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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.