Monthly Archives: June 2015

 

BlogJune29

That’s a shot of the old city of Lyon, France, midday, warm and medieval. My husband and I just returned from a two-week adventure in various parts of glorious France. He did his graduate work in Paris and so has always held France to be a kind of second national home. Besides, he has to be rushed to a plate of foie gras every now and then. I grew up in Montreal and so France was always close to mind and language ability, as well. We return to the country that gave us about 400 smelly cheeses as much as we can. But this was my first visit to Lyon, a large beautiful city marked by two large meandering rivers that flow through its centre and define its character and history. You could easily spend a lot of time in Lyon, particularly if you like to eat. It’s the gastronomic capital of the country, if not the world, and boasts more fabulous food on every street than anywhere else I have ever been. You eat and walk, then eat some more. Amazing what capacity one has when the temptations are ubiquitous.

To put it mildly, it was a bit of an inconvenient time to go on a long scheduled holiday, what with budget discussions and general budget noise all around us, and so I maintained about a thirty email-a-day ritual and called in several times to participate in important meetings. All play and no work leaves one disconnected and anxious. I don’t feel as if I missed anything except bad weather and a few stories about moose accidents and memory loss.

While in France, I naturally looked into costs of tuition in the public system. As I already knew, fees are pretty low, supplemented by taxes on the citizens. France has a highly centralized, highly regulated education system, with a largely common curriculum. Hard to imagine such a system in Canada. There are many things one can criticize about the French system, especially its rigid regulatory framework, but you have to admire the degree of state investment in a highly educated public. Napoleon figured that out, and everyone since has maintained the principle. That progressive reality aside, there remains an awful lot of racist and xenophobic blather in the air, especially as more and more immigrants keeps choosing to leave the Middle East and North Africa and relocate where they can get work in France. One need only follow French politics for a short while to be exposed to thriving extremes of ideology. Some of it is pretty ugly. We have our share of it in Canada, too, but it tends to be buried or hidden. In France it’s all out there, along with lavender and art deco street signs.

Time to get back to work– to juvenile and uninformed media articles about MUN’s budget, and to parking woes, condemned pedways, and asbestos abatement. We have enshrined holiday time as a worker’s right for good reason.  In France, people pretty much take the whole hot month of August off from work. A lot of people think academics are “off” all summer, which can make you crazy.  The best time to leave this province is May or June, when the promise of spring is a sick joke. Returning to late-blooming lilacs and just-fading tulips, and with all of summer spread out before us, feels, as Goldilocks would say, just right.

 

 

Dr. Golfman will be away from the office and the blog for two weeks. Stay tuned for her next post the week of Monday, June 29.

Blog June 8

That’s Ottawa at sunset last week. They have real spring there. Just sayin’. Although I was in the nation’s capital and then Vancouver last week for two sets of meetings, my mind was pretty much taken up with our current budget challenges. I did a fair job, I think, of pretending to listen to various presentations and lectures while emailing various discussion points back home. As I write this, I must insist that the whole picture has not yet come together. We know what government has taken from our base budget and what they consider to be one-time sacrifice, but the business of managing the consequences falls on the university and it is that project to which so many of us have been dedicated for several weeks now.

For anyone interested in learning the facts, we have put together some information about Memorial’s budget process and made it available online at http://www.mun.ca/vpc/budgetupdate2015-16.php.

Of course, when something like this budget crunch thing happens everyone is an expert: administrative types like me, the collective bargaining units, students, the public, and the predictable class of trolls who comment in poor English and with misplaced apostrophes on any web site available to them. There’s too much evidence of MUN-bashing out there but one has to take it in stride in a consider-the-source sort of way. I try not to let that stuff get to me, but I do wonder what dark wells of spite and meanness it all comes from.

Students are especially clamoring to get their complaints about possible tuition hikes in as wide circulation as possible. As I have said before, I don’t blame them one bit. Sometimes the rhetoric is too exaggerated and dramatic for my ears, but it’s all part of the public relations game, if sometimes a skewed and misrepresented one. And the media are only too happy to fill their air and print space with accounts of MUN crisis and turmoil. It sure beats the endless reporting about degenerates at the courthouse or the size of potholes on Kenmount Road. I have been working in and with media for too long to get too worked up about quotations used out of context, hurriedly written stories, and fairly incorrect citing of the facts, but one tries to get the best and most accurate account in front of reporters and hopes for the best. Sometimes, too often, colleagues who say stupid stuff dispirit me, but then I am sure they feel the same about me.

Frankly, I do believe that the debate, if that’s what we can call the noisy chatter and ongoing commentary about the provincial budget cuts to Memorial, is healthy, Internet trolls notwithstanding. Citizens inside and beyond the institution should be asking how we deploy the generous grants the province gives Memorial; if there are better ways of running a complex post secondary institution such as this then let’s talk about them, with the facts, and without false assumptions and self-serving generalizations. If there are silver linings here they lie in the forced recognition of potential savings, in admitting where there are areas of administrative excess and potential savings. I do believe that in the long run we will improve how we do our work at Memorial, compelled as we are to trim as much as possible without undermining the integrity of our core mission and purpose. Not easy but necessary.

One question that rarely gets raised in all the clamor and banter is just what kind of university does the province want? I often like to point to the German example where tuition is, except for some modest fees, free to domestic and international students alike. The same can be said of Norway and Sweden. But who is paying for those students’ “right” to a free education? Who do you think? Tax payers. Norway, Sweden, and Germany have high tax regimes—and high costs of living. Those countries are, to date, more than willing to support an educated, highly skilled generation of learners well into the future. Either you admire that or you don’t buy it at all.

Would we be willing to do the same thing? Would Newfoundlanders? Why am I skeptical? I don’t see our elected officials even remotely hinting at the possibility. Perhaps because they know the electorate wouldn’t entertain the Norwegian/Swedish/German alternative. Personally, I would be happy to have my taxes raised to pay for every single student at Memorial, domestic and beyond, but am I in a minority? And if Newfoundlanders aren’t willing to subsidize university—and college—students fully, then just how much should students (and their families) have to share in the costs of running the place, of delivering the programs and keeping the place warm and safe and 21st century research-ready? If a free tuition model isn’t possible then how much is too much?

Further, do the citizens of the province want Memorial to be an important site of research and scholarship, generating new ideas and creative solutions to local and global problems in the 21st century, or would they be happy to downsize to a smaller polytechnic school, perhaps a liberal arts college? Do we want Memorial to be a distinguished university or just a mediocre ho hum one? It would be good to know so we could get on with the business of planning the future.

Let’s not kid ourselves. We are looking squarely at a 20 million, possibly even a 40 million dollar budget cut, most of that to the base. We have to absorb that deep cut now and into the future, and, as I have been repeatedly saying, it’s not “on the backs of the students.” It’s going to be on all of our backs. Tuition fees are rising all over the continent. Even with the proposed hikes to internationals and all graduate students (which I would so happily not have to see) Memorial will still offer the lowest tuition in the country. Thirty percent sounds like a lot, until you realize what it is a percentage of…. Again, without higher taxes and a government willing to subsidize the loss of those revenues we have to figure out how best to go forward. I want to go forward like Sweden, Norway, and Germany, but I’m not so foolish as to think our government—or our fellow citizens–see it the same way.


Chris Hammond Photo

Last week was another blur of business: convocation, budget discussions, unscheduled meetings, and so on. I had a blog almost set to go, but time just ran away with me and it was all I could do to get a cup of tea between Monday and Friday. I’ll store what I wrote last week for some other time.

I have been asked by more than a few if I would post my installation address. I was ceremoniously disrobed and rerobed last week at the opening session of convocation, and so that part of the medieval ritual you will just have to imagine or watch online. Apparently, the live streaming of my address kept freezing and so I am not sure anyone outside the Arts and Culture Centre had a chance to hear it. Due to popular demand, as they say, I am posting the text here on this blogspot. You had to be there, but if you can imagine my speaking voice, full of pregnant pauses and appropriately timed punch lines, then perhaps you will get some flavour of the event. I really enjoyed delivering it, and the audience response was warm and enthusiastic, setting me up nicely for this daunting job. And so here it is, at least in black and white.

Convocation Address
May 26, 2015, 10 a.m.
Dr. Noreen Golfman, Provost and Vice-President (Academic)

Degrees conferred: B.A. (Hons), B.A (surname A-M), Ph.D., Psy.D.

Good morning everyone, graduands, families, friends. I am deeply honoured to be here on this stage today among esteemed colleagues and friends. It is particularly satisfying to be standing here as the first woman provost and vice-president academic of Memorial University. (About time, yes?). The great Indian-Canadian filmmaker Deepah Mehta, who, in fact, brought her film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children to this very Arts and Culture stage three years ago, repeatedly says she loathes the word “humble,” and has no time for anyone who says they are humbled to be where they are. Be real and honest, Mehta says, forget humble. Okay, I greatly admire Deepah Mehta and so I won’t say I am humbled.

But I will say that I am really, honestly happy to occupy such an important role at Memorial after more than three decades of working here in this wonderful, cultural laboratory known as the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. I feel strongly committed to this university and its future, and can think of no better place to be than right here, right now, celebrating the achievements and triumphs of an extraordinarily talented, bright, and hard-working group of students. Thank you for the honour and, indeed, the privilege of occupying the office.

It is not without a great deal of irony that I stand here reflecting on the one and only job I have been fired from – so far. I was an undergraduate at McGill in Montreal, many years ago, looking for a summer job. I landed one selling newspapers –the Montreal Gazette to be exact– by cold-calling unsuspecting potential customers. It was a humiliating experience in every conceivable way. We sat in grey Styrofoam cubicles in a large open room. Every time we scored a subscription we had to push a bell on our desk, signalling our accomplishment. As my first day on the job rolled out I could hear the steady ping ping ping of bells going off all over the room. My bell never rang. Instead of persuading customers of the value of subscribing to the paper I was subjected to a long list of invective and profanity by those victims whose lives I had disturbed, and I was called every curse term under the sun, some of which I had never heard of or ever imagined to be physically possible. At the end of the day the boss—who, upon reflection, looked like that guy who plays Call Saul, you know, Walter White‘s sleazy lawyer—brought me into his office and fired me. Clearly I didn’t have what it took to sell anything.

Frankly, I can’t remember what I did the rest of that summer, but I licked my wounded pride and resolved not only never to be fired again from any job but, more importantly, never to work at a job I hated or wasn’t able to succeed at. Perhaps it’s easier said than done, but there’s nothing like disappointment and humiliation to put starch in your backbone, and that was a turning point for me. Certainly, as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student, I experienced a fair share of disappointment and a certain measure of humiliation—that’s what graduate school is often really good at—but I never once wavered from my commitment to finishing my programs and getting my degrees. I was hungry for knowledge and could not imagine I could be happier anywhere than at a university—in my case first McGill, then the University of Alberta, and then finally, University of Western Ontario–surrounded by really smart, and even some dumb people who made me feel smarter, all of us committed to the life of the mind. That’s what you have all done—you have endured disappointment and in some cases even humiliation, and have brought yourselves to this special moment. Don’t kid yourself—it’s a big deal just getting through, and you should feel really, honestly good about that.

More particularly, I am speaking to Bachelors of Arts graduates who have not only achieved their degrees but who have had to endure the tired endlessly recurring refrain of the value of an arts degree. Is there a more boring question in circulation right now? Look, I am a proud BA graduate—in English, no less—a discipline that still teaches texts written long before the invention of the cell phone–or the toilet. But through literature, and then by extension through film and expressions of culture itself, I came to appreciate the value and meaning of story, and the way our lives are shaped by narratives of identity and meaning. The discipline of English also opened me up to the relation between individual identity and the social forces that inform it, and in turn again to the significance of language, of performance, of communication upon which so much meaning rests. The more I studied the more cross and interdisciplinary my interests became. I started to see the connections between disciplines, and the ways they could complement and enrich each other. Today I remain committed to encouraging that kind of inter and trans disciplinary awareness, and I would love to see the university encourage more cross fertilization of ideas across all areas of our campuses.

In effect, what I learned from my BA, besides how Shakespeare rocked or Margaret Atwood ruled, was a set of public skills that have taken me on up and through to this very moment and this very stage. Your professors might not have told you directly that you were acquiring those skills but you have. Whether a sociologist, anthropologist, geographer, a linguist or so on, you understand and appreciate the complexity of language; you know that finding the right question is the first step to knowledge; that you have to be open to multiple points of view to see your way through a problem; that there is far more to learn than any of us can ever hope to know. Class of 2015: a BA is a precious, privileged thing. None of your time has been wasted. I say realistically, honestly, that it will serve you well as you move into the next “chapter of your life,” drawing on the metaphor of the book and of story, as I do, to make sense of your journey.

To the freshly minted PhDs from all disciplines, I hope you are feeling as good about your achievement as I did when I got mine. I still thrill at the memory of that accomplishment, especially, again, as a woman entering the then largely male-dominated field of doctoral success. That memory is right up there with my first kiss, and other rare and best left unmentioned moments of discovery.

We know that today almost 2/3rd of PhDs in Canada will find work outside the university academy—in industry, business, the not-for-profit sector, in law, health services, trade, management, government…you will be all over the rich map, marshalling your skills to do your best at whatever you do. Remember, too, that while you have gone deep, becoming an expert on a problem or question and a particular area of study, you have also gone broad, learning ever more about how to question and challenge received ideas, how to think critically, thoughtfully, and creatively about how to make things better. You have rich disciplinary skills, but, as with the BA graduates, you have acquired all the right and necessary interdisciplinary, public skills. Use them wisely. The 21st century, in which we will all be living longer and in more complicated ways, needs you.

Finally, I would say there are probably thousands of convocation addresses that say the same thing, and harness the same clichés, such as: remember, anything is possible, take risks, follow your passion, dream big, go forth and prosper, resist dogma, love what you do, set goals, stay the course, share your knowledge, yada yada yada. Sure, I would happily urge all of the clichés on you, but I won’t. You have to get lucky, too.

I will conclude, however with one piece of advice gleaned from personal experience. Several years ago, when I was first considering a leadership role as president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, I asked my husband, Stephen Bornstein, also an academic—my best friend, my true love, continual inspiration, my favourite partner and cherished soul mate—I asked him if I should go for the presidency of the Federation, and he said, “nah, I don’t think so.” And so I didn’t listen to him, and I went for it.

And then a few years later I was asked to consider becoming associate dean of graduate studies, and so I turned to wise Dr. Bornstein again, and said, should I go for it? And he said, once again, “nah, I don’t think so.” And so I didn’t listen to him, and I went for it. That led to my becoming the dean of graduate studies and eventually to the possibility of becoming Provost and Vice-President Academic. By then, I knew better than to ask him and he knew better than to advise. Thank you, Stephen, for being so wrong in your otherwise perfect record of advice and generous wisdom. I love you more than ever and everything, but it’s also fun when you get it wrong. And so the best advice I have for the graduating class of 2015 is—don’t always listen to your partner.

Thank you and good luck!