the future where we just get on with our tasks."

In truth, the very nature of the struggle that Concordia has been through - a period that Lowy diplomatically refers to as its "soul-searching" - may have given the university a head start in the necessary exercise of self-examination, critical to all schools in the 1990s. "When I came here, people were honestly prepared to tackle fundamental issues about the university and its structure," says Lowy. "I'm just a change agent."

Change agent: it's tough to find a more accurate description for the role that Lowy and his peers are playing as they redefine Canadian universities in these critical, cash-strapped times. As the Class of 2000 settles into their seats, university leaders are already sitting the tests of the late 1990s. Whether reshaping an accessible, urban school like Concordia or refocusing the venerable 175-year-old MCGILL UNIVERSITY, the questions remain the same: Can you define the mission of your university, in 25 words or less? Describe how you will fulfil that mission, keeping in mind that your budget will only shrink. Group project: detail the assets that you are willing to share with those immediately next to you. Remember: bonus marks are given for the ability to embrace and effect change.

Lowy and his friend of 15 years, McGill president Bernard Shapiro, have been preparing for their exams for more than a year now. The traditions of their two universities may be worlds apart, but their offices are separated by only a few city blocks. Both are weathering the third year of a provincial tuition freeze, both are braced for further provincial cuts. In May, 115 of Concordia's 800 full-time professors accepted an early retirement package - part one of Lowy's attempt to begin his university's downsizing, given its $37-million deficit and a $12-million to $15-million shortfall in this year's budget. Lowy and Shapiro are both working with blueprints for smaller, more focused versions of their current institutions, and these two unlikely partners are now considering shared resources. "People at Concordia used to think we wouldn't know the real thing if we smelled it," says Shapiro. Now, they are looking at sharing, among other things, library resources and certain student services.

As Lowy acknowledges, they could do worse than look to Halifax for the odd crib note. In April, presidents of the city's seven universities agreed to a landmark proposal to co-ordinate course offerings and faculty appointments, and to create a central registrar that will oversee admissions, student records and timetables, and eventually to even publish a common calendar. No doubt about it: the Haligonians did an end run around government intervention, secured top marks for their group project, and won bonus marks to boot.

Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, students were busy applying their own set of tests. Tired of the senate's 14-year foot-dragging on the issue of course evaluation, students at the UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA hired the Angus Reid Group to conduct the evaluation of courses and teaching in the faculty of arts and science. Fifty-six professors refused to allow the forms in their classrooms; others instructed students to rip them up. Says student David Gratzer, who acted as a prime motivator of the Reid study: "Administrations have lost touch with consumers. Students are the ones paying more money, and we have the right to avoid purely incompetent professors." The lesson was not lost. Last week, the senate voted to extend the evaluation to all faculties - with the administration footing the bill.

In British Columbia, students took things one step further. Last winter, in anticipation of the upcoming provincial election, students at UBC voted to fund a war chest to lobby for their interests. Having hired a full-time policy analyst, they launched "Election 101," a $25,000 print and radio campaign. Their investment paid off: the NDP committed to a two-year freeze on tuition.

Welcome to the Class of 2000, born with a mouse in one hand, a calculator in the other, and an unblinkered sense of its own agenda. It's not lost on them that the average student debt is now $17,000 - almost double what it was six years ago. Nor is it lost on them that jobs are scarce, especially without the right education. Not since the Sixties has a generation been so aware of its political clout - but this is activism with a personal twist. "In the Sixties, students were concerned with changing society," says Angus Reid. "In the 1990s, students are concerned with finding a place in that society, and there's a big difference between those two approaches."

The mission may have changed, but certain facts of student life seem eternal. Late on a November evening, bicycles are still propped against the leaf-stripped trees, halos of yellow light still beam out from the windows of student residences. True, those inside may be chatting with Noam Chomsky on the INTERNET, or e-mailing a friend in Japan. But when the Class of 2000 heads off in the morning, they will be looking for much the same thing as students always have: face-to-face contact with a good professor and an enriched environment in which to learn.

Preserving those essentials has never been more of a challenge. "How do you explain the perverse situation in British Columbia, or the desperate situation in Quebec?" asks Robert Prichard, president of the University of Toronto. "It is unsustainable to freeze tuition and cut budgets at the same time. If we don't address these issues, we're putting a generation at risk." He would find no argument from John Stubbs, president of SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY. "People have to understand the financial environment," says Stubbs. "An important part of our flexibility is really frozen."

The Maclean's ranking measures each university's ability to preserve excellence in undergraduate education. The three winners - Toronto, Simon Fraser and MOUNT ALLISON UNIVERSITY - deserve high praise for fostering strength in difficult times. But they are by no means alone in their resourcefulness. With REGINA, MANITOBA and MEMORIAL all rejoining the survey, the ranking has the full participation of all English-language Canadian universities since 1992. And UNIVERSITÉ DE MONTRÉAL has returned as well. There is evidence of quality on every campus. Ultimately, it is for the student to weigh the distinctive strengths of each - and make a highly personal choice.

This year's survey bears witness to tough times. Forty-four per cent reported a drop in their operating budget per student. More than 50 per cent also fell in the percentage of first-year classes taught by tenured faculty, in their graduation rate and in their out-of-province numbers. Meanwhile, more than 70 per cent had upped their scholarship and bursaries figures, and two-thirds improved their library resources. In other words, the government cuts are making their mark, students are feeling the pinch, and universities are doing their level best to maintain quality in higher education.

In the Henry F. Hall building at Concordia, the table closest to the south-facing windows bears the words of Sir John Lubbock: "If we succeed in giving the love of learning, the learning itself is sure to follow." While Frederick Lowy and his fellow change agents sit the tough tests of the coming years, this is something they all must be determined to preserve.

Maclean's November 25, 1996