I just attended the annual summer workshop for deans of graduate studies….
July 16th, 2009


I just attended the annual summer workshop for deans of graduate studies in gloriously touristy historic Quebec City, sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). The CGS is based in Washington D.C. and it is a large, efficient organization to which a number of Canadian universities subscribe (http://www.cgsnet.org/). Typically, there are about a dozen Canadian deans to hundreds and hundreds of US ones. But that the conference was held in Canada is a testament to the CGS’s respect for us and, of course, their shrewd recognition of the appeal of Quebec City as a summer tourist destination.

Indeed, the summer institute, as it is called, was well attended.  There is nothing quite so lovely as the Quebec City boardwalk in July, perched over the grand St Lawrence River, this year embodying 400 years of white settlement. Northrop Frye, the well known Canadian literary critic, was famously fond of saying that the first visitors to North America were swallowed up in the St. Lawrence River;  before they knew it they were somewhere inside a vast continent like Jonah in the belly of the whale. I am not sure what the US conference participants made of it all, but no doubt they were charmed by their environment, with or without a sense of the troubled history that has informed Canadian identity politics ever since.

The views were spectacular and we even saw a guy walk on a high wire to the Chateau Frotenac, but managing graduate studies in times of severe restraint was the dominant theme.  Regardless of the seminar topic, everyone eventually came round to the subject of economic meltdown. Bad and high-risk investments have led some institutions into severe crisis management mode. Some state universities are even limiting academic conference travel to the United States. The amount and number of graduate student fellowships are being compromised. Someone dared to use the word apocalypse.

It is humbling to hear how quickly things have changed for so many post-secondary institutions and for so many deans. Things are tough for Canadian universities, and especially for the hugely endowed ones with so much to lose, but we do not seem quite so on the brink of disaster as some of our US cousins. It is a commonplace now to say that our banking system is better regulated and so therefore we are weathering the downturn more gracefully overall. This truism extends to the funding of our universities, where there is at least a public commitment to the mission of advanced teaching and research. Things are much more uneven south of the 49th parallel.

In short, the Canadian deans consoled each other at the CGS meetings in the shared belief that we are pretty lucky over all. This sounds grossly oversimplified, but yet this is a natural reaction to daily discussions in which one hears a lot of angst, even fear. Of course, we are also a bit more smug than usual on our own turf, ordering our meals in French and translating the menus for our American friends, as if this is something we do everyday.

One area in which our differences were glaringly apparent is technology. At one session, the moderator asked who among us was keeping a dean’s blog. Two of us—and only two—raised our hands: me and the dean of graduate studies at Dalhousie in Halifax. What’s up with that? The US deans peppered us with questions: how did we escape being exposed to crank replies and making ourselves vulnerable? How did we find the time? What were the effects of our blogs? Did anyone read them? Why bother?  Man, in a crowd like that it was easy to feel pretty hip to the trends.

At the same session, one dean asked how we managed our email. Is there an answer to that question? Don’t ignore it or let it build up, one is tempted to shout out. Of some 250 deans at the institute I think it is fair to say that the Canadians and only a dozen or so US deans appeared to be using BlackBerries. I could practically hear everyone else’s inboxes filling up as the days rolled on. I took pity on them, fearing what was going to be confronting these managers after some 4 or 5 days away from their email. So little time, so many delete functions ahead of them.

To be honest, Memorial seemed well ahead of the tech curve, even when compared to some Canadian universities. Our web site management, efficiency of the admission process, extensive and growing online program delivery, ease with which students can access and link to information through our site, our use of GradShare—all of these attributes of the Memorial School of Graduate Studies identity have been literally electrified by our staff.

Quebec City is glorious in the summer, to be sure, but the best part of the trip was having the validation for our efforts and the satisfaction of being at once a leader and a resource for those who are still trying to figure it all out. I would take that over crepes and poutine any day.


Thanks to bonjour.quebec for sharing their photo via flickr and creative commons.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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