Monthly Archives: August 2015

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It’s coming up to a year in the Office of the Provost and Vice-President (Academic), albeit only a small part of it officially installed as the real and not the temporary thing. Still, I have almost forgotten what my working life was like before I moved to the third floor of the Arts and Administration Building. Apparently an extra bookshelf is arriving here sometime this week. I still have all my literature and film books and paraphernalia in the office of the dean of graduate studies. Over the year, I would retrieve a book I needed for a review or research, but for the most part the shelves are still blocked with dust-gathering material. By next week I will have them all packed up and moved out for good.

I write this on the eve of an annual retreat for deans during which we will take some time to discuss big and smaller picture issues, including leadership challenges, budget constraints, and, no doubt, how we imagine Memorial’s future. When I attended last year’s retreat I was in the grey in-between zone, about to leave one role for another, at least temporarily. What a difference a year makes. Planning this year’s retreat after such a tumultuous start sure helps to focus the agenda. We’ve been dealing with one plague of locusts after another—from budget cuts to cafeteria food to lead in the water and, wait for it after Labour Day, parking challenges. These are all important pieces in their own way, of course, but we need to look ahead with a view to ensuring Memorial is serving its community and the people of this province as well as we can. That takes time and planning—and that’s why we have retreats.

Deans are people, too, and need time to reflect on their own accomplishments and objectives. I say this with only part of my tongue in my cheek. Our colleagues sometimes hold those of us who have shifted into administrative careers in some measure of contempt. I used to think that way as a younger scholar but somewhere along the way I started to recognize that although it was a dirty job someone had to do it. We don’t want non-academics managing our working lives, not to mention our presidencies, but we do have this hate-love, mostly hate relationship with those who lead the decision-making processes on our campuses. What’s up with that, anyway? But forgetting or ignoring that humbling truth, I think, would be a mistake; always operating in view of transparency and fairness should go some way to softening the haters—I say, should, maybe. These days the Canadian senior leadership field is littered with discarded bodies.

Obviously, there is a lot to learn in a job like this, but some fixed certainties carry over from one year to the next and one role to the next. There’s that culturally wired contempt for administrators I just mentioned. There’s also the implicit bias for researchers over teachers—and over publicly engaged scholars. This attitude is not unique to Memorial but it is hard-wired into the culture and very hard to shake. Our Teaching and Learning Framework is helping to shift the thinking somewhat, or so I would like to believe, but the jury is still deliberating over that one. Another recurring truth is that it’s hard for students, staff and faculty to see beyond their own horizons and interests. This is both natural and maddening and it compels me to want to disclose absolutely everything about what it takes to run this plant, from salaries to the price of heat and light, snow clearing, online courses, IT services, classroom renovations, the cost of my new bookshelf, water taxes, and on and on and on. The commonly held view that there is fat in the system will never diminish because the system is so big! Everyone assumes there’s just got to be a lot of money slushing around. Well, hell, I’m still looking for it. Most of our budget goes to salaries—and good ones at that. What we do with the rest of it is up to all of us.

After a year, people are now asking me if I still love the job. I say, without hesitation, I do. Notwithstanding the challenges and plagues, the steady drone of parking lot machinery and the predictable drumbeat of whines and complaints, I still feel pretty privileged to be in this office. Memorial has more going for it than ever and, for the most part, people are willing to make it even better. Hard to beat the view from here, thank you very much.

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Photo from: A project by History World International ©1992

Lately, there’s been a fair bit of buzz about senior leadership vacancies at universities across North America. Most recent speculation surrounds the sudden departure of the president of UBC after only a year of his being in office. Makes you wonder. Makes us all wonder. When presidents leave office before their terms run out they do so after being told to go by their boards of trustees, or, rarely, after telling their boards they want out. We have no real idea of what went down at UBC because the terms of the president’s departure fall under a non-disclosure agreement. Faculty associations and students can jump up and down for transparency all they want but a non-disclosure agreement is a non-disclosure agreement and by any other name smells the same.

Stuff leaks, and in this case I assume we will eventually know a little more about why Dr. Arvind Gupta left the presidency. It’s hard to keep all that juicy stuff a secret forever. The carefully worded UBC press release mentions that Gupta achieved “meaningful accomplishments in his tenure as president, but….” I wonder how many hours they took to come up with the “meaningful accomplishments” phrase. Did they consider and then reject other adjectives, such as “significant,” “important,” or “remarkable”? Could there be a less meaningful word than meaningful? As I say, I know about as much as any of you, and so in the absence of facts one speculates and gossips. But one also considers the tensions that commonly, perhaps understandably, exist between presidents and their governing boards.  One would want to know, if Gupta was pushed out the door what intelligence did the board possess to do so, what feeder routes exist to enable boards to make those kinds of heavy decisions, what reporting or conversational loop, if any, exists to give them confidence in their judgments and actions?

At UBC it is the Board of Governors that oversees the operations of the university.  Elsewhere boards are commonly deemed Trustees or Directors. At Memorial we have a Board of Regents. If you don’t know your Latin any dictionary will tell you that a regent is from the Roman regens, that is, one who reigns. As the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, a regent is “a person appointed to administer a State because the Monarch is a minor, is absent or is incapacitated.” Don’t you love that? In our case, the term regent clearly points to our colonial heritage, a holdover, no doubt, from the moment of the birth of this university, before Confederation with Canada and before our current distance between Her Majesty and us.

But for a board that has so much oversight over senior leadership, there remains a great deal of distance between the regents and the university community. To my knowledge, Memorial is the only university in Canada that includes the provost/vice president academic as a voting member of the Board of Regents, and so you could argue there’s a bit more senior engagement.  I am coming up to a full year in this office, most of it in a pro tempore role, but, nonetheless I have been happy to participate at board meetings as a voting member. It’s a privileged and fascinating experience for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a form of theatre—a stage on which people perform their interests and attitudes. I might not always agree with all of the regents, but what else is new? It’s, above all, a most respectful stage, a necessary one, to be sure.

I can also confidently attest to the passion and commitment that regents have in the health of Memorial. Regardless of where they are coming from or when they graduated, and even regardless of whether they were elected by the community or appointed by government, they show up, generally do their homework, and tend to ask good questions about the big spending stuff. This summer I had a chat with a former chair of the Board of Governors at McGill. Members of that body are recommended for appointment by themselves—that is, the current board names its own successors, including the chair. That seems sensible and more democratic than our government-appointed system, unless, of course, lousy board members in turn appoint lousy successors. Nothing, and no board, is perfect. The former chair also informed me that he had just been sitting on a tenure and promotion committee, a normal part of McGill board functions. WTF, I said? That is so out of the question for most if not all other Canadian governance models, but knowing McGill I am not totally surprised. Holy overstepping!

Our Board of Regents web site could use a little updating. Some have submitted pictures. Most have not. Bios of each one would go a long way. Who are these people and why they are in charge of we and ye? I have been learning the answer to that question over the course of the year but everyone else in the community should know, as well. They are carrying way more responsibility than their contact info would indicate.

 

 

This is a recent post on the popular daily site Academica:

Students now spending more summers working than relaxing

For students who wish to get a jumpstart on their future careers, summer vacations have become a critical time to gain work experience through summer jobs, internships, or co-op placements. The Globe and Mail explores how today’s employers are looking for work experience to differentiate candidates who may appear similar on paper. Computer algorithms are now often used to predetermine a candidate’s work experience, and those who do not measure up do not get a chance for an interview. Many large organizations are set up so that internships feed directly into entry-level positions to ensure that new hires have work experience and are familiar with company processes and organizational structures. The likelihood of continued employment is often one reason why students are willing to take unpaid internships, reports the Globe.

Gak. It’s come to this. We are moving farther and farther away from any notion that university life affords a combination of work and play, or study and recreation. The recreation part is getting smaller by the day. When you’re a prof, it’s totally maddening to have people say, as they always do, “oh, how are you spending your summer off?” I am not sure why this myth about our working life persists, but perhaps it’s because of some notorious goofer-offers among us. You know, the ones who disappear from May 1st – August 31st without any fixed address? For the most part, professors take the summer, when they aren’t teaching, to do research, let the brain float freely to consider the next article/experiment/research project and catch-up to what is new and exciting in their fields.

But students really do need time off. That’s what youth is for. They have a lifetime of work and two-week vacation blocks ahead of them, and so why would we want to compel them to work almost 52 weeks a year at this stage of their game? “Getting a jumpstart on their careers,” as the paragraph above says, is the reason why students are forfeiting their summer r&r time, although many students work full and part time to pay off loans and pay for gas, of course.

If I were young I am sure I would be feeling the pressure to gather my work experience as soon as I could, to get that inelegant leg up in the marketplace. I understand that as the world’s population grows, and we zoom in and out of economic recessions, demand for highly polished skills and good experience also rises. Employers–especially Canadian employers–are notoriously risk averse and want to ensure they are hiring people with enough experience of the so-called real world to make them confident in their investment. I get it. I wish it weren’t like that, but wishing won’t change the runaway train of late capitalism. Remember the narratives about technology freeing us up for more leisure time?

This brings me to the pressure on this university, in turn, to consider a full mid-term February winter break, the way the R(est) o(f) C(anada) does. I think we are the only university in the country not to have one scheduled. Sure, there are a few days without classes, but not a whole week. A few days make for an awkward calendar. You can’t really get into planning time off to ski, sleep, or study—whatever the doctor orders. A half-week off is half-baked, or almost pregnant.

So it is that we are talking seriously now of managing our calendar—including semester-start day, exams, snow days, and convocation—to allow a mid-term February break to happen—a whole week of, uh, whatever. I am fully in favour. Students are clamouring for it, claiming stress (see above), mental health, and the need for well-being. Senate will need to approve it once the proposal goes through proper consultation, but I can’t imagine resistance, can you? Somehow facing winter semester will seem a lot less severe, knowing we have some time off just when seasonal disorder kicks in big time.

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I just returned from my annual adventure in Eastport, Newfoundland, where I attended the Winterset in Summer Literary Festival, along with hundreds of other readers and lovers of literature. It’s always enough to make one believe in the future of civilization—so much adoration of the written word, so much reverence for a good story well told. The picture above puts the spotlight on one of our star guests, award-winning author Emily St. John Mandel, a Canadian who lives most of the time in New York City. Mandel is at the podium, reading a section of her widely popular novel Station Eleven, which is also, in its own way, about the future of civilization. After she read, she sat down for an on-stage interview with Winterset host, Pat Parsons. The host had done her homework and the guest author was chatty and eloquent and so the conversation was natural and easy on the ears. No one seemed to be nodding off, as is often the case at lit festivals.

In the background of the photo above, you can sort of make out a bit of cute staging appropriate to the subject of Station Eleven. The novel is about an apocalyptic virus that wipes out most of the world’s inhabitants and all the stuff we take for granted everyday. On the Winterset stage, the host had assembled some of that stuff, such as a laptop, a cellphone, books, a radio, and so on. The illegible sign above the table reads ‘Museum of Civilization.’ Even for those who aren’t crazy about the science fiction genre, like me, Station Eleven is a beautiful and compelling read. A quick glance at critics’ comments on an Amazon page, for example, will reveal emphasis on words such as illuminating, innovative, exhilarating, brilliant, ambitious, audacious, soul-quaking, elegant—big, meaningful words that underscore the pleasure of the text and the brilliance of the writing. Don’t worry about it being sci fi—it‘s so close to home you’ll find it all eerily familiar.

Station Eleven has made a literary star out of youngish Emily St John Mandel. She expressed delight and surprise about that—and that the novel’s success allowed her to quit her day job. But anyone who reads it understands the appeal. Good novels impose a kind of beautiful reality check on experience, and in this case we are compelled to imagine a life without refrigerators and cars, not to mention Facebook. It seems as if we want to be reminded, at least through fiction, of how much we rely on technology and how devastating the consequences would be if we were stripped of that dependence. Dystopian novels are a loony a dozen, but this one emphasizes the lighter side of disaster, taking us somewhere unexpected by stressing the enduring value and beauty of art and language. To say more would be criminal, but I can assure you that after Mandel spoke about her work the novel flew off the bookseller’s table.

There’s usually a lot of talk at these events about the audience demographic—why, many ask, aren’t there more young people in the crowd? Perhaps, like wine and the CBC, literary festivals are an acquired taste. I don’t worry about that so much. I figure, as in Mandel’s novel, anything worth enduring will.

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Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink except if from lead-filtering water stations and supplied bottles. Been that kind of weekend all over again. I suppose there are many parts of the world where there is no drinking water at all, as in some areas just outside St. John’s. Ladies and gentlemen, we are First World people experiencing a developing world problem, to be sure. Most of us take our tap water pretty much for granted and when suddenly we learn it might not be so safe to drink then everyone starts freaking out. Well, maybe not everyone, but you know what I mean. Some of the feedback on this business has been downright dumb, but that goes with the turf, sure.

The decision to close most of the Memorial campus last Friday came out of a strong sense of caution. Before we had time to put up proper signage in all buildings, secure filters for the fountains, and gather enough water bottles to keep our throats quenched—not to mention manage the communications pieces properly– it was widely deemed safer, wiser, and just generally more prudent to put a hold on campus access. While all of that process was in play over the weekend many experts were exploring the root cause of the problem. As I write this that group is still trying to figure that out, but the good news is we have a lot of excellent expertise on the ground and right here at Memorial working on the problem. As well, the province and the city are part of the conversation and so this is an unexpected opportunity for collaboration and wide consultation. We have an emergency team doing their job and I am confident the situation will not only be improved but we will learn a few things from it for the future. Indeed, we have already cleared a lot of campus buildings as safe, after a flurry of tests and reassuring findings.

Was closing down the campus for a couple of days an excessive reaction? Some might think so, but I can’t see how it could hurt to be overly cautious when you aren’t sure what is flowing in the water fountains—or why. If we hadn’t shut down you can imagine the uproar. It takes time to put an institutional plan in place – this is a big ship—and yet it happened remarkably quickly. The university started issuing several statements updating the community on the developing situation, held a press conference in record time, and drew up a useful Q&A over the weekend, anticipating the many questions for the community and concerned parents. I was actually attending the final banquet of the Shad Valley Program on Thursday night last week when I got a call recommending the closing of the campus. Consider we had some 60 people from away occupying the residence rooms and we needed to let them know right then and there to stop drinking the water. Everyone got quiet and suddenly stared at their water glasses which had been diligently refilled throughout the banquet. I tried to reassure students that there was no cause for alarm, this was merely a caution. I did advise them not to stand in the showers with their mouths open, that it wasn’t a good look, anyway.

I imagine we will learn more than we bargained for after this latest round of an infrastructure challenge. Everyone wants to know how often water does, indeed, get tested, on campus and elsewhere, and why we don’t have a water-testing capacity on the island, instead having to ship the samples to Nova Scotia. Because we have always done so, and maybe not all that often? I don’t know—yet. Change, if appropriate, should follow crisis situations like this.

And as for change, I am hoping the status of the rest of the campus buildings reverses soon from undrinkable to fill your boots. Until then, I prefer to see a glass half full.