March 4th, 2010
A freeze by any other name would not be a freeze. That’s of course why the media love to use the word: it signals exactly what freezes are, an act that seizes everything up. A freeze conjures that unloving icy feeling immediately. Unlike roses, which in the poem is always red and by any other name would smell as sweet, a freeze by any other name would just not be a freeze.
So it is that as I write this the headlines in the Canadian media are screaming that the federal budget calls for a ‘salary freeze’ for the Prime Minister, Members of Parliament, and Senators. That icy news is apparently meant to chill you all over, but it doesn’t, does it? It’s reverse temperature psychology, surely. The MPs and the rest of them get frozen while we all warm to the idea that they don’t deserve more money anyway, and certainly not in times of such economic struggle. Clever, isn’t he, our cold- blooded psyching-us-out Prime Minister?
Forgive me, but I am somewhat preoccupied with the word freeze right now because our School of Graduate Studies issued a memo a few weeks ago detailing some significant measures to deal with our ballooning deficit. None of this is a secret. Our staggering growth in the last couple of years has outrun our more limited capacity to support it, and so we are doing some intense focusing on how best to move ahead while staying committed to both the university’s Strategic Plan and the many students who are currently in our programs and require reasonable, long-term funding through the healthy front ends of their programs.
NOT SUCH A BIG DEAL, REALLY. IT’S CALLED GOOD FISCAL MANAGEMENT.
A memo we circulated widely on February 18th to academic units has made it somewhat mysteriously to the media who, this obviously being a dull news week, have snowballed the clear contents into a giant freezing mass of crisis. Honestly, it’s all been such a textbook example of how basic communication works in our society—and through a kind of broken telephone conversation–that if I didn’t know any better I’d accuse myself of running a social science experiment.
Oh my, the rumours that get generated over a one-page memo. In a world of tweets and twerps, you know just how quickly the facts can be distorted. Just put a few nouns and verbs out there and watch how suddenly the message gets transformed into something quite different from its original meaning and context.
Let’s be clear: I admit the memo used the phrase ‘temporary freeze,’ and if I had my time back I’d trade the word in for something softer, like ‘temporary hold’ on fellowship support for new, incoming students. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? You don’t get a chilly Stephen-Harper sort of feeling when you read that, do you? But, then, the memo wasn’t crafted for the media, nor was it our intention for someone to leak it to the media with a view to stirring up some trouble for uncertain purpose. It was written for a university community that well understands what the words mean.
The fact is, it’s not really a freeze—not in the way the salaries of MPs and Senators and the PM himself are being put on ice. We don’t have the money to put on ice. Wish we did. And if we did we would probably be called irresponsible. We are freezing the gesture of promising fellowship support for students. It’s a freeze on offering, a freeze on promising, a freeze on committing, a freeze on a potential action. (I am starting to feel like John Cleese defending his not-so-dead parrot, but I digress, again.)
What we do have is a deficit, a growing gap between our needs and our reality, and we just can’t keep increasing the gap, not if we want to avoid bankrupting our programs and putting the whole future in jeopardy—putting graduate studies itself on ice, which this university would never do.
It’s really interesting but in the last 24 hours I have done about 5 interviews–television, radio, print—almost all of which have fixated on that misleading, chilly verb. It’s taken me a bit off guard, just how attractive the f-word is to the interviewers. Unlike other verbs, such as stop or hold or suspend or even budget, the f-word gives reporters a real chilly glow, and so before you can say, uh, that’s not what I meant at all, they are all over it like Franklin in the Arctic.
That’s okay, we get it. We have been boasting, as is proper, about our happy growth rates, and so it’s bound to be bit confusing as to we can’t afford to keep going at this surprising healthy pace, not without more assistance. The whole world of graduate studies, as is the domain of research, is also a bit mystifying to the general public who, if they haven’t done a graduate degree, understandably find the whole notion of giving students money to study a little odd.
But it’s not odd. It’s a healthy, rational, progressive way to advance knowledge and encourage innovation, and we all do it wherever we have graduate programs.
Time to stop thinking about freezing and start thinking about warming trends, okay? In other words, let’s just chill.