Student View

(April 3, 1997, Gazette)

How I spent half a day with Dr. May

By Kathleen Lippa

In Rob Reiner's film, The American President, there's a scene where Sydney (played by Annette Bening) waits nervously in the Oval Office for the U.S. president to appear. I felt something similar to that last week when I stood in President Arthur May's office.

I was, after all, going to "shadow" the university president for an entire morning ,to see what he does. When he arrived, he greeted my wide-eyed stare with a piece of advice for the day that quickly broke the ice: "Try not to laugh." Maybe it's something he tells himself, too, on occasion.

Ever since he handed me a hamburger during the barbecue at orientation, I've been fascinated with Dr. May. I've heard students refer to him as "The Wizard of Oz of MUN," because he is so rarely seen by students around campus. But as he explained, more than half of his time is spent promoting Memorial to the community at large. "If I'm at my desk all day, I'm not doing my job," he told me.

When he became Memorial's president in 1990, after four years as president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, many people wondered if Dr. May would miss his job in Ottawa, or if he would view coming to Memorial as less challenging. But let's not forget that St. John's and Memorial are home to Dr. May. Before he was Memorial's Alumnus of the Year in 1983, and an honorary graduate in 1989, he'd been a star student here in his undergraduate days, winning the Governor General's Award for academic excellence, and taking part in the Council of the Students' Union, Debating Club, and theatre arts. But he's not one to brag. He may be the president, but he wears all the hats of his current job without fanfare.

"That's history," Dr. May said as I surveyed the impressive number of awards and pictures on his office walls. "None of it's current."

The president's office has a church-like cleanliness, and an air of formality about it that Dr. May has jazzed up with stunning Newfoundland artwork and family photos. I especially liked his computer screen-saver that has fish swimming around.

I also liked the quiet. There's something calming about the office. You can think there.

There were meetings all morning, but Dr. May stressed that this was not really a typical day. Victoria Collins, director of University Relations, arrived at 9 a.m. to talk to the president about the launch of The Opportunity Fund. Then, at 9:30 a.m., the fund-raising campaign's planning group met in the Board of Regents boardroom, and we all got to watch The Opportunity Fund video the day before the rest of the world did on March 25 (the free coffee was a nice touch). This was followed by a senior executive meeting at 11 a.m. in the office of Dr. Jaap Tuinman, vice-president (academic), where there was more discussion about Memorial's future.

A morning of meetings may sound dull, but I was so interested I didn't want to blink. The well groomed, articulate people I met that morning are committed to turning Memorial into one of Canada's top-notch universities, and I was so supportive of their ideas I had to restrain myself from applauding a few times. "We have the students, we have the faculty, we need the facilities," was the theme. I made a note to myself during one of the sessions: "We're making history, folks."

And through it all, Dr. May is like a small army -- he's a person at ease and at attention within the same body. His comments are always concise, and dead-on. When someone, anyone, makes a suggestion, he'll pause, look beyond the table, maybe out the window, then speak.

"But I don't know, I'm just thinking aloud..." he might say. Funny thing is, it sounds better than when a lot of other people do it.

Kathleen Lippa is a fourth-year student from St. John's who is working on a double major in Russian and English. She'd like to have her own screen-saver with fish some day .