With looming cuts to faculty and staff, tuition fee hikes for prospective students, and hundreds of dollars in ancillary fees for all students coming into effect this Fall, Memorial University (MUN) has been under constant public scrutiny lately, splayed across every news media outlet daily for the past two months.
At the centre of the conversation has been the university administration, drawing the ire of activists who see these fees as threats to accessible post-secondary education in Newfoundland and Labrador. The provincial government, despite once again slashing MUN’s operating grant in this year’s budget, has played through all of this pretty well, cleverly washing their hands of all responsibility in cutting post-secondary funding in the province.
Instead, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills, and Labour Gerry Byrne fanned the flames by drawing attention to lavish administrative expenditures on the public dime, pitting the university community against MUN’s administration.
Among the top administrators, perhaps no one has drawn as much public condemnation as Dr. Noreen Golfman, Provost and Vice President (Academic). In a series of behaviours that must have made MUN’S public relations folks collectively scream, Dr. Golfman has shown a lack of sensitivity and a complete disconnect to the harsh realities of student food insecurity, while also displaying her disdain for student activists who tirelessly fight to keep higher education accessible in a province that so desperately needs to retain an educated, young population.
The provost has since been turned into a meme, graced an editorial cartoon, and came under fire in multiple comment sections and social media platforms. Dr. Golfman responded in a recent blog post, thanking “the protestors who are keeping the spirit of resistance alive,” citing her previous stint as a student activist, and thanking them for “reminding me what hateful demonizing, misogynistic, profane sites Twitter and Facebook can be.”
It is crucial to be critical of wealthy women who claim to be champions of feminism while making policies and passing budgets that perpetuate class oppression and significantly impact women from low-income backgrounds, women of colour, and non-binary individuals.
As a student activist myself, and as a woman of intersectional identities, I, along with many others in the student movement, do not condone misogyny in any form whatsoever.
There is no denying the amount of sexism and misogyny women in positions of power and public prominence face. Lack of representation, workplace harassment, and increased public scrutiny against women and non-binary individuals are still problems in our society, further discouraging these groups from actively taking leadership roles.
Furthermore, sexism within the movement derails the conversation from the true issues at hand, painting activists’ rightful anger as being rooted in misogyny instead of highlighting the fact that the budget cuts and fee hikes passed by the administration attack the most vulnerable.
Although Dr. Golfman and I may have differing stances on tuition fees and the worth of educating each student at Memorial, I will defend her right to not be subjected to gender-based violence — and by no means am I discrediting or questioning the validity of her experiences with misogynistic comments in her ‘venom-filled inbox’.
However, it is crucial to be critical of wealthy women who claim to be champions of feminism while making policies and passing budgets that perpetuate class oppression and significantly impact women from low-income backgrounds, women of colour, and non-binary individuals.
Pay inequality and the predisposition to precarious or unpaid labour, both of which lead to disproportionate student debt compared to their male peers, result in decreased economic power for women and non-binary folks. Gender gaps in tenure rates and the looming $13.4 million budget cuts in faculty and staff would also significantly impact female professors, not to mention that the impending fee hikes and additional ancillary fees would widen the education gap in a province that needs academia to constantly break down systems of oppression.
It is worth noting that these ancillary fees would amount to an additional $600 a year, which may seem minute compared to university administrators’ six-figure salaries, but they will mean all the difference in preventing youth homelessness, of which Indigenous youth, trans folks, and individuals with disabilities and mental health conditions are among the most vulnerable and overrepresented.
It is also important to keep in mind that the student activists who are publicly dismissed for being brave enough to share their fears regarding the additional barriers to their education are the very same people who dedicate huge amounts of time and effort to combat sexism on our campuses and communities.
These are the very same people who Dr. Golfman has disrespected, who are possibly being painted as misogynistic and certainly being characterized as overreactive, for critiquing a public figure whose decisions ultimately will result in greater gender inequality in our society.
Rizza Umali is an international graduate student in the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University, a student activist and organizer, and the incoming Racialized Student Representative for the Canadian Federation of Students, Newfoundland and Labrador.