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Seize back our University

By: Robin Whitaker, George Jenner & Ken Snelgrove | May 18, 2017

Faculty members call for MUN administrators and government to renew their commitment to the public university.

Robin Whitaker
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MUN Professor and MUNFA Interim President Robin Whitaker speaks at a rally against tuition and other fee increases at Memorial University May 11. Photo by Daniel Smith.

The main casualty of the recent mudslinging and recrimination between provincial Advanced Education, Skills and Labour Minister Gerry Byrne and Memorial University’s senior administration is neither of the main antagonists. It is the intrinsic value — and values — of the public university in this province.

The value of the university cannot be reduced to dollars and cents, although there is ample evidence that Memorial is a significant economic engine in this province. Nor can it be reduced to how readily it ushers people into specific areas of employment on graduation. Some programs do have a strong potential to do that: nursing, engineering and medicine, among others. With others, the connection to the job market is not so immediate but no less important to society.

A critical aspect of university education, regardless of field, is to turn out thinkers: people who can figure things out for themselves, assess evidence critically, make informed judgments and communicate clearly and precisely. Different degree programs hone these skills in different ways and to somewhat different ends. But the result in all cases should be people who can negotiate a diversity of complex situations, not just as workers but as engaged citizens.

As faculty members and members of the executive committee of MUNFA, Memorial University’s Faculty Association, we take up the challenge recently issued by the new president of the University of British Columbia (UBC), Santa Ono: For faculty unions to fulfill their vital role as internal critics in strengthening and defending universities. Faculty unions strive to provide their members with room to think freely and teach from their hearts.

As such, we call on our government and our senior administration alike to stop coat-trailing and refocus on the fundamental good of affordable, high quality university education and scholarship.

We want to see their commitment to the basic principles essential to the health of the university: institutional autonomy, academic freedom and respect for teaching and curiosity-driven research.

Above all, both sides need to rebuild the trust that has been ravaged at every level.

An end to austerity politics and threatening gestures

The provincial government, through Minister Byrne, has gestured towards the principle of affordability by continuing to fund Memorial’s tuition freeze, a practice that was vaunted not so long ago by none other than MUN President Gary Kachanoski.

Affordable education is a fine public policy goal, and one we support. However, our provincial leaders must now show that they understand that low tuition is of no value if the foundations of excellence in university teaching and research are irredeemably eroded.

Photo by Kerri Neil.

Photo by Kerri Neil.

MUN’s libraries have already suffered cumulative rounds of cuts to journal subscriptions. The university closed its celebrated Math Learning Centre (MLC) last year. The Writing Centre is currently restricted to graduate students, with a note telling undergraduates to check back after May 19. The budget of the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), which for decades supported vitally important scholarship through fellowships and small grants – arguably the best bang for the research buck – has been cut. And anyone whose inbox is plagued by MUN’s daily round of asbestos abatement emails knows that our buildings and classrooms are not only out of date, but may be putting us in harm’s way. The university has announced that tenured faculty numbers will have to shrink substantially in the near future, with all the implications that carries for undergraduate teaching, graduate supervision now and in the future.

No amount of cuts to “discretionary spending” can reverse losses and deficits of this magnitude. They are the fruit of successive years of severe reductions to Memorial’s operating budget, by far the worst in recent Canadian history, compounded by increased costs related to the weak Canadian dollar (journals and books are an international trade) and the province’s increased Harmonized Sales Tax.

In short, the provincial government must commit to restoring MUN to the basic conditions necessary for fulfilling its mandate for teaching and scholarship.

PullQuote Restore Basic ConditionsWe also want Minister Byrne’s assurance that he will not use an argument over accounting as an excuse to infringe on university self-governance and, by extension, the academic freedom of MUN scholars, including research students. 

On this note, we wonder why the minister has chosen this moment to pick a fight over the average cost-per-student at MUN relative to other Canadian universities. MUN’s Financial and Administrative Services (FAS) claims nothing is fishy; we just use a different system to calculate the numbers. But the discrepant ratios are not new. So why has neither FAS nor the provincial government questioned them before now? Why has MUN’s Board of Regents, most of them appointed by government itself, never exercised its fiduciary duty and asked what’s going on?

In fact, there are many serious questions and concerns about the Board of Regents at MUN. In the March 2017 Canadian Association of University Teachers Bulletin, MUN’s board structure was listed as the worst at any Canadian university. Such a fundamental condemnation of one of the most important governance bodies at MUN raises questions about whether the government has truly paid due diligence to how MUN is run.

In 2008, MUN’s senior administration and Senate, plus the Board of Regents, recommended to government that significant changes to the board be made. The latter never implemented them. So, when opportunities have arisen in the past to change the way MUN is run, government has failed to act.

It’s tempting at a time like this, when it feels like our government has higher education in its crosshairs, simply to close ranks. But we cannot defend the public university without also demanding that our own leaders refocus on what the university is about.

The university is not a business

We know that many members of MUN’s senior administration care deeply about the university and its future. But sometimes they seem to lose sight of the nature of the institution and their role in it. As UBC President Ono said explicitly in his inaugural address, universities are not businesses.

On one hand, that means they should resist striking a Faustian bargain with private sector funders at times when money is tight. But when we talk about the corporatization of universities, we are not simply talking about research or teaching in the service of industry. We are also talking about a form and style of governance.

Gary Kachanoski’s $460,000 annual salary has been much commented on of late, as have senior administrators’ penchant for fine dining and retreats at golf courses and the university’s use of private sector headhunters for administrative job searches.

PullQuote Refocus MUNWe recognize the risk of missing the forest for the trees in over-emphasizing catering expenses. At the same time, some of these practices suggest that university administrators see themselves more as corporate executives than stewards of Newfoundland and Labrador’s flagship public institute of education and scholarship.

So too does the intensification of academic audit culture, exercises in “enterprise risk management,” and the imposition of such markers of corporatized governances as best practices, key performance indicators, benchmarks and other metrics — the highly suspect dollars-per-student comparator among them.

University education is not best delivered through pretentious brochures, cringe-making renditions of research, and expensive branding exercises, all of which are now inescapable at Memorial University. Education requires time, shared between scholars and students, discussing and debating ideas and research that is enlivened by scholarly work done under conditions of academic freedom.

Public exchange of the kind between senior administrators and students at the April 27 town hall, which undeniably required some courage, is critical to accountability and leadership. We would like to see more of it from MUN’s senior administration.

But we are pressed to think of a time when they have admitted to errors of judgment, priority or basic stewardship, whether these have to do with the purchase of the Battery Hotel or spending on outside consultants. Supersized salaries and discretionary spending may not be the whole picture, but they do matter.

In tough times, real leadership involves making sacrifices and being seen to do so.

Time for leadership and accountability, time to rebuild trust

The essential ingredient that makes all relationships within the university work is trust. Academic faculty and staff members have entrusted administrators to run the university in which we devote ourselves to teaching and research. The people entrust government to support a community of scholars to educate their children while maintaining high standards of academic research. They trust that we will use their tax dollars and tuition fees wisely to do our work.

Unfortunately, these trust relationships have begun to crack in ways that threaten the heart and soul of the university. What will it take to restore it?

PullQuote Minister ByrneWithin Memorial, we need to see collegiality restored. Faculty must be trusted to do their work with integrity. Their participation in running the university must not be reduced to a tokenistic consultation exercise, to be set aside when administrators don’t like the answer they get. Too often have hiring committee recommendations and investigation results been overruled from above and faculty committee reports on governance and academic reform swept under the rug.

The university’s administration and the provincial government must determine to resolve their differences and start working together to restore the university to its vital public role. For his part, Minister Byrne must show that he understands and respects the value of the university to the public along with the principle of academic freedom: the university’s soul.

Memorial University is simply too important to the people of this province to allow recent shenanigans to define the debate. It’s time for both sides to start acting like the public servants they are supposed to be.

Because ultimately, Memorial University does not belong to the senior administration and it does not belong to government ministers. It belongs to all of us: MUN students, faculty and staff, and most importantly, the people of this province, to whom the university owes a much-referenced special obligation.

We offer this commentary in support and in the spirit of MUNFA’s mission “to strengthen the academy through solidarity, advocacy for fair working conditions, and advancing excellence in teaching and scholarship.”

We hope others will join us in this fight for the heart of Memorial University.

Robin Whitaker is interim president of MUNFA, George Jenner is MUNFA’s past president, and Ken Snelgrove is a member at large of the MUNFA executive committee.

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