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Annual joint Board-Senate meeting discusses community engagement

Last Tuesday, the Board of Governors (BoG) and the Senate held a joint meeting discussing McGill University’s community involvement. Panellists from a variety of research backgrounds addressed the ways through which McGill could strengthen its relationship with the community.

During her opening remarks, Principal Suzanne Fortier explained that the meeting’s topic was chosen to address McGill’s depiction by the community as being a difficult partner to work with in industry and research.

“[Universities] are good at thinking deeply and rigorously about various issues [and] topics, [and] pushing to see beyond the obvious,” Fortier said. “I think it’s extremely important that we engage other partners in these endeavours.”

Also on the panel was Mark Andrews, associate professor from the Department of Chemistry; Cécile Branco-Côté, U3 Arts student; Dr. Gaétan Lantagne, senior director of the Hydro-Québec institute (IREQ); and Steve Maguire, professor and the Desautels Chair in Integrated Management. McGill Associate Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) Sarah Stroud moderated the event.

Stroud commented on the nature of engagement and innovation within a McGill context.

“I think innovation in its broadest meaning is taking ideas, discoveries, and knowledge that originate at McGill and putting them to work outside the bounds of our two campuses,” Stroud said.

She then asked the panellists to elaborate on their own interpretations of innovation. In response, Andrews explained the relationship between academic learning and the community. 

“[As scientists,] we have a moral commitment to bringing to the public [what] we’re doing,” he said. “[But] I don’t think we [at McGill] do a good job of declaring to the external community how we’re [doing that.]”

The idea that McGill nurtures entrepreneurship but falls short on communication was echoed by the other panellists, and notably by Branco-Côté, the only student present on the panel. Branco-Côté praised the university for its support to creative projects.

“I think McGill does a great job at supporting creative initiatives,” Branco-Côté stated. “It’s […] easy to get resources and generate initiatives to get involved in projects.”

However, Maguire said he felt McGill could improve in relaying its action to the community.

“There’s patchwork in the university’s activities,” explained Maguire. “I don’t think we’re doing a good job of declaring to the external community about what we’re doing, [and] I think that needs to be first of all clarified, and then communicated.”

Lantagne agreed with the sentiment, and spoke to the importance of evolving with community changes, rather than trying to stop them.

“Breaking down […] boundaries to other universities and society facilitates solving some of our internal problems,” Lantagne said. “No one faculty or department in university brings the knowledge to solve that problem.”

After 30 minutes of roundtable discussions, student representatives were asked to present the conclusions drawn from the individuals at their tables about what needs to be addressed to improve community engagement. The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) President Courtney Ayukawa discussed the importance of avoiding a narrow definition of innovation.

“Service to the community is in the McGill mission statement,” she said. “We need to be investigating, evaluating, and answering community needs, questions, and demands.”

Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) Academic Affairs Officer Jennifer Murray provided a clear three-step action plan that could be used to connect the theoretical to the practical: First, avoid bureaucratization; next, promote the break-down of barriers; and finally, create key performance indicators.

“[We need to] just make it easier for people to work across departments, across disciplines, to come up with good ideas,” Murray said.

Most of the discussion centred on capitalizing interdisciplinary relations and encouraging communication. Despite this, the meeting was apprehensive when discussing experimental learning techniques that could question the validity of quantifiable traditional education.

“We should encourage divergent thinking, we should encourage experimental learning, and we should encourage risk-taking as part of innovation,” Arts and Science Senator Chloe Rourke said. “A lot of the times, the way which students are judged can be very conventional way of thinking […] which can limit the way students can challenge themselves.”

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