Renovate, restore are sensible options

(November 12, 1998)
Dr. Steven B. Wolinetz
Special to the Gazette

May you live in interesting times" is an ancient Chinese curse. Here at Memorial it operates with a vengeance. The list is long: polarization, financial crisis, threats of exigency, demands to down-size, innovate, do more with less. However, my aim is not to catalogue the past, but to use and get beyond it.

For years we have been told that we must adapt or fade away. Downsizing has been the order of the day. Predictions of rising costs and declining enrollments have induced despair but few tangible responses. Only recently have faculty and senior administration begun to emerge from their bunkers and take a hard look at what can be done. Our options are to downsize, remain the same, renovate, or raze. In my view, the only sensible choices are to renovate and restore.

Doomsday reconsidered.

The doomsday and downsizing scenarios are based on demographic trends and technological changes. Birthrates and public school enrolments are declining. Other things equal, our intake must shrink as well. However, all things are rarely equal. The scenario assumes non-intervention, yet juxtaposes radical adaptation. Typically this implies distance education, Web courses, and a virtual university. Such scenarios raise hackles because they strike at what many faculty believe a university should be. Faculty become a problem that must be dealt with or circumvented. Radical overhaul implies conflicts, demoralization and discomfort. Perhaps this is a necessary evil, but before we accept it, we should consider whether its premises are correct and whether costs outweigh potential benefits.

Demographic predictions extrapolate existing trends. This can be done with more or less sophistication. Enrolment predictions resemble labour market estimates. More often than not they are wrong; narrowly based, they omit key variables and inspire intervention.

The downside of downsizing

Falling birthrates and outmigration are shrinking the pool from which Memorial draws. We could go with the flow: if undergraduate enrolments are going to shrink, so should Memorial. MUN would turn into a smaller place, Mount A. on the Rock. That sounds nice but it won't happen. Downsizing is more likely to produce an anorexic mini-versity than an idyllic liberal arts college. Moreover, such a scenario would strip away a university which the province needs and has worked hard to build.
Start with the obvious: shrinking Memorial would deprive Newfoundland and Labrador of its only university and the tremendous economic through-put which it generates. Jobs would disappear. Not only faculty but support staff, technicians, and middle management would be affected.

But that is only a start: Memorial is the province's principal repository of knowledge and expertise. Our library functions as the province's library. Faculty provide expertise. Shrink the university and you shrink the base on which government departments, businesses, and private citizens rely. We know what is happening to our library. If we downsize drastically, this can only get worse. However, it won't be only books or journals which are unavailable. People will be making a lot of phone calls to Halifax, not only to talk to their children, but also to get basic information.

Radical overhaul?

If downsizing is not the answer, perhaps radical overhaul is. Universities, it is argued, must respond to changing needs and demands. Typically this implies using technology to meet demands for remote access and emphasizing professional schools in order to provide training for jobs for which there is demand. MUN could do both, but before we embrace this claim, we should consider its premises. No society runs solely on engineers, accountants, health professionals, or other functions for which professional training is available. There is demand for people with broader and less "practical" knowledge people who cannot only "do" but also think, imagine, explain, and analyse. Preparation for such functions is not career or program-specific. It can come from a variety of sources and disciplines, inside and outside of universities.

Skewing toward applied studies or a mechanical dispensing of courses would deprive the province of other sources of expertise and knowledge. It is not only Engineering, Science, or Business which lend expertise. Geographers, economists, sociologists even political scientists consult and offer comment,. Some of Memorial's proudest achievements have come from the Humanities; the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, is only one example. Memorial has helped the province understand its heritage and facilitated a vibrant artistic community. The latter may be luxuries, but they are ones few would do without.

Renovating and Restoring?

Remaining the same is untenable. The only times that Memorial has remained the same have been when there have been no funds to adapt or change. The present is a good example. Many departments are hurting because they cannot hire or retain new blood. Moreover, no change now means disruption 10-15 years later, when too many people leave at once. Neither is good.
Renovating is easier to prescribe than execute. We must still decide what stays and what goes. One way is by looking back and considering what we have been and then considering what we can be. This may sound oblique, but it is not. Someone in the Oct. 14 General Assembly argued that MUN could no longer be a "traditional university." I found this odd. Memorial has never been a traditional university. When I came in 1971, there were a few buildings and many temporaries. That university combined applied and abstract subjects Engineering and English, Commerce and Classics. Moses Morgan's Memorial was a university engaged in its community, studying it and providing it with knowledge. That university bent over backwards to provide education for students, urban or rural.

We cannot go back, nor would we necessarily want to do so. Old MUN was far from perfect. We can reinvent Memorial, though, by remembering what old MUN was a place which combined applied and abstract studies, provided resources and expertise and provided educational opportunities which would not otherwise have been available. A renovated and rejuvenated Memorial would be a restored Memorial one which did many of these same things, albeit differently.

 Old Memorial was also a place a physical university where things happened despite its physical inadequacies. New Memorial needs to be a physical place as well. A virtual university can reach out to remote corners, but a physical one necessarily concentrated in one or two places can interact and be part of the community.

No-frills universities lack attractive power. We cannot not stop local students from going elsewhere, but we can ensure that others come and that those who stay enjoy the best education possible. To do so, we need amenities and we need to make the campus a place where students, staff, faculty come and spend time. We need a better student centre, gym, classrooms and laboratories. A film and lecture theatre would not be amiss. We also need to emphasize and preserve our strengths, particularly a library which is the best east of Montreal, smaller classes, and faculty who teach and often care.

What is to be done?

Reinvented Memorial would be an eclectic mixture of applied and abstract studies, combining and rewarding teaching and research. It would be a comprehensive university, albeit one which recognized that it could not do everything. It would be big enough to provide a wide range of programs, but small enough to allow faculty and staff and students to interact in other words, roughly the size that we are. But stating this is only half the battle. Making it work requires funds, students, support, and leadership.

We need a sense of who we are and what we are doing. We have spent time and energy arguing about mission statements. There is nothing wrong with strategic planning, done properly. However, strategic planning done badly repels those whose support it needs. Worse, it implies that everyone should be in lock-step. This denies the diversity which makes universities thrive.

Rather than cobbling strategic plans, agreeing on core values may be sufficient. Sitting on the Senate, watching the ways in which many colleagues and administrative offices operate, I have been impressed with efforts to be fair. This is a core value which most of us endorse. I only wish it were more widely applied in areas such as labour relations.

Another core value which we should embrace is respect. If we make respect a core value, we can avoid some unnecessary debate. Consider shibboleths about corporate takeover of the university. Faculty get annoyed when they are told they should treat students like customers. Students do pay and deserve something for their money. But wouldn't the problem be solved, and better results achieved, if we agreed that we should treat students (and others) with respect? In a different vein, bad blood between faculty and higher administration might diminish if faculty felt that they were being treated with respect.

Respect will not rectify budgetary shortfalls. Even if we get more money, we still face problems for which creative solutions are needed. Early retirement eased some pressure on budgets, but it is expensive and only one of many possible solutions which might be applied. Room exists within the present contract for partial retirement for those who wanted to work less prior to full retirement. One quid pro quo that might be arranged is partial early retirement in exchange for opportunities to work part-time beyond 65. The collective agreement permits this, but the pension plan discourages it. But it would free up funds for junior faculty.

I could go on, but my intent is to open discussion, not conclude it. I hope that I have provided not only food for thought, but also ammunition for arguments with government. In the short-run our future depends not only us, and our ability to get our act in gear, but also on the government which pays most of the bills. Governments past and present have invested heavily in Memorial University. Unfortunately, that investment can all too easily be squandered if either we or government take too short-sighted a view of what MUN is and can be in the future.

Dr. Steven B. Wolinetz is a professor of political science and sits on the Senate.