More voices join the Grenfell College governance discussion
by Leslie Vryenhoek
Discussions about whether the province should have one university or two continue to dominate campus hallways and provincial airwaves.
In 2006, the provincial government commissioned two consultants, Profs. J. L. Davies and J. Kelly, to review the governance of Sir Wilfred Grenfell College. Their report, which the province released in April, favoured an option that would see the creation of two universities within a single provincial system, each with its own president, budget and governing Senate but with a shared Board of Regents. The Provincial Government expressed its support for that option.
In July, Memorial’s Board of Regents reiterated its support for one university in the province, saying the preferred option put forward by the consultants was “unworkable”, but also reaffirming its support for increased autonomy for Grenfell College. While acknowledging that the decision to form a new university and restructure the university system rests with the provincial government, the board urged additional analysis be undertaken to examine the impact on students, the costs, the required legislated changes and shared services.
Dr. Axel Meisen, Memorial University’s president, expressed in interviews the administration’s view that the well-being of students is of primary concern, noting issues such as the transfer of credits and movement between the proposed two institutions must be closely examined. Like the Board of Regents, he said there are other issues that need to be assessed as action is taken to change the current governance structure a structure that has been a source of excellence since the creation of the university in 1949 and before that, since its predecessor, Memorial University College, in 1925. Dr. Meisen explained he is not averse to change, but wants to be sure that the change is beneficial, particularly to students.
In a CBC radio interview that week, Dr. John Ashton, principal of Grenfell College, had explained his position: “The college has matured from being a very small institution...to having all the complexity of a small university.” He believes the current governance system does not recognize that complexity.
On July 27, University Chancellor Dr. John Crosbie held a news conference to publicly and firmly support the Board’s position and the current single university system.
An ex-officio member of the Board of Regents, the chancellor detailed several concerns, including that the provincial government had not communicated with the board before releasing the consultants’ report. He said the issue could impede current efforts to recruit top candidates to succeed Dr. Meisen when he finishes his term as president in August 2008, as well as hinder fundraising efforts.
Most significantly, Dr. Crosbie voiced concerns that two universities operating under a common board would, in his view “make it impossible to manage and administer the affairs of the university....”
Dr. Crosbie also noted that all stakeholders faculty, students, alumni and the people of the province “should be given an opportunity to indicate what their views are on this fundamental public educational policy relating to MUN.”
But stakeholders, government officials, media and the public needed no encouragement to voice their views.
In response to Dr. Crosbie’s statements, Dr. Ashton contended in media interviews and in a letter to The Western Star that Mr. Crosbie was ill-informed, and accused the chancellor of invoking hysteria and paranoia.
In a letter to The Telegram, report author Prof. John Kelly asserted that the report’s conclusions were sound, and expressed dismay over the concerns being raised. He took issue with the chancellor’s statement, saying: “The inference is made in the press release that the consultants were employed simply to endorse the wishes of the government. This is untrue and an insult to my and Prof. John Davies’ integrity, and he owes us a retraction and an apology ... ”
Perhaps not surprisingly, editorials in The Telegram and The Western Star landed on opposite sides of the issue, with the former calling for further analysis and the latter favouring a move toward two universities.
In the days following, Premier Danny Williams spoke repeatedly about the importance of fostering institutional autonomy and authority for decision making “outside the overpass.” On August 1, he told VOCM listeners: “... this government said very clearly if it means establishing some autonomy outside of St. John’s to firm up a base on the west coast of this province and we have to spend some money to do it, we will do it.”
In interviews, the premier and other government officials articulated that the government has made its decision, and will take the appropriate implementation actions.
In order to inform everyone with an interest in Memorial University, particularly students, faculty, staff and alumni, Memorial University has created a website regarding governance at www.mun.ca/marcomm/public_affairs/grenfell_governance.php. This site contains official reports on governance, going back to 1989, and university news releases.
In the spirit of open discussion, Memorial University has also developed an online forum where people can post their comments on this important issue.