Here we go again. We have a new provincial government and an old problem—that is, a whacking high provincial deficit and intense pressure to reduce it. Last year, Memorial endured a rather deep cut to its operations, but we managed to come through that excruciating exercise relatively whole. I say relatively because the plant is still falling apart and we can’t afford to repair a lot of our infrastructure, let alone build new stuff, but we are managing. At least, we did not have to cut programs or lay anyone off. We did feel we had to raise graduate tuition and residence fees, but delayed that pain for a year while we gave the community time to adjust. This year, the deficit is that much larger and the government resolve to deal with it apparently that much more serious.
And so here we are, in only a few days having to submit a proposal or two to government about what we can offer up. They want us to consider (cough cough) as much as a 30% hit over the next few years. You don’t need a higher degree in math to know how much that would burn the institution, likely leading to layoffs and all manner of program closures. No one wants that. What, then, as the famous author once posed, is to be done?
I love the job, but there have been some recent snowy bone-chilling mornings when I wondered what it would be like to not have to worry about any of this stuff. One reaches for perspective. I watched a CBC documentary called “Zero Gravity” the other night, all about the experience of being in space. The best parts were all those shots of the big blue earth through the spaceship portals. Talk about perspective. The articulate astronauts spoke of how profoundly that view has shaped their thoughts about the planet. From outer space we are a teeny tiny near-invisible race of people, self-absorbed and hell bent on destroying this already vulnerable planet. Chris Hadfield has made a post-orbital career speaking to that fact, albeit in an optimistic forward-looking guitar-accompanying way. When I am trudging through icy paths and grinding my teeth about our troubles I try hard to keep “Zero Gravity” in mind—that is, try to see Memorial’s problems through the spaceship portal, floating in the most peculiar way.
There isn’t that much time to consult but we are doing what we can in a short turnaround period. Directives have just gone out about reducing travel and discretionary funding across all campuses. Deans are being consulted and they in turn will speak to heads and directors. At least one special meeting of Senate Planning and Budget Committee has been scheduled. A joint university-government Steering Committee has been struck to discuss possible options. The Board of Regents meets next week, as originally scheduled, and that will no doubt be an interesting discussion. We need to protect the core business of the university above all—delivering our academic programs as effectively as we can and providing the best possible education to our students. Beyond this fundamental commitment, everything is up for grabs. No sacred cows, the Minister of Finance has boldly uttered. Easy for her to say, whaa?
Someone noted to me this morning that people just don’t get how serious a problem this is, how urgently the government has to improve its credit rating. I don’t know, maybe not yet. Perhaps it comes from feeling protected by a monolith, from years of humming along on oil revenues, even with last year’s budget crisis and this year’s noise about journal cancellations. Perhaps it comes from feeling as if it’s all someone else’s problem, someone else’s decision to which they can react. Ideally, we would all be sharing in the decisions, although I know I am dreaming in space colours. If there’s talk of tuition hikes (and there isn’t any of that to date) students will freak out (again); if there are cuts to programs things will look dire; if there are hiring freezes and/or layoffs morale will go the way of the dollar; if there is a hold on building or planning or repair work optimism will be crushed.
Ground control to Major Tom … take your protein pills and put your helmet on, commencing countdown, engines on, check ignition and may Government’s love be with you.