Category Archives: Uncategorized


After taking an extended break from this blogspace I am back for 2018. It was not so much time that prevented me from writing my weekly pieces last fall as much as a need to help reduce the clamor of words. It seemed that by the end of 2017 there was just so much noise in the atmosphere, so much rage and frustration, so much opinion about everything and anything, that I lost all desire to contribute to it. The noise and the barking haven’t stopped, of course. The only real way not to hear any of it is to withdraw from social media and the endless stream of bloviating commentary that flows on to the screen from news feeds. I’m not ready for that. I am not ready for a hermetic existence, likely never will be. There’s just too much going on to attend to, but it is a racket out there:  too many words are on bust and being depleted of their meaning. An alternative is to stem, not stop, the flow, and so like a lot of other people, I am constantly working on that. I do think about not checking in on Twitter ever again, but, let’s get real, that’s not going to happen anymore than we will cease being dependent on technology.

2017, as many noted over the holidays, was a pretty crappy and confusing year—often demoralizing or soul-crushingly spiraling in the wrong direction. If I were going really new age about it, I’d say there’s something about an odd-numbered year that puts everything askew. 2018 just sounds more confident. It already feels more stable and sure of itself. Oprah Winfrey delivering a spirited, moving, eloquent speech at the Golden Globes awards show about the pursuit of equality and truth could not have happened in 2017. CNN host Jake Tapper abruptly turning away from a deranged White House staffer interview before a live audience of millions did not happen in 2017, either. Maybe the people have had enough of it. Maybe, we all had to endure the moral sink hole of 2017 to get to the 2018 state of bold resistance. Maybe, at the very least, the pendulum will start to swing back from hysteria to a calmer approach to world problems. Maybe is at least better than never.

There sure was a lot of noise about the health of post-secondary education in 2017. There’s no hard consensus about what needs fixing or how, but we can say that more and more people are seeking higher degrees, even if universities are struggling with what the ideal set of curricula offerings should be in a rapidly changing world. Universities have a difficult challenge keeping pace with that change, and many would argue we shouldn’t even be trying to keep up—that adjusting to the times is a kind of unprincipled accommodation. But what if we stopped thinking about accommodation in this respect as a bad thing and started thinking instead about how to strengthen the mission of education to encourage more critical thinking. By this, I mean encouraging more informed critique of all the social formations and pressures that beset us and threaten our very survival, not only as institutions of higher learning but of the planet itself. We should be insisting on our value as sites of debate and new knowledge, embracing the citizen’s hunger for respectful conversations and for real-world solutions.

Sadly, in 2017, universities, largely because of the exaggerated rhetoric of both social and conventional media, have become objects of derision by those too eager to do away with them altogether. Debates about freedom of expression have often been hijacked for right-wing and populist political agendas. Yes, therein lie several contradictions. Much of the environmental noise I mention above flowed from these angry confrontations about who has the right to speak and who, in turn, is silenced when only some voices are privileged. Meanwhile, there are very real instances of oppression and silencing—with violent consequences– in other corners of the world, far from the media’s attention or my own news feeds. I’d eagerly attend to someone criticizing our universities for not paying enough attention to such oppression, instead of mocking us for insisting on gender neutral pronouns.

Fighting our tendency to identify ourselves only with people who think like us should be one of the projects of a university education, hard to do in the reproductive bubbles created by technologically enabled devices. Everyone is talking to or texting everyone else who thinks just like they do. As with many of my colleagues, I came to understand that my own experience of undergraduate and graduate education was advanced considerably by the introduction of new ways of thinking—and ultimately of being shaken from received wisdom or inherited dogma. That kind of disruptive experience should continue throughout one’s life, if one were open to it.

I’m not the kind of person who makes new year’s resolutions, but I do feel considerably better about 2018 than I did about 2017, hopeful that there will be more listening, compassion, understanding and empathy in this harsh, messy often angry world. Perhaps that’s just irrational, but going back to the sullen mood of 2017 is simply not an option.



In the nineteenth century, the term dashboard literally described the board mounted in front of a driver to prevent muck and mud being “dashed” up on him by the horses drawing his carriage forward. At some point in the twentieth century the term was carried over to the instrument or control panel of automobiles and it has stayed there ever since. The first car dashboards were relatively simply, indicating the fuel level and oil pressure. Today’s dashboards are much busier. In addition to the fundamental gauges they now come complete with warning lights, seat belt alerts, sophisticated temperature controls, and lots of other stuff I scarcely pay attention to. Sometimes I just want to check how much gas I’ve got in the tank but my eyes are diverted to other flashy indicators providing information I really don’t care about in that moment. Still, I’m glad the dashboard has all that stuff going on, should I have to figure something out or be alerted to some imminent danger.

In the twenty-first century, the term dashboard has carried over into yet another sphere of activity: information technology. We are still talking about a kind of control panel that organizes information, and so the term remains relevant. As with the car dashboard, the information dashboard offers a lot of information at a glance.  I am kind of tickled that the provost’s office now has one of these, and you can find it here:

As you can see, the information gathered for your viewing pleasure is organized into three categories: student success and enrolment, inclusiveness and diversity, and academic complement. All the information will be updated regularly, of course. What’s really neat about the dashboard is that it is interactive. Just hover over one of the lines on the graphs or the data points and even more information, specific and useful, is revealed.

Mark Twain famously popularized the phrase “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Sure, we get that, but post-secondary education is increasingly challenged to explain how our activities are aligned with our strategic directions. A dashboard is one way of telling a story about who we are, what we are doing, and whether we are going in the right direction. It should not be that much of a surprise, for instance, that the “student success and enrolment” panel indicates a trend to decreasing undergraduate enrollment over the last five years. But the real numbers are right there in front of you to give evidence of that impression. We have become more diverse and international but we are not attracting as many Newfoundland students as we might be. That information should be guiding our conversations about where we are going for the next few years, especially in tough budgeting times.

I am especially grateful to the MarComm team for helping develop the dashboard. It’s the beginning of what I hope to be an even more elaborate but accessible picture of who we are and what we do. Right now I believe we are driving a high-performing Toyota but eventually we aim to get behind the wheel of a Ferrari. I welcome feedback about what other sets of data you would like to see on the control panel.






MUN Students

This week we are launching a new initiative aimed at improving the quality of student experience at Memorial. The program is called Student Success Collaborative (SSC), a title coined by a Washington-based group, the Education Advisory Board (EAB). Over 2000 post-secondary education institutions in the USA and Canada subscribe to the EAB, including, McGill, Alberta, UBC, and, yes, Memorial. EAB is a hugely rich resource of information about post-secondary trends, realities and challenges. Hundreds have signed up for their SSC program, which has a proven student success track record, although Memorial will be the first Canadian university to have done so. We’re excited about that alone.

Student success is a buzzword, yes, but try finding something to replace it. What’s important is that we now all understand it means the whole experience of learning, not just what happens (or doesn’t) in the classroom/offline course. How do we achieve it, though?

The SSC kick-off event was attended by about 100 people, maybe more—students, staff, administrators, and faculty who had been invited specifically to hear a lucid, inspiring presentation from the Washington folks who comprise our team of advisors. Following SSC best practices, we have already formed leadership teams to help guide the implementation of the program. A lot of people have come on board in the last six months or so since we first started talking about the project. It’s not been a secret: Senate and other working committees all across the university have been informed about it. But finally getting to see a full demo of the potential benefits of the SSC was both instructive and deeply satisfying. The project won’t work if people don’t recognize what value it has for Memorial, and so the more people who know about it and can commit to it the better. Everyone is and must be included.

The Student Success Collaborative will enhance the Memorial University student experience by empowering students to thrive and succeed through personalized supports and resources tailored to meet their needs. 

That’s our elevator pitch, so to speak. Sure, it’s bit of a mouthful, but it’s not that easy coming up with one. Anyhow, emphasis is on “personalized supports.” More specifically, we are building customized technologies—what SSC calls Guides, you call Apps—to communicate with our students, especially first-year, to ensure they know how to blaze a safe and navigable path to graduation. Where do they go for advice, academic or financial or both? What do they need to do to pass a course, confront mental health challenges, declare a major, switch their major, and so on? Those of us who haven’t been students for far too long can easily forget just how difficult it is to find support services, or even to find an advisor on campus. The SSC creates two technology platforms, not just the customized student mobile-phone platform Guide, but also a desktop platform for faculty and staff. The two-pronged approach will help intergrade information, and, importantly, help us integrate the work of the many people who advise and support students at Memorial.

Fact is, we are losing too many undergraduate students annually. Every university lives with its low or declining retention rates these days, but we don’t want to be “every university.” We want to ensure we are really committing ourselves to improving the student experience at Memorial. Why do so many students leave after first or second year? There are many reasons, we know: financial burdens, personal crisis, poor performance, alienation, boredom, illness, you name it. All of this should invite us to focus on how we can ensure students progress in their programs with all the supports they need to achieve their goals. Students who just don’t feel that university is the right fit for them will choose another path, and we understand that, wish them well. But for those who want to stay and can’t seem to get back on the right track we should be especially concerned, then attentive and finally as helpful as possible.

I have to say I am really looking forward to seeing these platforms developed and implemented, and ultimately being able to gauge whether we have found useful, healthy ways of satisfying our commitment to student success. The SSC promises to inspire engagement by the whole university. It will dig deep into how our students achieve their degrees and deliver a lot of useful data for all of us. Like it or not, we need that information to do a better job of it. As I said at the kick-off session, the SSC more or less answers a 21st century provost’s dreams.


I’m back—not that I ever went away. Summer was too short, as always. I took a few breaks from the routine for my mental and physical health. I still ended up with pneumonia, but the commonplace is that you tend to get sick after letting go a little. Apparently, that’s when the body gives permission to stop stressing. Pausing on this blog was one of those temporarily relaxed activities.

A few weeks ago, a colleague asked me if I was going to return to writing the blog. She said she always liked hearing what was “happening from Fort Knox.” Amusing. I suppose it must look like Fort Knox from beyond my office walls, although often it feels more like the Alamo. But her remarks underscore the persistent importance of communication. It’s a tired observation, I know, but you can’t ever say, explain, or be transparent enough. It’s always true when you’re teaching, but the truism also extends to colleagues, staff, and faculty. It’s too easy to think people know what you’re thinking or have a clue about where you’re coming from, but here, inside the Fort, it is also easy to forget that they don’t. Things are not as bad as they were for the poor, hapless J. Alfred Prufrock who lamented about it being impossible to say just what he meant. But one should be mindful of the need to communicate about what’s on the go as often as possible. A blogspace is one such opportunity to do so.

On the subject of communication, I wish to boast that Memorial has become a founding partner of a non-profit journalism site, Check it out.  Last year, a couple of enterprising faculty members at UBC pitched the idea of national media outlet for scholars and academics to the funding agency, SSHRC, and happily received $200,000 and a green light. They then pitched, in turn, to Canadian universities to sign up as major supporting partners of this initiative. This was an offer about which I had no hesitation. The Conversation, as the platform is called, speaks directly to my personal commitment to the value of knowledge translation. I had already been following notices from the UK site, pursuing items of interest written by UK-based academics as they fell across my screen. The Conversation actually began as a network in Australia in 2011, and has been spreading to national sites across the globe ever since. It was time Canada stepped up.

It’s a hugely attractive model. The published pieces span the whole spectrum of research topics and appear on each country’s website, but a Creative Commons license makes them available at no cost for anyone to read or reproduce. The creators of the site claim that in other countries where the site has been in operation for a few years almost 80% of the audience is actually non-academic. There’s a deep hunger in our society for clear, articulate communication of complex issues. Perhaps no further proof of this was evident just last week when homeboy and well-known author and journalist Gwynn Dyer came to town to deliver the J.K. Galbraith Lecture. Organizers had initially booked a modestly sized recital hall in the music building, but when tickets started flying off the screen they realized they had to increase the capacity. Dyer ultimately delivered his spiel to over 900 people at the St. John’s Convention Centre, surely a sign of the public’s insatiable appetite for digestible insight and commentary on our sorry world’s state of affairs.

The Conversation is surely a project for 21st century educators. If you are working on a theme or subject you think the public should know about, this “exploratory journalism” site offers the fastest, most elegant way of disseminating your findings. If you go to the site right now you will see a feature article on the fabulous new HBO show, The Deuce, titled “Porn, Nostalgia, and Late Capitalism.” You don’t have to be a film studies scholar to follow the essay, and you will be deliciously tempted to watch the show if you haven’t already done so. Just scroll down the list of contemporary topics all written by Canadian academics. For me, the whole concept is a dream come true. And bravo to SSHRC for supporting this project. It’s exactly what they’ve been urging scholars in Canada to do: communicate widely and clearly with the Canadian reading public.

As the founding directors make clear, the timing of The Conversation could not be better. Print media is struggling to survive, the public broadcaster is working through its own contradictions as both a source of enlightened commentary and a destination for entertainment, and the public is starved for intelligent conversation. The Conversation covers every possible discipline and topic on the intelligence spectrum, and so there’s no excuse for not participating, as a reader or as a contributor. I would really love it if Memorial students and staff started to populate the site with articles on whatever they are passionate about and actively working on.

Please take a few seconds and go directly to and sign up. It costs you nothing and you will get a useful, daily update on what’s new on the site. There is almost always something I want to follow up on. Getting those daily alerts is so much more satisfying than the ones that keep annoying me from Memorial helped make The Conversation happen. Now we have to ensure it thrives.







Blog 77

I have been away from the blogspace for a few weeks, perhaps for obvious reasons. May has been a wild ride so far, but I share with most members of the university community in the relief that the ride is going from warp to coasting speed for now. We have had some of the liveliest public discussions in a long while, and one should always welcome that opportunity, not fear or shy away from it. Debate is always necessary and good, if not always as graceful as we would like. It has ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime, animated by the pernicious reductionism of social media, driven by the sound-bite culture of modern media in general, and informed throughout by a strong current of anxiety here and elsewhere because we—Memorial and this province–have huge economic challenges.

Although much of the public banter has seen me at its centre—convenient for protesters and the gaping maw of media—and as personalizing and exaggerated as that coverage has and even continues to be, I have to say that I am deeply appreciative of lessons learned on this journey. No one has ever accused me of not having a sense of humour. That trait—gratefully acquired from my courageous dad—and the persistent, steady wave of support I have received in the last few weeks have buoyed me through some pretty dark moments. Now it’s time to give thanks.

And so, thanks to the Memorial Board of Regents, now comprising old and new members, who have shown care and caution throughout every minute of our deliberations. The BoR is deeply committed to Memorial and its future, to our students and their well-being. Members of the Board have persistently questioned and challenged the senior administration on our expenditures and our transparency—always respectfully and with intelligent, reasoned understanding of the complexity of both the institution and this historical moment. Thanks to the Chair for her courage, generosity, and sensitivity. Thanks all of you for your dedication and wisdom, and especially for always keeping students first and foremost in your sights.

Thanks to my colleagues at the leadership tables, especially the vice presidents, deans, and directors with whom I have worked so closely these last few weeks. I appreciate the commitment to team work, focus, and purposefulness of our shared efforts. None of us works alone. Thanks to MarComm for all your insight and good guidance. And thanks to the president for enduring his own huge share of the burden, for always showing confidence in the team and, most importantly, Memorial’s future well-being.

Thanks to Senate and the Planning and Budget Committee of Senate for the wisdom, respect, and engagement throughout the budget proposal process. Our governance processes are strong and necessary, and they are well in place to handle exactly the kind of exercise we have just experienced, albeit in a necessarily compressed time frame.

Thanks to the protesters who are keeping the spirit of resistance alive. I might not always appreciate the full-bore oppositional approach, but I was a student activist once, too, and understand the rage and frustration that fuel it. I also totally applaud the right and need to resist. Thanks for reminding me that an admittedly foolish, if totally honest, few moments of face-making reaction to a call to fire the president, can, indeed, go viral in our age. That gave the media a lot of useful filler, too, for which, I am sure, they are grateful. Thanks, especially, for reminding me what hateful demonizing, misogynistic, profane sites Twitter and Facebook can be. Twitter is especially forceful in turning a phrase or image into an opportunity for a vitriolic outpouring of hate, and for quick, censorious judgement. My inbox has never been so full of venom. (Mostly) male students/strangers from as far away as the USA have written me directly for me to resign or drop dead, whichever comes first—a useful reminder of the anti-women aggression that persists in our culture like a very bad smell. It is always wise to be mindful of it, as well as the nagging theme that, as some have put it to me directly, I am “not really from here.”

Thanks to the many students both current and former who have written me to express support of the university’s proposals in general and of me in particular. Eloquently written emails and texts of such support have helped dull the harshness of the attacks and the crude, personal denunciations, giving me perspective and reassurance. Thanks especially to those student leaders who have approached me personally and respectfully to share their own views, often in disagreement with dominant voices around them. That has taken a lot of courage, to put it mildly, and many of us respect and admire you for possessing it.

Finally, and with a lot of love in my heart, thanks to all the friends, feminists, my staff, colleagues, and community members who have written and continue to send me messages of courage. The day of the Board of Regents meeting I received a fruit basket from a retired colleague and his wife, with a card that said “Stay Strong.” Such profoundly human gestures have moved me to my core, reminding me what a wonderful community we belong to, how much we need each other, especially in hard times. Never has the cliché of strength in numbers seemed more real or meaningful. I have every confidence that Memorial will continue to thrive while ably serving the people of this province and beyond. For all of this I am grateful.










Yes, April is the cruelest month of 2017—so far. It’s been almost exactly a year since I ranted in this space about the 2016 budget and the cuts government then asked us to take over four years. Those cuts amounted to almost 25 million dollars. This is happening. But I am not going to rant here and now. It’s tempting, but where is that going to get me? The province is in deep demoralizing trouble. Almost everyone I speak to inside and beyond the university is discouraged. Friends and colleagues across the country are sending me sympathy cards.

Our office has just come through several days of budget planning, as deans and academic support unit directors presented how they were coping with the deep cuts to their operations. Most of those presentations were delivered last week right before this year’s budget was read in the House of Assembly. Now we can add another 6.5 million dollars to the overall cuts—for this year alone. Despite what you might be hearing from various sources outside the university, the math is easy: we are absorbing $5.4 million this year. Add that to the fresh wound of $6.5. As I just said, that’s just for this year. More cuts have been determined over the next two years, at least.


Memorial’s budget is largely tied up in salaries, as much as 95% of operations in some units. That doesn’t leave room for much else. Challenged with balancing a budget with $11.9 million less—for this year alone—it is no wonder that we must ask some tough questions. Our mission first and foremost is education—to provide learners with the best possible environment in which they can shape their lives. Look around. The physical plant is in rough shape in all but the newest structures. Our rating on the facilities risk index is abominable—hazardous in some areas. When we do not have the means even to patch, let alone restore and renew our teaching spaces then what are we do?

So that’s the bricks and mortar. What about the demand for wider, faster broadband capacity across all our campuses? That costs big bucks. You can’t see those costs but we sure depend on that service. Because it’s 2017.

Consider the demands on our academic programs. We are obliged to honour accreditation standards in our professional programs, for starters. Do we stop training nurses and social workers because we no longer have enough staff to deliver those programs? What happens when units can’t replace their computers or upgrade their software? What do we do about our online delivery of courses and programs if the lines can’t actually be “on”? How can music students learn to perform when the pianos can’t be tuned or there’s no money to replace the lights in the recital halls? How do we honour our commitment to the growth in our engineering programs if the promise of strategic investment has been withheld?

If we can no longer afford to hire permanent faculty then we are compelled to resort to enlarging the precariat. Will those we can and do wish to recruit find us to be leading edge enough? Is there enough support for establishing a sustained research program? Teaching and research require a strong library. With the rising cost of foreign exchange rates for journals and monographs over the last few years, our wonderful library system is confronting some serious choices. Where does one find the resources necessary to maintain the library’s long-standing reputation? How can we compete with other universities when hiring scientists if we can’t support the start of their research projects?

Everything is now on the table, because it has to be. On the 24th we are holding a special meeting of Senate to help set that table for the future. Right now, it is really important to know the facts. Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Ask questions. Demand transparency. Participate in the future of this university. It’s all we got.





Quebec politics are brutal. I grew up there, cut my teeth on the Quebec media and the tumult of language debates, sovereignty movements, and the obsessive interest in professional sports teams. I get the passion urban Quebecers especially have for good food, late nights, and anything that promotes social cohesion. I also get the sensitivity to perceived threats to that cohesion. And so it is not that surprising to me that Andrew Potter stepped down as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada after writing an article for Maclean’s that accused Quebec of alienation, among other morale-challenging traits. He wrote the column in a fit of pique after a particularly brutal snow storm that left two people dead and hundreds of people stranded in their cars on a highway, not a snow plough in sight.

It may or may not soon become clear that Dr. Potter was actually asked to step down by the principal of McGill, Dr. Suzanne Fortier. The response to Dr. Potter’s resignation has generated a fair bit of outrage among the chattering class. How, one might ask, can a published opinion piece, even a grumpy, snarky one, justify an administrator resigning—or being encouraged to resign—from his position. The tipping point in this unraveling narrative was the (official) McGill tweet firmly stating that the “views expressed by @JAndrewPotter in the @Macleansmag article do not represent those of #McGill.” Ouch. One can only imagine the conversation among senior administrators and communications staff that led to that tweet—a seriously misguided gesture if ever there were one. Who honestly thought that was a good idea? How could anyone reading Dr. Potter’s Maclean’s piece honestly think it was a formal expression of McGill University? The McGill tweet betrays a defensiveness unbecoming the institution. That’s the sort of reaction a US president shamelessly demonstrates on his smart [sic] phone these days. It is not a big leap to see the McGill tweet not only as institutional distancing but also as censoring, a thinly veiled challenge to academic freedom itself.

I know of many journalists and colleagues of Dr. Potter across the country who are really distressed by this turn of events, and I should think we haven’t heard the last of it. It will be really interesting to see how the McGill board of trustees will be dealing with the matter—that is, if their deliberations ever lead to a public statement. It would be a pretty bold move for a board to question the head of the university, especially if she did, indeed, insist on Dr. Potter’s resignation.

This is the sort of event that sends chills up our spines. I have done my share of opinion pieces over several decades, not the least of which have appeared in this blogspace. Before I became an academic administrator, I published more than one brassy column about government, arts funding, social priorities, and so on. Not once did anyone at Memorial ever so much as suggest I should tone down the provocation. As a dean, I started a blog while entirely mindful that my voice was no longer fully my own, that my title now assumed a more institutional perspective, not just a personal one. Many people have asked me over the years about how I balance personal and professional voices. I do not have an easy answer, and I do not always manage that balance gracefully. I do know that now, as provost and VP, I censor myself a hell of a lot more than I’d like. But that’s the reality of any serious leadership position. I can’t be out here railing all the time against what bugs me. Some of it is just too personal or sensitive. Any writer might ask herself, how to be bold and provocative while being fair and honest? It’s delicate. Being too safe is dull and boring; being too loud brings on the backlash and the trolling. I respect but cannot abuse academic freedom.

In any event, if I ever thought this university would follow one of my columns with a tweet along the lines of “the views expressed by @ngolfman do not represent those of #Memorial” I’d have to think twice about the whole bloody works—about being in the job, about writing, about expressing myself—and I’d probably be looking for something else to do. Right now, Dr. Potter is probably asking himself, what next?


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.



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!



‘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.