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Chatting with the chair

New board head settling in

By David Sorensen

Bob Simmonds sounds comfortable as he describes his first weeks as chair of Memorial’s Board of Regents. For this veteran criminal lawyer, the issues surrounding the university are likely not as stressful as his day job, defending high-profile clients which frequently forces him onto the front pages of provincial newspapers and the nightly news.

That said, Mr. Simmonds understands that he’s come into the position at a unique and important stage in Memorial’s history.

“There are a number of issues facing the university,” he recently told the Gazette. “Obviously, there’s the issue of autonomy, the issue of the legislation in relation to Grenfell College. Probably the thorniest issue, and the one that’s received the most press in the last year, is the issue in relation to the presidential search and the difficulties that took place there.”

First up for Mr. Simmonds and the board will be dealing with the presidential search that was stalled when the provincial government said neither of two candidates put forward by the search committee were suitable. The search committee had indicated that the preferred candidate was current acting president Dr. Eddy Campbell, who subsequently withdrew his name from that search.

Mr. Simmonds said the board will begin to address that issue immediately.

“The board has to clearly deal with that in a concise, appropriate fashion in the upcoming months,” he said. “It's obviously the issue that has consumed the time of the board predominantly over the last six months. There has to be closure to this, it has to be dealt with.

“But I emphasize, it has to be done right. What are the procedures, how do we go about this? We have to weigh all of the issues that are out there and that means weighing the views – government is a stakeholder in this, Senate is a stakeholder, the Board of Regents is a stakeholder – all of these things have to be balanced. I can’t answer how we're going to do that right now. It is probably the single largest issue that confronts Memorial right now. And that's tied in with the autonomy issue.

“This much of a timetable I can tell you, the autonomy and the presidential search issues will have to be dealt with at the next board meeting, at least to commence to be dealt with. What kind of timeframe will it take to complete? I don't know. But we're not talking weeks here, we're talking months.”

Despite the importance of this and other issues facing the board, Mr. Simmonds is optimistic that the university has a bright future.

“This is such a tremendous time in Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said. “It's a tremendous time for a research institution like a university with all the attributes and the expertise that we have here at Memorial.”

He said the recent visit of Sir Terry Matthews and the Welsh billionaire’s response to the experience is an example of the potential of the university.

“(Sir Terry) left here saying 'I want to work with you, I want to do business here, I want to be part of this.' That's tremendous to pull that off in the one day he was here,” said Mr. Simmonds.

He added that in his short time on the Board of Regents (he was appointed Nov. 18) he’s come to recognize that the board is extremely diverse and experienced, which bodes well for the future of the place.

“With that kind of expertise and experience, I have every reason to believe we will move ahead in an appropriate and beneficial manner for Memorial University.

“I do intend to make every effort to do this appropriately, properly, with a team approach with one goal and one goal only in mind: that is to make sure we, the Board of Regents, do the very best for Memorial University of Newfoundland, and that includes the students, the staff, the professors, and the citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador. We want to do this right.”

In the weeks following his appointment, many pundits and politicians took shots at Mr. Simmonds, claiming his appointment was political patronage. He disputes that and said his experience as a lawyer and a volunteer in public sector organizations will serve him well in this new role as board chair.

“Like I said when I was accused of taking a patronage appointment: I don’t get paid, I can't pick enough fights in my own profession, I've got to step into another place to pick a fight, and I'm going to be away from my office and lose money – not my traditional definition of patronage,” he said with a laugh.

Mr. Simmonds was a law firm partner with current finance minister Jerome Kennedy for many years. Will that have political ramifications?

“I can not excise the fact that he was my partner. Is that the reason I got appointed? I would hope Jerome knows me well enough to know that I'm going to do what I believe to be correct and right,” he explained. “Will it become a liability? I certainly hope not. If it’s a liability then I’m not doing anybody, including myself, and certainly not the university nor the government, any favour by remaining there.

“The only undertaking I have given anyone is that I will try to do this right. Will I make mistakes? Undoubtedly. But at the end of the day, hopefully they will at least be able to say, well, he and the board did it very well, they did it to the best of their abilities and, by and large, they did it right.

“I guess we'll see down the road if my spine is made of rubber.”

Mr. Simmonds said he plans to visit Grenfell College as soon as he is able, and hopes that he and the board can tour as many faculties and schools as possible in the coming months.