Sacrifice and the public university

When people talk about shared sacrifice, it’s rarely anything of the sort.

Let’s talk about sacrifice.

This year there’s been a lot of talk about memorializing the sacrifice of soldiers on the centenary of World War I. Provincial and federal governments have poured millions of dollars into commemorating their sacrifices, and into building statues and holding events to honour those sacrifices.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, we have a unique and admirable way of honouring this sacrifice. Instead of building gaudy statues, the province—then a Dominion—decided to establish an educational institute in their honour: Memorial College. The year Newfoundland joined Canada—and shortly after another great sacrifice of the province’s youth in World War II—that college was upgraded to university status and became Memorial University of Newfoundland.

It was a memorial to the sacrifice these youth made for principles and causes they believed in. Many of us forget that less than a century ago—less than half a century ago in many parts of the province—post-secondary education was a dream far beyond the reach of most young people. The fact we have achieved a province where today most young people are able to pursue a post-secondary education—not just for jobs, but so that they can read the news, make smart decisions about their lives and futures, and help build and improve their communities—is a remarkable achievement in such a short span of time. But if we allow the irresponsible and short-sighted bureaucrats running our province and its post-secondary institutions to have their way, it could disappear equally fast.

Speaking of sacrifice

In her new book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, political theorist Wendy Brown discusses the notion of sacrifice. She observes that in today’s world, neoliberal rationality—the fairly recent attitude that efficiency and economy must rule everything, instead of democratic decision-making and morals and values—often articulates a demand for sacrifice. In this year’s provincial budget, for instance, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were called on to ‘make sacrifices’ for the common good—accept pay freezes, give up pensions, pay more fees—because the province’s future is under economic threat.

Brown’s work reveals that this is a big façade. When we have these obligations forced on us, we are not sacrificing for the province; rather we are being sacrificed so that the rich folks in power can continue their life of luxury despite the dropping price of oil. For example: while corporations and the wealthy continue enjoying irresponsible tax breaks, our seniors are expected to pay the price of their own care via public-private partnerships (P3s) that transfer public tax dollars into the pockets of private sector owners (who, it turns out, are often the same government members who claim it is all being done for the greater good).

Brown’s lesson is this: when we are told that we have to share the sacrifice, don’t believe it. There is no collective sacrificing going on; the rich are simply sacrificing the rest of us so that they can continue enjoying their wealth unaffected.

Post-secondary educaton

The same illogic extends to post-secondary education.

In the wake of irresponsible cuts by the provincial government to Memorial University, there has been a lot of rhetoric about ‘shared sacrifice’. Noble words, but it also masks a typical strategy of the rich and powerful to co-opt the poor and powerless — to pretend that we’re all in it together when we’re not, really.

This emerges, for instance, in the university-government announcement that they intend to increase tuition fees. It leads to statements like this from Noreen Golfman, Memorial’s Vice President Academic, in a May 19 interview on VOCM: “Everybody at MUN is going to be sharing in the pain, if you will — Deans, directors, vice presidents, my colleagues, faculty, everybody is going to be squaring down some cuts.”

 The notion that ‘Everybody at MUN is going to be sharing in the pain’ would be comical, if it didn’t mask such unprecedented looting from the public purse by Memorial’s senior bureaucrats in the form of excessive and disproportionate compensation — money that could, and should, be going toward increasing access and quality instead.

Only, that is not at all the case. Students who are already hovering around the poverty-line are going to be asked to incur hundreds of dollars (for graduate students, $752-$854 annually) and thousands of dollars (for international students, more than $2,700 annually) in additional fees, according to current projections.

Dr. Golfman, on the other hand, has a salary of more than a quarter million dollars. The president, Dr. Gary Kachanoski, makes almost half a million (other perks of his job include a housing allowance, a car allowance, an extra $40,000 annual research grant, first class airfare for him and his spouse when they fly).

Not even the premier grabs at the public pursue to wallow in such luxury.

This is not “sharing in the pain” — it’s a light papercut for the bloated administration versus amputation for the students. The notion that ‘Everybody at MUN is going to be sharing in the pain’ would be comical, if it didn’t mask such unprecedented looting from the public purse by Memorial’s senior bureaucrats in the form of excessive and disproportionate compensation — money that could, and should, be going toward increasing access and quality instead.

It’s the same illogic as the HST hike: Finance Minister Wiseman’s proud claim that “everyone shares the burden” masks the fact that those who are poor (or even middle class) experience a disproportionately high share of that burden, while those who are rich — and in the case of Memorial’s administrators, obscenely overpaid — experience little to no impact on their daily lives.

For Golfman or Kachanoski, an extra $600 annual fee might mean skipping a couple fancy cocktail dinners. For a graduate student, it determines whether one even has money for the bus for an entire year (not so much a problem for Kachanoski, with his car allowance).

The overpaid and indolent advocate

What’s most mind-boggling is that these administrators are being paid such excessive salaries despite a blasé indifference as to whether or not they actually do their job. Their job is to fight for the university, its funding and its students, but they’re certainly not doing that. In fact it’s unclear what, if anything, they are doing, besides going on the news to defend the exponential growth in administrative staff like themselves earning too much money at the university.

The university currently has 121 senior administrative management staff (the ones earning up to $208,000), 526 management/professional administrative staff (a 61 per cent increase from when Kachanoski took over), and 2,400 other administrative staff (compared to 2,061 when Kachanoski arrived). Yet during the same period, tenured academic staff have in fact decreased, while numbers of students have remained steady.

“You can’t have a half-assed university with half-assed staff,” proclaimed Golfman in a June 3 interview with CBC. Yet that is an apt description of precisely what they are doing. For the price of President Kachanoski’s salary this province could house an additional 16 seniors in a publicly-funded nursing home (or hire an additional 13 licensed practical nurses). If he’s taking up 16 nursing home spaces let’s see him do something for the money, not simply look pretty on television (and he has not even been doing that: he’s effected a disappearing act since the scandal broke and has been feeding his subordinates to the media wolves instead).

Let’s be frank: the university got punched in the stomach by the provincial government, which then stole $40 million of its lunch money. Instead of standing up and fighting back, what the university administration is doing is turning around and punching the weaker kids in the stomach—in this case, students—to recoup their losses.

It is one thing to strive, and to fail. But it’s another thing entirely to calmly accept defeat in clear abnegation of the responsibility of your office to advocate and fight for better. The failure of these overpaid administrators to act as advocates on behalf of the university is compounded by the fact they will bear none of the consequences of this failure. Instead they will reap hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal salary from the public purse while continuing to jet-set around the world (first-class) on the public tab. The public may rightfully demand how, in this day and age, such a feudal scenario is still possible.

Personal versus public sacrifice

The false ethic of personal sacrifice emerges in other very profound ways. It pre-supposes that post-secondary education is something we do for ourselves. It’s not. It’s something we do for our province and our society. This was the reason university and college education became a public priority after the World Wars, and indeed the reason why we established a university in this province at the same time as we joined Canada.

This province cannot function without an educated populace. And I’m not talking the sort of education that allows you to get certified to practice law, or to operate an oil rig. I’m talking about the kind of education that ensures we are able to read the news in the morning—and understand its implications. The kind of education that enables us to read the PC Blue Book, or the Liberal Red Book, or the NDP Orange Book, and understand it (or see through it, as the case may be). The education that allows us to realize when we’re being gulled into a con-job like Churchill Falls. Our history is full of errors of critical thinking for which we continue to suffer. We have a university to give our youth the skills to know better.

Photo by Justin Brake.
“This University was raised by the people of Newfoundland as a memorial to the fallen in the Great Wars. That in freedom of learning their cause and sacrifice might not be forgotten.” Photo by Justin Brake.

That is the greatest contradiction in these overpaid university administrators’ roles: the people vested with responsibility for ensuring the higher education of the people of this province are acting in ways that will ensure our population becomes more ignorant and stupid. It’s a contradiction of tragic proportions, and a violation of any intellectual ethic they may have sworn to when they became academics.

Golfman also tries to frame the question by laying out a false premise: “And we are not living in a world where tuition is free… So if it’s not free, how much do you charge?” In fact we do live in a world where tuition is free — just not in Canada. And that is because here in Canada provincial governments have been lazy and decided to shirk their responsibilities to fund education — one of the basic reasons we have a government and pay taxes in the first place. This is precisely the sort of thing a highly paid university advocate ought to be pointing out (rather than blithely adopting the anti-intellectual position of paid propagandist for the government).

In many parts of the world, tuition is free, in some fashion or another. For the past 15 years our provincial government has been working steadily toward making it free, first with tuition freezes and reductions, then with increased operating grants, and then with the elimination of the provincial loans program and its conversion to a system of non-repayable grants. Newfoundland and Labrador has been praised nationally and internationally for leading this country in a progressive march toward free post-secondary, like much of the rest of the civilized world enjoys (and it’s been doing it since the 1990s—the oil boom had nothing to do with it). Reversing course now makes no sense. In a provincial budget of more than $8 billion, cutting $6.8 million (less than 0.1 per cent, and the amount being blamed for a tuition fee increase) is not a fiscal necessity — it is a political choice to make post-secondary education less accessible for the average person.

When we find ourselves confused by the obfuscationist oratory of these overpaid Orwellians, let’s re-orient ourselves by thinking back to the sacrifices of those youth of 100 years ago who gave their lives in the hope of a better world. They didn’t do it so that the poor could share sacrifices with the rich, or that an upper tier of elitists could scam millions of dollars in salaries off the public tab by doing such a poor job of administering their Memorial. They sacrificed for fairly simple and sensible principles: equality, democracy, and an educated future for all of us.

Let us never forget that.

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