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Address to convocation

Dr. Holly Pike, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College

When Thomas Carlyle said around 1840 that “the true university of these days is a collection of books” he expressed a sense that universities exist for the transmission of knowledge, and that with the development of printing, the congregation of scholars in a community was no longer the primary means by which knowledge was dispersed through society. He further said that “the University that would completely take-in that great new fact, of the existence of printed books . . . has not yet come into existence.” In Carlyle’s view, the mid-19th century university had not yet justified its existence given the availability of relatively cheap printed material for the dissemination of knowledge. How much more irrelevant would he find today’s universities in our world of instantaneous worldwide communication? Yet he could not have been more wrong about the continued relevance of the university to the society in which it exists. Despite the changes in the way we communicate, universities continue to be the source of expertise, the site of debate and knowledge development, the dominant system for conferring markers of intellectual attainment. Carlyle expected universities to be superseded by literacy and easy communication. In fact, increased literacy and communication have increased the importance of the university.

The bachelor’s degree has become the basic level of education for many careers and specialization has increased in every field. With their baccalaureate qualification, our graduates have found employment with various government departments and agencies, such as Parks Canada; in enterprises here and abroad; and with a variety of other organizations. While the bachelor’s degree and the general education and critical thinking skills it helps develop remain important in themselves, increasingly graduates seek further education either through graduate study in their major field or through professional programs. For instance, students graduating here today are going on to further study, specialization or field work in education, library and information science, experimental and forensic psychology, speech pathology, ethnomusicology, folklore, biology, and coastal marine management at universities such as the University of British Columbia, University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario, University of Ottawa, Oxford University and in the Aleutians and Iceland. We are particularly pleased that among our nursing graduates this year is a group with a special mandate to return to their home communities in Labrador, thanks to an access program funded by the Nunatsiavut government, with support from the Association of Registered Nurses of Newfoundland and Labrador, the College of the North Atlantic, Memorial University/Grenfell College, the province’s three schools of nursing and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

As the collaboration I just describes indicates, universities perform many important roles in a community, from formal and professional education to cultural activities to economic stimulation. Even a small campus like Grenfell has a huge impact on the region. Former Grenfell students are lawyers, teachers, business operators, health professionals, artists, performers, and who knows what else throughout the region and indeed around the world. Our faculty and staff share their professional expertise and interests through numerous local, provincial and national organizations as well as disseminating their research through academic channels. We provide cultural experiences through public lectures, community webcasts, theatre productions, poetry and fiction readings, and visual art exhibitions. Our division of Community Education and College Relations provides general interest and professional development courses to over 3000 local residents per year, as well as providing summer camps to over 500 children per year. With over 1200 students and over 200 faculty and staff Grenfell helps sustain the local economy through their everyday expenditures. Our business development support project, Gateway West, has helped in the development of new businesses in the region, creating employment and diversifying our economy. The university not only provides educational opportunities for the region but also brings in highly qualified personnel and students from other parts of the world and helps to increase the diversity of our communities while providing a social benefit to the countries our students return to. When considered in this light, it is clear that a university can never be replaced by just books.

The recent announcement of change in the governance structure of Memorial University to give greater autonomy to this campus is a recognition of the importance of universities within the province. The changes are all intended to help us grow as an institution so we can fulfill our mandate in the city and the region. We have already increased our student recruitment staff and will be increasing our recruitment activities in keeping with the plan developed last year in order to bring more students from outside the province into Corner Brook. A change in the name of our institution to remove the word “college” is central to our recruitment and marketing efforts. It is important that we promote ourselves with a title that clearly identifies us as a degree-granting institution. We are pleased with the level of public response to our proposed name change, which reveals a widespread sense that the university is integral to the community. Over the next few months, changes in reporting structures and university-wide processes will be planned with the help of the Grenfell secretariat under the guidance of the university’s Task Force on a Renewed Governance Structure for Sir Wilfred Grenfell College. These changes will place more responsibility in the hands of the senior administration of this campus and increase our ability to act on priorities that may differ from those of the St. John’s campus. We are also adding staff in key support areas that we must strengthen as we develop and manage a separate budget and handle more administrative processes locally.

The most visible change our campus is undergoing is the addition to our original academic building, scheduled for completion in 2011. This addition will provide much-needed lab space, classrooms, and offices and we are very pleased that the project has received the support of both the provincial and federal governments. This building will also increase the architectural interest of our campus with its striking glass wall and atrium, and will give us a unique feature--the largest astronomical telescope in Eastern Canada, a research-quality instrument that will serve our community both within and outside the university for many years. This extension is being built according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, as is appropriate for a campus that is strengthening its focus on environmental programming. As well, the provincial government recently announced funding for a 200 bed residence building that will help us continue our commitment to provide first-year students from outside the region with a guaranteed place in residence for that important first year away from home. The new residence will also help cement our ties with the College of the North Atlantic, since a quarter of the beds will be available to CNA students.

Our faculty members continue to increase the breadth of Grenfell’s activities through the development of new courses and new research projects. Researchers on our campus are funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, as well as other provincial and federal agencies; they work with partners and collaborators at other universities and with provincial and federal agencies. Current research projects on this campus include topics of local importance such as the social and economic history of the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery, the properties of wood fibre in Newfoundland forests, regional avalanche mapping, the provincial wellness plan, the development of a centre on healthy aging, and the expression of Newfoundland and Labrador cultural identity through literature. Researchers are also working on topics of broad significance in Canadian society, such as effective succession planning in family businesses, children’s understanding of and use of the internet, problem gambling and women; and on topics of international interest or significance, such as the formation of massive stars, treason trials in ancient Macedonia, the combination of traditional printing processes with digital technology, and the environmental impact of different methods of oil extraction. These few examples indicate the breadth of research and creative activity taking place on this campus and demonstrate our researchers’ commitments to local, national, and international issues, and to applied, quantitative and qualitative projects. Our library recently implemented a program to lend a variety of ebook readers to faculty, staff, and students, allowing them to take advantage of the Memorial library system’s extensive electronic access collection. Like the rest of the university, our libraries are evolving to accommodate new technologies and new ways to use existing technologies. The ability of the ebook reader to store dozens of volumes of print in a device the size of a single book seems likely to increase the importance of universities as the repositories and creators of the knowledge that ends up in print.

This year our student union supported 30 student societies, representing a broad range of interests from the making of chain mail (that’s right, as in armor—not email that’s been forwarded 40 times) to Students in Free Enterprise, from creative writing to the aboriginal student society. These student societies bring students together to share interests, learn new skills, make new friends, and support organizations such as Oxfam or Rotaract or raise awareness of the human rights issues associated with gender, sexual preference, religion and other rights and freedoms. The diversity of these societies reflects the diversity of our campus, which is a key component of the education of our students. It is through new experiences, new ideas, and contact with those of different beliefs and backgrounds that we all, students, faculty, and staff alike, learn and grow, and much of this learning cannot be accessed through books.

The traditions of the university continue through change. Today Memorial’s new president-designate is present in the audience and we have been addressed by the president pro tempore, who will soon finish his term. Members of the Board of Regents, who generously volunteer their time to oversee the operation of the University, in doing so demonstrate their sense of the ongoing importance of the university to the province. As you graduate today you are carrying on the educational tradition of centuries and are justifying the continuing importance of the university as our society’s primary site for the development and dissemination of knowledge. We hope you will take the knowledge you have acquired through contact with experts and through books; the experience you have gained through extracurricular activities and contact with a diverse population; and the knowledge you have created yourselves; and use that knowledge in your work and in your personal interests. You have earned your place in this tradition through your academic success and we look forward eagerly to see how your generation changes and continues the tradition.