Monthly Archives: December 2014


It’s beginning to look a lot like Vancouver, said the saucy CBC reporter the other day. Works for me. Snow makes everything look pretty but ultimately I like my wreaths soggy.

Hard to believe that almost four months have flown by since I first came into the provost’s office—from Labour Day to Christmas in a flash. It’s true: time does fly when you’re having fun and I confess I have been. A lot of that has to do with feeling optimistic about Memorial and its future. So much is going on. We are rolling out the three university frameworks and the internationalization strategy is about to be launched. Enrolment planning has begun and we are considering new and improved ways of allocating budgets to the faculties. From the vantage point of this office all of this activity seems to cohere. It’s all about making things better, working in view of the change that needs to happen in some areas while strengthening what we do so well in others.

It’s a cliché that universities resist change, and there is a lot of truth to that, but change is also a principle of life, one that even rusty institutions are compelled to embrace at one time or another. We are in that moment now and I find it exciting. The sight of those massive new residences on the St. John’s campus is a satisfying measure of that change. Plans for a new state-of-the-art science building are well in hand, and once the sod turns on that dream we’ll start to experience the pleasure of anticipation. Indeed, in a decade or so the look and feel of the campus should be radically altered inside and out—for the better. A campus without a crane can be a pretty sorry place. Unlike the example of facelifts and Botox, changes to the physical landscape of the campus will signal the kind of changes happening within.

After four months, I think the most common question I get asked is not “can I please have some more money,” but “just what is a provost, anyway?” Well, the answer is right up there on the Memorial website, but the question keeps coming up because the position is still quite new to us, and, to be fair, the role is still evolving as the office lives it.

The Office of the Provost and Vice-President (Academic) has primary responsibility for academic matters, ultimately being responsible for the programs of some 18,000 undergraduate and graduate students across a wide range of disciplines. This position works in close collaboration with the other vice-presidents, deans and other members of the senior management team of the university.”

Any standard dictionary definition pretty much says the same–that the Provost occupies a significant role at the university: “An important role of the office is to align activities, operations, budget, policies, and administrative structures with the academic mission, strategic priorities and plans, and our frameworks Teaching and LearningResearch and Public Engagement.”

It’s all a mouthful and there are times I wish the job title could be closer to Google’s “Enlightenment Engineer,” otherwise known as the resident “Jolly Good Fellow.” True story. Leave it to Google to hire someone to encourage emotional intelligence. Universities think it’s a tacit part of our job description, but who among us couldn’t use a good crash course in the subject? Six weeks on what is commonly called Mindfulness should get us started. That’s not going to happen in my lifetime, sure, but I like the idea and sometimes I think the Office of the Provost is really all about developing emotional intelligence, whether in the job description or not.

In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the role of the provost speaks to an earlier incarnation as the keeper of the prison. Another early role is head of a chapter in a cathedral. Prisons and churches–earlier versions of the university, some might say. My favourite provost line from Shakespeare’s play is, “are you agreed?” I like the implied assent in the provost’s Elizabethan phrasing. I find myself asking a more colloquial version of it all the time. “You good with that?”

As for pronunciation, I notice confusion reigns. When I am out in the world I can hear a range of odd and incorrect applications. In Quebec, even in English-speaking Quebec, they pronounce it as “provo,” probably a holdover from the French “prévot.” I never know whether to correct or submit to such an abbreviated version in that moment. It’s as if they are talking about half an office. In North America, properly speaking, we should be including the final two consonants—the s and the t. In the UK, they also pronounce the whole word but they do something funny with the first syllable, the way the Prince of Wales might say it, more or less swallowing the syllable as if he had a bag of gauze in his mouth.

I don’t have a bag of gauze in my mouth. I do have a soggy wreath on my door. Like you, I am also looking forward to a few weeks without back-to-back meetings or obligations. I will be taking the time off from blogging, too, but intend to be back on the screen the week of January 5, recharged and refuelled—again, just like you.

Happy holidays to all. Mind your pronunciation, even when drinking. All the best for the new year!


I was just in Washington for a few days of meetings. Before they officially started I wandered over to the White House, as I always do, just to see what was going on. The tree was to be lit the next day by the President and his family and there was a lot of hustle and bustle as the viewing stands were being put in place. I saw more security around the perimeter than I had ever seen before, probably because of the tree lighting but especially because of that guy who jumped the fence and actually made his way to the Oval Office a little while ago. Hard to imagine how anyone could have done so. You can see in the picture above that a whole new secondary barrier has been set up around the grounds so that you can’t stick your hand through the iron fence and take an unobstructed shot anymore. This was as close as I could get without getting dirty looks.

I don’t know what it would be like to live in DC but I always love to visit, especially at this time of year. The trees are bare but the weather is temperate enough so that petunias can still grow outdoors in window boxes. And Christmas is ubiquitous. My hotel was only a block from the White House and along the way the windows were festooned with creative seasonal decoration, original and elaborate.

What did I learn in Washington, DC this time? Well, one of the conference plenary sessions featured a bit of improvisational theatre. Two female actors took to the stage. One was white, the other African-American. The white woman played the role of a psychology professor who was mentoring the woman of colour. The presentation was structured into three distinct bits. In the first meeting, Professor Reade, as she was called, was welcoming and encouraging, advising new entry Danielle on what to expect in her first year of graduate school.  Danielle, in turn, was enthusiastic and hopeful. That said, the encounter ended just a little weirdly with Professor Reade drifting off into her own happy but self absorbed memory of graduate school. The actors then performed another meeting, six months down the road. Professor Reade seemed a bit less patient this time, displaying all the signs of a stressed-out academic, rushed for time and, if well intentioned, conveying a bit of disappointment in Danielle’s performance to date. The third meeting, six months later, again, was clearly the least comfortable.  Professor Reade pretty much discouraged Danielle from her wish to pursue a doctoral program, and even suggested a colleague at Johns Hopkins had already taken up her research idea. By this point, Danielle was conspicuously joyless, uncertain about her future and even less sure of her footing with her mentor.

After each of these scenes, the audience was asked to line up at the microphone to ask the actors questions about what they had just seen: how did Professor Reade make you feel when she said….  Did you become discouraged as a student? That sort of thing. Playing in character right to the end, the performers defended or responded to what they were being asked, their answers being totally consistent with the characters we had just witnessed them acting out.  Most of the questions took the form of aggressive critical comments about Professor Reade, with the assembled 700 or so of us in the room largely united in our disapproval of the mentor’s behaviour and demeanor.  I even started to feel a little sorry for her fictional character. How weird is that?

But the more we all became complicit in this reality theatre game the more uncomfortable I got. When one of the questioners asked Professor Reade how many black women she was mentoring the whole room took a turn. The rest of the discussion directly or indirectly identified race as the defining and unspoken element in the mentor-student relationship. That’s when you know you’re not in Canada anymore, that you are visiting a country still deeply mired in the struggle of race relations. What to me had at first looked and sounded like a novel way to demonstrate the perils of mentoring, even subtle and unintentional ones, became a much larger discussion about what black students encounter “all the time” on white-majority US campuses. My first impression had been pretty colour blind–by habit, nationality, experience (or inexperience), and, possibly, naivety. But to my American colleagues the relationship had already been determined by the sheer fact of racial difference. I wondered whether the whole scenario might have been read differently if the roles had been reversed, and the prof-mentor had been black. To be fair, that reversal would have misrepresented the fact of US campuses where only between 4-6% of the full-time professoriate are black. Indeed, in the very room of about 700 profs and deans who were participating in the improv theatre plenary I would guess I could count only about 25 of colour, at barely 3%, a far cry from the percentage of the population as a whole.

While we were watching and responding to the performance, African Americans were gathering all over the US to march in protest against the justice system’s decision not to indict the officer who sure looked as if he had choke-held Eric Garner on Staten Island. And they were marching in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, Missouri, and with the family of that 12-year old boy brandishing a toy gun on a playground in Cleveland. I knew those protesters were heading eventually to the White House and the tree-lighting ceremony, but I wasn’t surprised to learn they didn’t get close to Obama, not with all the security I had seen the day before. They did manage to shut down giant swaths of Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues through sheer force of numbers, however.

Around 9 pm that evening, several dozen of those protesters entered our hotel lobby, the Grand Hyatt, and proceeded to call for justice and peace, rhythmically shouting that “This is what democracy looks like.” Hard to argue with that. They assembled for about ten minutes before security warned them the police were on their way, at which point they exited back onto the chilly streets through the revolving doors.

I left Washington the next morning, escorted to the airport by an African American cab driver. Yes, all the cab drivers taking me to and fro over the last few days in DC had been black, as were all the wait staff in the restaurants and the housekeeping staff at the hotel. On the morning I left, former DC Mayor Marion Barry’s body was being taken to rest in state so that residents could pay tribute to an esteemed and beloved civil rights leader. Sure, he had been caught smoking crack cocaine in 1990 (what popular mayor hasn’t?), but his legacy as a passionate and committed two-time mayor had triumphed over those charges. Among the high profile speakers at his funeral was the reliably outspoken religious leader Louis Farrakhan who recalled an interview by a reporter after Barry had been charged for his crack escapade. How do you feel about a man who broke his marriage vows and used drugs, Farrakhan said the reporter asked him. Who are you talking about, he countered. John F. Kennedy? So endeth that interview!

I almost always learn something while I lose a little Canadian innocence when I am in the US, both at these scheduled conference meetings and at all the unscheduled stuff well beyond them.


Ring out the old, ring in the new…it’s that time of year, or so Tennyson wrote more than a hundred and fifty years ago. Two events on the St. John’s campus last week reinforced that old adage. The snapshot above is of those gathering together for a reception for MUNPA, the Pensioners’ Association folks who have been marking the season for some four years now with special tributes to members who have made extraordinary contributions in retirement. I could not have been more pleased to do the hosting duties on behalf of a busy MUN president, because the two Tribute Award recipients this year are outstanding examples of post-retirement life. Drs. Jean Briggs  (Anthropology) and Evan Simpson (Philosophy) were recognized fulsomely by MUNPA for having honoured the association and the entire university community with ongoing commitment to and passion for pensioners’ issues. Lots of familiar friends and colleagues filled the seasonally decorated Senior Common Room as we paid tribute to these two remarkable people. Neither has skipped a beat since retirement, researching, publishing, serving on committees, and inspiring those of us on this side of the retirement horizon to consider the future as a continuum, not a radical break from all that we are doing now.

You couldn’t find more dissimilar individuals, however, in the decked-out hall. Evan Simpson is famously thoughtful, measured, and deliberate in his expression. You might have to wait a few seconds but when he delivers you know you are getting something good, likely an angle on something you had not considered. Working with and for him was always a privileged experience. You always learned something. Jean Briggs is much snappier, quick to thrust and parry, playful and brilliant. I couldn’t help but observe that when I first arrived at Memorial several decades ago she “scared the hell out of me,” to which she quickly responded, “did she tell me to get the hell out of here?” That’s Jean—feisty, indomitable, still kicking.

Despite the opening words of this blog, it’s really not appropriate to say the event rang out the old—it was more about celebrating the living, the active, the perpetually engaged. That kind of energy and commitment is always in fashion.

But to continue with Tennyson’s famous imperative, for the moment, the other event of the week certainly stressed the new—or at least new graduates of Memorial, and new entrants to the workforce. You may have read just a few days ago about the findings of a study commissioned by the University of Ottawa. Researcher and U of O labour economist Dr. Ross Finnie and his team have been tracking the employment earnings of U of O grads over the last thirteen years. They did this by linking U of O data to Statistics Canada data. The results are astonishingly hopeful, and, among lots of other things, help to dispel a lot of myths about the earning power of, say, arts faculty grads. At Ottawa, in any case, he shows that after about five years of employment, all fields –and I do mean all—are averaging just about the same amount of annual income. There is a lot of nuance to the picture, and I urge anyone who might be interested to visit this site and read the longer, albeit dense, papers:

Dr. Finnie is aiming to build a national picture, extending out from the U of O study. His work—all of it strictly confidential, safe and identity protected–deflates a lot of thin, made-up, and anecdotal rhetoric, and instead provides deep fact-bound evidence of where students end up after graduation and way beyond. Memorial is one of the few institutions to have signed Finnie up pretty quickly after learning of his work a few months ago. After his results were summarized in the Globe and Mail and other higher-ed publications last week I suspect a lot more institutions will want to come on board. So it is that we have more than a foot in the door; we have our whole bodies over the threshold. On Friday, Finnie flew to St John’s with his colleagues to meet all the appropriate people at MUN—the data folks, senior leaders, and so on. Here he is speaking to us in full expressive mode, the beginning of a day of conversation and terrific questions. We are all keen on using the data to tell us everything we need to understand and plan for the future.

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I am pretty confident that Finnie’s team will come up with some pretty useful findings for us—and for the College of the North Atlantic who have also signed up. Indeed, between the two institutions we have the whole post-secondary-ed scene of the province covered, a “pure” heavenly research field for the likes of a data miner like Finnie.

And so it was a week both of honouring those who have left the workplace and of exploring the pathways and earnings of those who are just entering it. It’s heartening to see both sides of the career spectrum when the stories are so affirming, to be sure.

Tennyson began with ringing out the old and ringing in the new but he concluded his hymn with “Ring out the false, ring in the true.” Now that’s a command all ages can live by.