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It’s been a month since I visited this blogspace. Travel, work, weather, you name it: sometimes it’s just harder than I‘d like to find time for a thousand words in the right order.

It has occurred to me that almost all of my February activity has involved Talking to Americans. At the beginning of the month I was in California for board meetings, the only Canadian among American deans and vice presidents. I last saw this group before the US election, and the mood was decidedly different this time. Their President had just issued his odious travel ban and they were still reeling from the implications of the Executive Order. Some have estimated that US colleges will suffer upwards of about $156 million in lost revenues as a result of the ban. Before I left for the trip, Memorial had waived our application fees for applicants from those then seven affected countries, as well as from the US, and so by the time I got to the meeting I was able to report not only on our action but on the surge of interest it had generated in only a few days. I was treated around the board table as if I were a creature from another planet—a planet open to the big wide world and all its people. Our Prime Minister had quickly tweeted that Canadians welcomed immigrants and refugees, as refreshingly graceful a message-as-antidote as you could possibly want. Following his lead, Memorial decided to go there. In a few short days, applications started coming in. By my last count, we have waived about 200 applicants’ fees from travel-banned countries. More important is that our university took leadership quickly and, in turn, became identified as a welcoming destination. Some of those applicants will find themselves accepting our offers to study in our programs and they will be supported with a special scholarship for at least their first semester. We are working on the details and will have a better idea of the extent of the support once we know how many students will be accepted.

During the February break we took our annual vacation in the Caribbean, returning for the tenth year to the same island and the small hotel. Over the years, we have come to know many of the other returning guests, but this year our conversations took some unexpected turns among the palm trees. Politics was almost always the primary topic of conversation, as inevitable as a midday margarita. Unlike the members of the board I had conversed with in California, many of the Caribbean tourists turned out to be Trump voters. It was a little shocking to realize that the person you were talking to you knew was not at all who you had thought him/her to be. You had to reconcile your otherwise favourable impression of these people with the fact of their voting choice. Their hatred of Hilary Clinton was deep and palpable, and some would have happily voted for Bernie, or so they said. But their repulsion at Hilary’s perceived corrupt, Washington insider status was a bigger turn-off than the Zika virus. It was sobering, margaritas notwithstanding, to listen to their impassioned expressions of the need for change, and their admittedly qualified hope that Donald Trump would somehow lead them to a Greater America. My parting shot to them: let’s compare notes next year.

My third direct encounter with Americans happened only last weekend, when a bunch of us went down to NY City to see Come From Away in one of its last Broadway pre-opening premier performances. As you would now know from the largely favourable reviews, the musical is a big hit, and well deserving of the attention it is getting from here, there, and everywhere. Long may it prosper. It’s a bit surreal to be sitting on 44th street, smack in the most famous theatre district in the world, surrounded by cheering, bawling Americans who embraced the show with the same fervor and appreciation that we did. New York voted for Hilary, of course, and so the irony of the play’s message about a small town “in the middle of nowhere” opening up its rooms and hearts to thousands of stranded passengers was not lost on anyone, not while the White House is actively discouraging welcoming anyone except, possibly, Russians.

I love New York, and New Yorkers will surely love us after they see Come From Away. But what makes New York so refreshingly open and fearless is best demonstrated at the Museum of Modern Art, where the permanent collection (a fathomless collection of all the great 20th century painters and sculptors) now boasts the inclusion of artists from the seven countries banned in the original Executive Order. And so it is that in the same room housing Matisse you will find Iranian artist Charles Hossein Zenderoudi; right beside Henri Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” is a painting by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect who died last year, and so on. MOMA was packed on the weekend afternoon, as always, but many New Yorkers had returned to the galleries just to see the newly hung works by artists who would no longer be admitted into their country. MOMA had responded quickly and deftly to the Executive Order with an elegant, eloquent protest. Not hard to feel enormous respect for the wise curators and the museum’s leadership. And by the way, the photo above shows you the message hanging beside each one of the freshly installed works. It moves you just to read it.

If you make a pilgrimage to see a play about Newfoundland welcoming strangers after 9/11, make it a point to drop in on the permanent collection at MOMA. Both experiences will nourish the soul.

 

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It’s just too busy to keep pace with the blog space right now, but just wanted to thank the Memorial community for openly embracing the university’s response to the US 90-day travel ban against seven countries. Universities across the country have rightly stressed the values of access and inclusiveness. Memorial has gone even further by extending an offer to reimburse application fees for those applying from the affected countries, while we explore ways of supporting those who are admitted for their first semester through a special scholarship.

Reaction from students, staff, faculty, and alumni has been heartening, to say the least. In today’s much smaller world word travels fast. I was just flipped an email from a student in Tehran who has heard of our response and is seeking information about our Physics program. That’s just one email. I am sure our Iranian students already enrolled in our programs are circulating the news to friends and family back home, as are others from Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Libya—and the USA, where the offer has also been extended. This is not a ‘cash grab’ as some have cynically suggested, making it really easy to unfriend a few Facebook followers; it is simply the least we can and should do.

We are living in anxious times. I honestly cannot remember the last time I felt quite so uncertain about this poor planet’s chances of getting things right, of working towards peace and equality. But demonstrations on the streets of many US and Canadian cities, the recent massive women’s protests all over the world, and even mainstream media’s struggle to defy the falsifiers underscores a broad coalition of resistance.

Universities –especially Canadian public universities– are uniquely placed to speak on behalf of that resistance, and so we should. I write these words as I am about to travel to a meeting in California. If US Customs has the capacity to read my social media feeds then I might never get there. If you don’t hear from me for a while, make sure to ask if I am in some no man’s land between BC and CA.

Meanwhile, as the French say, courage!

 

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‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

Now is as good a time as any to invoke nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson’s well known verse. You don’t need a degree in English to admire the elegant metaphor in which the ceaselessly singing bird stands in for this thing called hope. Hope is what Barack Obama ran on in 2008 and then again, albeit more mutedly, in 2012. Hope is what our Prime Minister pitched in 2015. Most people want, need, expect a leader to generate hope. There might be a little less confidence in Justin Trudeau than when he was first elected over a year ago, but not that much, at least according to the polls. Most Canadians still prefer him over any other option, not that there really is anyone else out there at the moment. Nanos polling indicates just this week that Canadians support Trudeau as their leader twice as much as they do the Leader of the Opposition. As utterly corny as it sounds, Trudeau’s message of “sunny ways” perches a lot more easily in the soul than the crushing oppositional language of negativity. Hilary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election for many reasons, one of which was her inability to paint a picture of a welcoming future. If all you’re ever doing is tearing down your (admittedly obnoxious) opponent then you’re not leaving much else for the imagination, or spirit, to cling to.

As vulgar, offensive, racist, bigoted and misogynistic as DJT is, he ran on a (false) theme of affirmation. Making America Great is as specious a message as Walmart’s invocation to “Save Money. Live Better,” but it is at least as corny as “sunny ways,” and it fed a populace hungry for a fragment of optimism. I get that. It’s the juice of political leadership—and of change. Before the election I attended to mainstream media with the appetite of a sugar addict, fully expecting a resounding, satisfying defeat of one of the most offensive political candidates in living memory.  Immediately after, I could no longer bear a minute of media commentary. Like many others, I have been trying to find some hope in the wake of that political catastrophe. Note that the popular American television comedy Blackish, a show I like a lot, focused an entire episode last week on this very topic. I guess there’s hope to be found in a major network production that dares to acknowledge the daunting challenge of looking ahead with an orange-faced bully in the highest pulpit. Humour goes a long way. Of course, when at your lowest there’s always Eric Idle singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. If you haven’t seen it check it out on YouTube. He sings as he hangs along with his fellow crucifixion victims on a large wooden cross. There’s always a measure of comfort in searing irony.

As many have noted, 2016 was not a great year for this planet. From our local-provincial perspective, it was tough in many ways, as well. Books are taxed, libraries are in peril, unemployment rates are high, the oil sector is floundering, and we had more snow in December than we normally have in all of winter. But when you work at a university you operate—or I do—with an obstinate sense of optimism. After all, we are in the business of educating people, of building a better society, of moving the world forward as best we can. And so being optimistic gets in your DNA. It goes with the seasonal round of renewal—new semesters, new courses, new students, new challenges. It’s pretty easy in the academy to separate those who have surrendered to cynicism or the sheer habit of naysaying from those who are always looking for ways to get us somewhere better. Working collaboratively sure helps.

As Dickinson observed, hope persists, despite, as the poem continues,

“…the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—“

Yes, you can call it corny and trite, but we are all pretty much in the same boat in 2017, always hoping for the best, despite the evidence.

 

 

Directional Sign with OLD NEW Words and Sky

Enough already with 2016. Any year in which someone like Donald J Trump gets elected to be President of the United States is not a great year. But all is not totally lost. We live in Canada, where the air is sweeter, less hostile (mostly), and more progressive (generally). The refugee family a bunch of us sponsored a little over a year ago seems to be thriving. The teenagers are in high school, hooked on their devices and the latest whatevers, and mom is working at a Middle Eastern restaurant right here in St. John’s. Their capacity for change and their elegant ability to adapt to a weird foreign culture like ours is nothing less than inspiring. As the saying goes, sure puts everything in perspective.

The year was a mixed bag, to be sure. You might need a multiple-choice test to keep it all straight. Where do you stand on the conflicting positions, assumptions, attitudes, and opinions floating around out there about university culture? None, or all of the above?

Public universities are under siege these days because
a) governments are reducing contributions and grants
b) they don’t meet today’s workplace needs
c) learning and truth are overrated
d) food offerings are crushingly mediocre

Students are dissatisfied because
a) they want ‘free’ tuition
b) they want more wellness breaks
c) they want more services
d) the food sucks

Tuition is a vexed issue because
a) disadvantaged students have to pay the same as those who can afford it
b) recruitment depends on affordable education
c) low tuition is thought to be poor quality education
d) we’re not Norway

Faculty members are dissatisfied because
a) they want more time off from teaching
b) they want more time off from teaching first year
c) they don’t like change
d) they want to be left alone

Administrators are dissatisfied because
a) they get no respect
b) they are bloated
c) no one wants change
d) too many people are earning salaries and collecting pensions

Faculties are dissatisfied because
a) why can’t everyone just be like Business?
b) why are we still training teachers?
c) students don’t want to study History anymore
d) they need more money to do stuff

The general public is dissatisfied because
a) tax payers are supporting international students
b) their children spend too much time on their PDAs
c) university salaries sure seem high
d) don’t we need more hospital beds?

Women are dissatisfied because
a) they are still vastly underrepresented in university senior leadership
b) they have trouble being taken seriously
c) men talk too much in committees
d) they are still earning less than their male peers

Men are dissatisfied because
a) employment equity committees are bothersome
b) they have to leave their doors open when meeting female students
c) some of their peers talk too much on committees
d) they aren’t earning what they deserve

Technology is changing university culture because
a) it makes it easier to do lots more stuff
b) it confuses personal and professional communication
c) it makes access to information a snap
d) it costs a lot to build modern infrastructure

Employers are dissatisfied because
a) they don’t want to hire students without soft skills
b) they don’t want to invest in training
c) no one has a strong work ethic anymore
d) the economy is right scary

University rankings are troublesome because
a) everyone knows they’re a racket
b) everyone buys in to the racket
c) parents believe in the racket
d) we can’t come up with anything better

Keyword of 2016 is
a) risk
b) pensions
c) corporatization
d) bloat

The future looks bright because
a) we’re better off than most of the world
b) we’re all about renewal
c) there will be new Apple upgrades
d) it just has to

The correct seasonal greeting these days is
a) Merry Christmas
b) Happy Hannukah
c) Happy Holidays
d) Happy Solstice

How’d you do?

Have a safe holiday. Looking forward to 2017 when I will be returning to this blogspace.

Interesting times, once again. Maybe too interesting. If you’re plugging into university politics these days you know there is a series of controversies percolating around a few issues. These themes tend to cluster around expressions of identity politics. Following the tumult at some Canadian campuses is at once frustrating and chilling.

Consider what just happened at Ryerson. For reasons not (yet) disclosed, the director of the School of Social Work walked out during a black instructor’s anti-racism presentation. As the poet said, chaos ensued. The student-based Black Liberation Collective posted a public letter demanding his resignation. He promptly resigned from his administrative role. That’s pretty much all anyone looking in on this from the outside knows. Did the director have to take a call or was he demonstrating opposition to the presentation? Was his leaving the room a benign if awkwardly timed action or did he intend to register open disapproval? It’s puzzling that we don’t know the answer to these questions, but if he really did leave in some sort of huff it might explain the haste with which he stepped down. The letter notes that the director does not “value anti-black racism scholarship, black women, black educators or education, black experiences, black life and ultimately black students.” Perhaps he had enough of being the lightening rod for so much rage on campus. But I just don’t know.

Consider what’s been unfolding at UBC. Acclaimed author and head of the creative writing program at UBC, Steve Galloway, was fired last fall in a fog of secrecy. First he had been suspended while an investigation was underway. A BC Supreme Court justice was contracted to do the investigating. She concluded that all but one of the claims against Galloway, including the “serious” one, could not be substantiated. The university fired him anyway. Why? We don’t know, and, of course, privacy is being invoked, as the answer to why her report has never been made public. That’s pretty much all we know, and it doesn’t make UBC look very good. I am sure they are lawyered up the yin yang about this matter—and the faculty association is now grieving the case—and so I appreciate the constraints about disclosing more information. But what we know of the initial process looks kind of messy and I would be surprised if Galloway weren’t reinstated at some point. But what do I know? I don’t have the facts.

But back to identity politics. In a now widely known gesture, writer Joseph Boyden initiated a petition letter signed by 87 authors, slamming UBC for the way it has generated a “toxic mess” and calling for “fair treatment” of the accused. One of the famous signatories, Margaret Atwood, warrior feminist and fearless rights advocate, has been notably present on Twitter, defending the letter and insisting on fair process. She has, in turn, suffered a backlash of protest from those who claim the petition, in appealing to fair process for Galloway, is disrespectful of the women who came forward with their allegations, re-victimizes them, and therefore implicitly endorses “rape culture.” Yes, we are living in the upside down world (see Stranger Things) where the author of The Edible Woman, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, Handmaid’s Tale is being accused of anti-feminist acts against female complainants. All she is doing, really, is asking for the facts.

The third recent example is all about a protest against Jian Gomeshi’s Lawyer, Marie Henein, being invited to speak at Bishop’s University. Here I do know the facts—finally. In a clever branding move, four Canadian liberal arts colleges got together to share public lectures by notable people, staging the event at one site and streaming the lecture to the other three partners. To date, these guest spots have been occupied by notables such as Joseph Boyden (he of the aforementioned petition against UBC), Murray Sinclair, and, now you know, Marie Henein. A column in the student paper at St. Francis Xavier, a participating university, argues against Henein speaking on campus for reasons you can imagine: to some women advocates she is the very symbol of what is wrong with the justice system, a system it has been alleged, that vilifies female accusers.

They have a point, but I do not agree with any cry to silence anyone, especially on university campuses where healthy debate, if sometimes heated, is what we should be all about. Marie Henein is an outspoken feminist lawyer who, I am sure, has more than a few stories to tell about her own struggle to rise in the public sphere. If she were speaking on this campus I’d be happy to turn out to hear her. I have watched enough episodes of The Good Wife to know that a sound justice system means even good people defend questionably not-so-good people.

I never—and I mean never—agree with anything Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente writes in her weekly screeds, but last weekend she hit a few nails on the head of the politics of campus culture, the culture of name-calling, shaming and blaming. It’s easy to do these days because of the rise of such cases. We are not really doing ourselves a favour these days by censoring or silencing other voices. And it certainly makes us look self-absorbed and self-interested, rather than a site of open, fair, honest and respectful exchange of ideas.

What the frig is going on? Oh, there are theories out there (see Generation Snowflake)… and I won’t fan those flames by rehearsing them here. Words could be misunderstood. But when a Margaret Atwood or a Marie Heinen are demonized for no credible reason…; when a director of a school of Social Work becomes persona non grata because he went through a door…; when too many among us turn their backs on the facts of argument, of law, of reason, I question where we’re all going. University of Kent scholar Joanna William’s Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge discusses the trumping (sorry) of feelings over facts in our age. The personal is political, we feminists used to say in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. Little did we know where that phrase would lead.

 

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Source: Hanukkah Has Nothing to do with Christmas

It won’t be long before everyone starts asking me if I am ready for Christmas. The question usually comes up as soon as the last jack-o’-lanterns are removed from the porch.  For a Jew—and probably for a Moslem—it’s a paralyzing question. Living in this province for more than three decades I am still stumped by the question. Usually, my brain experiences a wee explosion when this happens.

What are my options? I could say
a) Are you kidding? Not even close.
b) Yes.
c) No.
d) I don’t do Christmas, I’m Jewish.
I’ve probably answered c most of the time. It’s just easier to say no — which everyone expects — than to make people uncomfortable with the startling revelation that you belong to a religion that doesn’t mark the 25th of December as the First Coming. That means no decorated trees in the house; no purchasing or exchange of gifts; no icicle lights around the eaves; no cherry, fruit, or plum cakes; no fat men in red suits; no memories whatsoever of gathering ‘round the hearth on Christmas morning, opening up presents and being surprised or disappointed by what was under the wrapping paper. I know, I know, for many the absence of the aforementioned trappings of Christmas is just too hideous to contemplate.

The other day I was talking to someone Who Should Know Better. She said, well, what a time for you to be traveling/dealing with this and that/attending so many meetings, what with Christmas coming. I was gobsmacked. What does ‘Christmas coming’ have to do with me, I silently fumed. But I didn’t say anything. It’s exhausting having to switch gears with so many well-meaning people who just don’t naturally hold the view that the world is divided between Christians and many many others.

Not so long ago, in a Secret Santa ritual played for up to $10 at a university office, I unwrapped my surprise present to find a plastic crèche. Uh, I noted aloud, this won’t do me any good—I’m Jewish, and so a tableau of the Baby Jesus just doesn’t go with my life. Oh, someone said in all seriousness, it’ll make a great centrepiece for your table, though.

Where does one start?

Years ago, after I had received a lot of attention in the media for some work I had done for the opening of the abortion clinic in St. John’s I received a number of frightening death threats and a lot of hideous, unwanted mail. It was a scary time  – mercifully before social media– but with some amusement I recall the evening I received a phone call from some older-sounding gentleman who asked me straightaway how I could be supporting the clinic “as a Christian.” Uh, I’m not a Christian, I replied. Stunned silence. He could not at all comprehend what I could possibly have meant by that. The abyss of no comprehension opened between us.

I like to think times have changed since that period, not so long ago, and that most people are enlightened about the diverse, wider world we all share. Yes, probably most Newfoundlanders in 2016 know that not everyone is a Christian. But a glance at the rise of the empowered alt-right in the US following the presidential election, and the highly disturbing displays of anti-Semitism across the world, including right here in Canada last week, leave me disturbed and not a little anxious. We can debate the degree to which that outrageous orange bomb of a presidential-elect is responsible for these acts, but these displays of hatred speak to a wider response, one T**** tapped, sure, but nonetheless exist. That slice of the population has no qualms about repeating the sins of the past—not as long as it will make their country “great again.”

But what about here in Canada? Evidence exists to suggest we are not that much different—or better. Honestly, if higher education were good for anything surely it must be to tolerate diversity, and not to tolerate expressions or acts of hatred against any ethnic or religious group.

Meanwhile, in the next few weeks if anyone wishes to ask me if I am ready for Christmas, be prepared for a firm no, never, not ever.

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Ottawa in autumn. It’s not always this nice but it was the last few days when I was attending the 50th anniversary meetings of the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE). I bet it was a lot chillier in the US capital, regardless of the temperature. I admit I have been walking around with a heavy heart since the US election, wavering between despair and anxiety, trying to channel it all into resistance. Most people I know can barely talk about the orange nightmare anymore. I find myself devouring Twitter for consolation, trapped in the information bubble with People Like Me. I really don’t want to read postings from those who don’t, anyway. What they are saying is too ugly for my health and for civilization in general.

At the CBIE meetings, fortuitously timed just a week after the election, a bunch of VPs and leaders of international activities at our campuses had gathered to take the pulse of progress. Canada is notoriously slow to recruit but more importantly to export our own students for experiences beyond our borders. We are doing only slightly better than last year, but still way behind Asia and the Australians whose federal government invests massive amounts in support of internationalization.

That said, the opportunities were spread out before us like a tempting hotel buffet. Two presentations, presumably long ago scheduled, focused on Canada’s advantage in a post-Brexit Trumpian universe. Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International, first spoke to us about the profound uncertainty of international research and study in the UK. When asked, Government was fond of saying, she said, that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ But, she went on, no one knows what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ means! And so it is that educators in the UK are waiting for the next shoe to drop on their partnerships, research collaborations, and recruitment initiatives. A hugely troubling element of the Brexit vote is that it signalled a rejection of expertise and of knowledge, specifically the kind universities generate. What a good time for Canada to be poaching our students, she teased.

A similar theme was expressed by renowned scholar and internationalist Hans de Wit who described the current political reality around much of the First World globe as anti-diversity, anti-immigration, anti-internationalist, nationalist and populist. It’s enough to make you choke on that hotel buffet. Trends are discouraging: the UK, USA, and rumblings from the alt-right in France, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Israel, and the Philippines. Elections next year across Europe will show the strength of the trend, by which time one hopes Trump will have evaporated like a bad dream or have been thrown in jail for any one of a long list of offences. De Wit continued that it is almost certain that around the world public funding for higher education will decrease. Largely uneducated or undereducated white guys voted Donald Trump into office. It’s not in his or his party’s interests to be supporting public universities. Moreover, national scholarship schemes (Brazil, Saudi Arabia) will be threatened, and competition from Germany and China will intensify as those nations draw in more and more students from all over the globe.

In such a grim future it is more important than ever for Canada to be carving out a lot of space as a progressive, welcoming country. We don’t have a national education policy but we do have strong provincial commitments to supporting a more diverse and highly educated population. Internationalizing our curricula cannot happen soon enough. Our recruitment efforts need to keep the current political reality in view. We aren’t looking for a cash grab from international students. That path is doomed. Instead, our efforts need to mark us as an exceptional example these days of what an open and responsible nation this is, province by province. Laurier imagined the twentieth century would belong to Canada but he might have been off by just a hundred years.

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I was in Washington DC for some meetings last week. I took this shot of the iconic obelisk known as the Washington Monument as I was heading back to the airport, just on the other side of the Potomac.  The Potomac… love the sound of that. And I love visiting capital cities, and D.C. especially. It’s hard not to feel the weight of American history there. The sheer monumentality of the place is meant to inspire awe—politics, corruption, beltway shenanigans notwithstanding. Do residents take the sight of the Lincoln Memorial, the Kennedy Centre, the Mall, and the White House totally for granted? I can’t. The architectural symbolism of America is concentrated in such a small geographic area that you can’t help but think you’re on a movie set. I admit I’m probably seeing the place differently after four seasons of House of Cards. I love the opening montage of that series, all those time-lapse shots of the monuments and of the Capital where Frank Underwood plotted his trajectory to the presidency. (I might add I am writing this blog on election day, fingers crossed that decency and good judgment prevail.)

In the few hours I had to walk the historic streets of Georgetown I heard over and over again from shopkeepers and wait staff the hope that Canada would “let them in” after the election. Yes, if you’re Democrats especially, I would say. You might have seen the piece in Fortune magazine this week, “Move to Canada After the Election? It’s Not So Easy,” which points out the barriers—financial, required skill sets—inhibiting easy cross-border resettlement. A retired friend of mine in California wants me to sponsor him as a political refugee. I like him, would cheerfully do that.

I spent most of the time in Washington indoors at a forum sponsored by the Education Advisory Board. Many Canadian universities pay annual dues for their services—which are amazingly helpful, well worth the dime. This was my first visit to the EAB meetings and I know I will be returning when I can. The EAB is well equipped to do research most universities crave. Their research forums disseminate their findings on a range of current topics, from recruitment and enrolment trends, budget challenges, changes in learning, infrastructure needs, how technology is transforming the curriculum, and so on. They crunch data with the best of them, offering best practices after surveying a broad range of post-secondary sites, updating their databases regularly. The forum I attended included four other Canadian and about 32 US-based Vice Presidents Academic. That’s a small enough group in which one can have an extended conversation, not just shut up and listen, although I did a lot of that, too. As diverse a group as we were there is so much we have in common in 2016.

In one of the presentations offered by the expert EAB staff, Memorial was singled out a number of times for our innovations in career advising, notably our focus on career-integrated learning. We—or more specifically, Dr. Rob Shea–was working in this area at least five years ago, but others—like the EAB—are catching up to its importance now. Needless to say, it felt g.d. good to be in the spotlight in a group like that, thank you, Rob. Overall, I felt that Memorial was in a really good place regarding advances in research and learning, very reassuring. Sometimes we really sell ourselves short, consistent complaining being a natural activity in the privileged academy. Wish we could get over that tendency.

The overarching lesson of the forum was very much in keeping, somewhat coincidentally, with my last blog on integration vs disintegration of our activities across the spectrum of university life. Indeed, this was the major theme of the meeting: in times of budget constraint, with the trend being even less money coming from public sources (and it’s really brutal in the USA), universities need to be more creative and efficient than ever. The positive note in all this is that we should be integrating our services and practices much more actively than we have anyway. But there’s nothing like hard, or harder, times to compel some fresh thinking about how we do our business. And since our business is all about providing the best educational experience we can deliver, we have rich opportunity to imagine what Memorial should look like in five to ten years from now. How do we use the resources we already have to satisfy our vision of being one of the most distinguished universities in this country?

An Integrated Planning Committee I chair is committed to exploring that question, and we will be looking to the university community for your thoughts. Start dreaming, if you haven’t already been doing so.

 

 

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That’s Mount Royal in fall glory at the top of the street. I was in Montreal a couple of weeks ago for the annual council meeting of Vice Presidents Academic (NATVAC). Sometimes these national meetings gel well. This one did, thanks, in part to being in the exciting city in which I was raised. Montreal, a perennially romantic city, always fills me with a bit of longing–so much on offer, especially the food. Concordia University performed the hosting duties with total class. I don’t know who caters for them but the meals were major highlights, breakfast, lunch and dinner. As the host said to our swooning over the choices, if Montreal can’t boast about having the best conference food then who can?

Another highlight was a plenary session by a visitor from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Vice Provost Randall Bass. Dr. Bass is the author of several books and articles on transformation in post-secondary education, with an emphasis on the intersection between technology and learning and scholarship. He has a lot to say, much of it already on the tip of our minds. Concordia had contracted him to help steer their two-year strategic planning exercise. I can see why. He is really good at process, explaining plainly just how difficult it is to get consensus on strategic directions. But he is especially clear when describing the very nature of the changes we are all currently experiencing, whether we recognize them or not.

The theme of his talk to us was “Integrated Learning, Designing the Future(s) of the University.” The great institutional tension of our time, he said, is between integration and dis-integration, two fundamentally competing notions of education. What can we say education will look like by 2030? What do we want it to look like? Integrated is the easy answer. The devil’s in the details, natch.

His argument: the great tension of our time is between integration and dis-integration. It’s about two fundamentally competing visions of education, with one giving way to the other. We have been moving for the last few years, perhaps with only a dim awareness, from relying on emerging digital tools to embracing a new learning ecosystem. What does that mean? That we are shifting from unbundling programs to rebundling, and at the centre of that shift is the concept of the whole individual—the whole student, not just the one who studies for exams and purchases course packs.

The new digital ecosystem, Bass said, is an incredibly explosive space into which 4 billion in venture capital investment has been pushed. There are a lot of people starting to make a lot of money in that space, and so there is a big knock-on effect on the post-secondary environment. How do we scale it properly, adapt while trying to reduce costs of retooling? We know the priority: students need more connectivity. Again, it’s all about educating the whole person.

A disintegrative learning strategy moves in the other and less fruitful direction. It favours a design of discrete or granular learning experiences. It inclines towards seeing education as a commodity, leadership and experience as separate learning modules. It sees the curricular and the co-curricular agendas as different parts. It talks of skills, dispositions, and values as distinct pieces of the learning experience.

As we trend, especially now in the undergraduate curriculum, towards emphasizing experiential learning, work placements, cooperative education, learning through community engagement, online instruction, collaborative problem-solving, and so on, we are (voluntarily) drifting away from traditional paradigms of learning and the tired spaces in which we did Old School. The big question we face as we move into the future is how do we design the ideal environment—intellectual and physical–to satisfy these demands? And so back to Bass’ theme: Designing the Future(s) of the University.

Most of this seems pretty obvious but it is important to be reminded that the times they are a changin’. Memorial’s Teaching and Learning Framework was conceived only a few years ago but parts of it already sound dated in view of the above. I’ll soon be establishing a review committee to assess its impact and recommend how best to go forward—to redesign–after its expiry date in 2017. Seems to me that we have an opportunity to ensure our university’s priorities lie squarely in an imagined new learning ecosystem. Lots to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BlogOct5

Last week, Memorial’s Advisor on Aboriginal Affairs, Catharyn Andersen, and I attended the 2nd annual Building Reconciliation Forum at the University of Alberta. The Forum followed on last year’s first nation-wide response to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission Report and its Calls to Action, specifically for post secondary education. The Edmonton Forum was a full two-day event, rich in content, intense in every way. Toward the end of the second day I tweeted that it was one of the best conferences I had ever attended—and I hadn’t uttered one word in public.

Indeed, the Forum was an opportunity to listen and learn. I knew this was not going to be an ordinary academic conference from the start. First agenda item was an opening prayer led by elder Jerry Saddleback whose reputation and important role among the participants became ever so clear. As he began his incantation in his native language everyone stood up and bowed forward slightly, as you would. I noticed that two people in front of me weren’t standing. One, an older man, was clearly Indigenous, the other, a woman, her affiliation not so clear. Was this some sort of Kaepernick move, I wondered, a protest against something … but what? When the prayer was done and people resumed their sitting positions, the man who had not stood up took to the podium to explain. Why did you stand when the prayer began, he asked us. Because the Church told you to, he continued. An elder once told me, he went on, that the proper thing to do upon hearing a prayer is to stay seated. That way you are closer to the earth, where you are supposed to be.

Feeling at once a bit sheepish and relieved to hear his explanation, I wondered what lay ahead. Another elder appeared at the podium. I am hard of hearing, he announced, and everyone tells me to get a hearing aid. I will, he continued, when it can translate into Cree. Bada bing. We were now into it, two days of moving testimonials, witty observation, expressions of anger and shame, disappointment and hope. Over the two days, the Forum alternated between keynote speakers (TRC Commissioner Wilton Littlechild, who had been to Memorial in March for our own Forum; the indomitable Marilyn Buffalo; silver-haired Phil Fontaine who needs no introduction; Wab Kinew, MLA, Manitoba, novelist, and native hipster; emotionally charged Lorna Williams, Professor Emeritus, UVic; Peter Irniq, the self-described “not angry Inuk” and former Commissioner of Nunavut; Steven Newcomb, Founder/Director of the Indigenous law Institute) and several panels populated largely by Indigenous academics, experts, specialists, students, and teachers—almost all Indigenous/First Nations/Aboriginal/Native/Metis. To be sure, the whole question of what those specific identifying terms mean was put before us, as was the overriding question and raison d’etre of the Forum: how do we indigenize the academy? And what would the academy even look like if we did?

It’s hard to capture in this blog the power of the stories we heard, of the eloquent expressions of survival from the residential school victims, those who carried the legacy of abuse forward their whole lives but who had almost miraculously transformed their lives through community support, strong mentors, and the sheer will to live well. All of these stories added up to a tragic narrative of Canada’s colonial history—and colonial present. How to bust the myth of (white) cultural superiority, was one of the overarching questions of the Forum. The answer—through education, the great irony being that education—residential schools–is what generated the damage in the first place. But we were there to learn how education could also help the reconciliation process—and not reconcile people to the past so much as reconcile with the present in order to move into and change the future. A tall but increasingly necessary imperative.

We were attending a Forum while sitting in a room on stolen lands. Don’t do things for us, we were told; don’t set out a plan for indigenizing the university. We will do it. What has been written about the north is largely a fairy tale, another noted. Instead of investing missions in uncovering the mystery of the Franklin expedition, how about investing in badly needed housing for our peoples? The unassailable logic of that question wrapped itself around the room.

We heard voices of wisdom and voices of rage. A lawyer offered a sobering critique of reconciliation itself, rhetorically challenging its very possibility in a world still dominated by the multinational bullies of capitalism. Why reconcile ourselves to an unjust form of dominance, he argued, to a world where native waterways, cultural practices, forms of ritual and belief were discounted or trampled on. Another observed that the calls to action of the TRC were in direct conflict with capitalism, and therefore the challenge of responding to the calls would take courage and bold action. We processed these comments, stark in their inevitability, as organizers in this province were planning their own resistance, demonstrating against further development of Muskrat Falls outside the Labrador Aboriginal Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

We heard from university students who have been struggling in Indigenous courses where non-Indigenous instructors are in charge and who sometimes say really stupid or insensitive things. We heard about the strangeness of university holidays that typically honour Christian traditions, ignoring those sacred days Indigenous students observe. We heard both the boast of universities requiring courses in Indigenous Studies and the argument against making such courses mandatory, feeding tokenism and turning students off the subject entirely. We heard about the pervasive ignorance of many Canadians, however well meaning; we heard of the need to reject assimilation—the intent of residential schooling—and the need to shift the paradigm to integration, not the same thing at all.

Throughout I kept reflecting on how Memorial can step up its commitment to the TRC calls for action. It’s different out in western Canada. Land acknowledgments are now a common ritual of any public gathering. I lived in Alberta for a time, a very different time. I was struck by how much has changed, how conscious people at the university are of Treaty history, of whose lands they are occupying. The presence of Indigenous culture is palpable. This province has an entirely different history. We are evolving our understanding of what sort of land acknowledgment we ought to be reciting before our own gatherings. There is considerable debate among Aboriginal peoples about what that acknowledgement should honour. Our history is as colonial as the rest of Canada, perhaps even more so, but the history of white settlement of Newfoundland and Labrador in relation to Aboriginal peoples is largely shrouded in ignominy or ignorance. We know we wiped out an entire tribe of Beothuks, but do not necessarily feel any shame or remorse for it. It happened too long ago and there are no conspicuous reminders of Aboriginal culture in our face. It’s different in Labrador, of course, where our Labrador Institute is embedded in the community, but our main campus is located here, not in the Big Land. The challenge upon is therefore huge, and so to return to the question raised earlier: what would indigenizing our academy look like?

Someone invited us to imagine a Canada that acknowledged more than “two founding nations” when we celebrate our 150th birthday. In that Forum not only could we imagine such a Canada but we recognized its necessity.

Memorial is committed to building an Aboriginal House on the St. John’s campus. After extensive consultation with the community we have the bold designs, and we are dreaming of its real and symbolic value. I am now more impatient than ever to see it materialize. We have come a long way since I first joined Memorial but we have a hell of a long way to go. The lasting effect of the Forum was that it compelled me to look at the academy—and the world at large for that matter—through a completely different lens, one that changes everything.