Monthly Archives: April 2016


“Budget consultations have begun in earnest at Memorial University…” Well, doh, is there any other kind of consultation? Yup, we are in the first rush of consideration of how best to absorb a great big chunk from our base. What’s disturbing is how the amount our base will have to absorb is being spun differently, depending on who’s speaking.

Here are the facts: no matter what you hear government officials are saying—Memorial is getting hit big time. And, no, government did not give us enough to cover a continuing tuition freeze or to manage this plant, which is falling apart in almost every nook and corner (see above). Sorry, Mr. Minister, that’s the truth, sans spin.

Yes, this year government gave us $4 million in lieu of tuition, a figure that has lost some of its meaning over the years, since no one understands exactly why 4 million = lost tuition, but let’s go with that for now since we’ve been going with it ever since we were last cut. Another good thing, we also got the funding to honour collective agreement salary obligations and a long-promised ongoing commitment to the expansion of Engineering, although this latter bit is more complicated than meets the eye. Another blog for that one.

What didn’t we get: a restoration of funding for deferred maintenance. We were cut 9 million and change last year, same this year. That’s money dedicated not only to patching and emergencies but also to renewing our teaching spaces—you know, moving us from chalkboard to 21st century learning environments. That’s the Arts and Admin Building corridor right outside my office in that picture above—a patchwork of asbestos abatement activity, a crazy quilt of plaster and duct tape. Nice, eh? At this rate of maintenance deferral I am positive that wall will only look worse by the time I am ready to retire.

What else is hurting? Honey, I shrunk the staff. How about a salary attrition budget of about 3 million this year, and another 3 million over the next two years. Yes, folks, that’s 6 million in salaries that have to be found somewhere. That means HQP constriction.

You mean there’s more? Government cut 8.3. million of our operating budget this year—presto finito. We were also promised, to use an inappropriate verb, more cuts over the next three years totalling 10.6 million a year. Yes, you heard me, each year.

So by 2019-20 our base budget reduction will be 18.9 annually. If you add the salary attrition piece, we’re looking at 24.9 million dollars less annually forever and then some.

And there’s even more, like having to swallow the new HST slapped on our annual purchases (roughly 2 million), but let’s stick with that almost 25 million reduction by 2020. That’s a hell of a lot bigger than a certain Minister claimed. Yes, we have 4 million for tuition in lieu. He forgot to mention the other 21 million we have to find. And we’re not even sure about the future of our pension plan, for which we are currently without a 27 million or so contribution this year. If you do that math we are on the road to having to find, gulp, about 56 million. And I haven’t even mentioned the Medical faculty which gets its funding, and directives to cut, from Health, not Advanced Education.

So the spin from government about Memorial having received enough to keep a tuition freeze is intolerable. Let’s share the real facts about this and start talking about just how serious a challenge these cuts are.

I hate to add to the litany of whine and complaint about the provincial budget. It wears us all down and we are all sick of it. Everyone acknowledges we are in a fine mess, sure. But if only there were something to give us a sliver of hope or warmth, something visionary or promising to live for. With this budget you can say the sun shall shine no more. I’m not a psychologist but surely the whole tone of the piece is counterproductive, demoralizing and defeatist. Every time I see a tweet about someone determined to leave the province for once and forever my heart sinks. Respected local journalists are openly encouraging Newfoundland students to get out of town. What I really don’t get is how government could think an entirely totally negative-themed budget, not to mention one that disproportionately hits students, artists, the poor, women, etc. would generate anything but rage in the best cases and despair in the worst. See Alberta, see the federal Liberals: therein lies hope, and much better messaging.

No one I talk to can see how the university can absorb 25 million dollars worth of cuts, on top of last year’s hit, without serious adjustments to one or all of the following: tuition fees, academic programs, staff, quality of teaching, infrastructure plan, student services, to name the most obviously vulnerable and necessary areas of post secondary education.

What I am hoping is that for once we all quickly get on the same page about what needs to be done in the wake of this monster of enforced attrition and reduction. There’s no good can come out of fighting with each other. We all want the same thing, a university this province can be proud of, one it deserves for this and future generations. If you have questions about how we spend our money or where our priorities lie, then shout out.

I am desperately seeking a silver lining. Know the facts. Challenge the misconceptions and spin. Put students first.

Whenever someone says to me s/he feels sorry for me to be in this job at this time I like to say, what do you mean sorry for ‘me’? We’re all in this leaky boat together.




©AFL-CIO, Executive Paywatch. Via
100 F Street.

People are still mumbling about the disclosure of the public sector salary lists in the local paper. There’s a lot to chew on, of course. It’s the stuff of rich gossip, about which one can never get enough around here or anywhere. It’s also given the loose-lips department plenty of opportunity to voice opinions about what someone, or a job, might be worth. But this blog is not really about the lists per se. I bet The Telegram saw a real spike in sales with the publication of those lists. All the power to the paper and to the reporter who picked up where government left off. No, this blog is really about the reaction to a MUN prof’s comments about the inadequacy of those lists.

Dr. Amanda Bittner, a member of the Department of Political Science, publicly decried the fact that government had dropped the ball on publishing the lists, especially after it had promised to legislate them into being sometime during the last provincial election campaign. She went on to question the merits of publishing all those names and salaries in the paper without proper scrutiny and consideration, without context and qualification. Saying so, on social and in electronic media, as is her right to do, generated a whack of ugly, personalizing invective all aimed at her and her right to say what she did. It’s amazing what pushes buttons these days, amazing what people get all worked up about. You can always console yourself by saying, well, at least something like this exposes all the anger and misogyny out there—in case anyone doubted these attitudes exist.

I actually have no problem with the publication of the lists, and, in fact, I think publication is a step in the right direction of transparency and accountability. Like Bittner, I do wish they had been nuanced properly. Anyone who knows better would understand that many of those big six-figure salaries in the Faculty of Medicine, for example, include fees for clinical practice, that many of the entries are snapshots in time, and therefore fluky misrepresentations of what someone’s true salary might be. There are many anomalies, weird entries, and salaries that include bonuses or one-off payments; these could be easily explained with better categorization and dating. It’s also useful to benchmark these salaries against other Canadian universities where, with few exceptions, we are often not competitive enough. But once the list is out it’s impossible to make those arguments. No once wants to listen to them, and that’s not the way media works, anyway.

And this is the thing: speaking out is a tricky business. You have to appreciate the oppositional way media works. Not doing so is perilous to your thin skin. It was ever thus, but social media has heightened the war between the righteously minded and the other guys who are righteously minded. It’s dog eat dog, and as a colleague once laughably noted, for the other guy it’s the other way around. Most of us have become spellbound spectators to these ongoing wars of words (and pictures). The current US presidential campaign is the quintessential example of 21st century media reality. Nobody pays attention to reason anymore. No one would recognize reason if it showed up, anyway. A vulgar, fake-tanned, carrot-topped Republican candidate is actually admired—and certainly followed closely–for the sheer intensity of his bullying and prevaricating. The more hysterical the pronouncements the more hyper the response, and so it goes until we are all screaming in bold caps at each other. The word hater, actually a pretty old word, has been revived in our age with special vigour to embody an entire class of badly behaving people.

One might like to think we are different in this country but, really, not so much. And here at home things can get really small-minded and parochial. When a MUN prof makes some public statements about a list of salaries she is bound to get attention. And she should probably expect that. The topic of salary disclosures itself is loaded, exposing people’s vulnerabilities and shattering our false notions of privacy. But when the reaction builds into a crescendo of invective, leading to cyber bullying and even death threats then you have to wonder why some people just don’t, as we used to say, get a life.

I don’t want to blame that amorphous oracle of dissemination ‘the media’ for all of this. We are all complicit in the spectacle. Watching people go at something for whatever reason and then get dumped on is just the familiar way our world works. Cheap thrills is the new normal. It sure does inhibit many people, especially intellectuals, from speaking out, however. Sure, in our world we have academic freedom, but who needs the predictable barrage of insult? My advice would be, if you are going to put it out there just be prepared to engage in the noisy see-saw effect. If I were an arts student today I would probably be thinking of pursuing a career as a media consultant.






Google's Office in Pittsburgh, PA (Photo By Google)

Google’s Office in Pittsburgh, PA (Photo By Google)

That’s Google’s Pittsburgh office above, not unlike Google offices all over the world. It exploits industrial space well, includes several stations for work and play, and integrates the various functions of the work-a-day world in a visibly coherent way.

I am greedily devouring the current TMN/Showtime program Billions that pits a clever inside trader/hedge fund investor named Bob ‘Axe’ Axelrod (Damian Lewis) against equally devious US attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). There’s a point coming up, so bear with me … Billions is a telling example of how much television has changed for the better, so that we can easily label this moment a golden age, far from the time of plodding network offerings in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties. Writing for television (HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and even some network stuff – hello Good Wife) is better than ever. Once someone realized what the audience wanted, what it needed to nourish a more sophisticated palate, television rose to new heights of intelligence.

But back to Billions. Both male protagonists are shrewd, self-absorbed, driven, Type As, and although the plot can be pretty preposterous, it’s fun to watch them connive and manipulate people, whether wives or minions. Rhoades the lawyer works in a traditional space of wood panelled, baronial privacy. He is constantly seeking meetings with staff in close and darkened spaces. The camera tends to shoot him tight, with lots of close-ups to impose a sense of claustrophobia and constraint.

Axelrod is the risk-taker, an investor guru who thrives in the transparent glass-walled emporium of his 21st century building. Everyone can see him working or taking meetings. He overlooks a vast over-lit workspace, with workers at their open stations, feeding their computers with the latest figures from Wall Street. The camera shoots him through a wide lens, locating him comfortably in the pristine whiteness of his empire and commanding a team of driven and loyal subjects. Neither man is a paragon of virtue, far from it, but Axelrod’s open, postmodern style is meant to be way more attractive than Rhoades’ awkward and clearly repressed behaviour. In short, I’d rather work in Axelrod’s office than in Rhoades’.

If you are alive, you know that Apple has been constructing a new ‘campus’ at its headquarters in Cupertino, California, rumoured to be in the 5 billion dollar range. Whatever. They can afford it. I know. I bought an iPad Pro. The proposed building resembles a large space ship, round and open to the environment, with floor-to-ceiling curved-glass exterior walls. It will be green, if not lean, and marked by wide-open spaces in which all that millennial tech brainstorming will ostensibly thrive. That’s where the ideas need to go and germinate.

Is it really so hard to imagine a university without borders? For many faculty, yes. For today’s student, not so much. Clearly, we are moving away from traditional notions of program delivery and classroom instruction. There is a huge hunger for experiential learning that itself speaks to breaking down the walls between the classroom and the ‘real’ world.  Online courses, in which we are surging forward, are inherently without walls. As writer Steven Mintz said recently in a provocative piece in Inside Higher Ed, the Ivory Tower of the past (otherwise known as yore) is giving way to concepts of the “distributed” university. To put it another way, the centre will not hold all the learning anymore. Our own libraries have already shifted to the popular “commons” model of knowledge sharing. In many ways, libraries have been the first to move us away from the single cell notion of learning. It’s taking some of us longer than others to get with that program. And, speaking of program, the paradigm shift in learning to experiential and project-based problem-solving means that our programs are necessarily in the process of change, as well—to more team-based, creative approaches to education. We now require different spaces for such activities.

Design for both the renovated Battery Facility up on Signal Hill and the new core science facility include much more open space where people can congregate and actually see each other. There’s no point in constructing new space without keeping in mind the basic design needs of this and following generations of students.  Slowly, the university of this century will be changing to accommodate a different audience with far different expectations about communications and technology—and learning—than the one in which I was educated, that’s for sure. Axelrod might be a vainglorious inside trader, but he sure knows how to create an environment.