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.