Monthly Archives: September 2016

RM

This is the saddest of weeks, perhaps the saddest of blogs. Dear colleague and friend Richard Marceau passed away in his sleep Sunday night. As many know, because Richard was so open about it, he had been diagnosed with cancer not long after he assumed his appointment as Vice President Research at Memorial in 2013. Somehow, burdened with that truth and challenged by a brutal regime of treatments, he maintained a mostly cheery, always graceful attitude to everything. There was none of that awkward self-consciousness one might feel with someone wearing such a condition. He wouldn’t have any of that. He made it so easy, so natural to talk to. Now that he is gone, a fact that will take some time to accept, his grace in the face of all he was enduring seems even more remarkable.

The university announcement about his passing rightly describes him as a gentleman, an old-fashioned word that perfectly speaks to his character. In my culture, the commonplace for such an individual is “mensch,” the German/Yiddish word for “human being.” But what gets lost in translation are the key qualities a mensch embodies: integrity and goodness. Gentleman is the closest we probably have to it in English. Gentleman evokes courtliness, respectfulness, qualities Richard also possessed in spades. Gentleman and mensch are rare descriptors. And so it is that those of us privileged to have worked so closely with him feel his loss deeply.

Richard came to Memorial after serving as Provost at UOIT where he helped transform a poly technical school into a fully-credited Ontario university. He well understood the responsibilities of the provost’s office, and our regularly scheduled one-on-one chats were always inflected with the wisdom of his experience. I relied on his insight enormously, always looking forward to our meetings. He usually came to my office with a big smile and a couple of agenda items scribbled on a piece of paper, but we regularly took swift notice of those in order to take a deeper dive into subjects that interested us both: leadership,  politics, the complexity of human behaviour. I can safely say our conversations were more candid than any I have had with any other colleague. He created an almost instant trust. Confiding in him was as natural as breathing. He also spoke from time to time about how much more deeply his experience of the world had become since receiving his diagnosis. One could readily understand that for anyone with cancer, but in Richard one could really see it. Whenever asked how he was he would laugh heartily and say, “well, I’m alive, and so it’s a good day,” and you better believe he meant that.

I am sure Richard has always been fully present in whatever he was doing, he was that kind of guy, but his condition must have significantly intensified his experience of the world. In that he was a model of forbearance, not stoic so much as patient, not resigned so much as accepting, tolerant. These are qualities he brought to both his role as VP Research and to life in general. Consider how easily some like to dump on the office of research, blaming it for bureaucracy and all the sins and evils of the grant application process. Richard was well aware of all the complaining, some of it undeserving, but he was fully dedicated every single day to offering an efficient, nimble, and responsive service. He aimed high, refused to be dragged down to the dirt.

It is a bittersweet irony that Richard Marceau died following the most successful research application in Memorial’s history. The awarding of almost one hundred million federal government dollars to Dalhousie, UPEI, and our university to pursue sophisticated ocean-based projects was his crowning achievement. Just a couple of weeks ago he flew to Halifax to share in the glory of the CFREF announcement—a game-changing moment for Memorial, to be sure. That moment came to be because Richard was a proud team player, shepherding the lengthy and laboured application process with the cooperation of researchers and administrators spanning three Atlantic universities. It is more than reassuring to know he lived to see that collaboration through to its success.

A former colleague at UOIT wrote me this week, still reeling from the news that Richard is gone. “He was amazing,” he wrote. “I just spoke with him last week and he seemed so cheery and excited about all the good stuff happening at Memorial.” You bet. It’s so easy to give into negativity. It’s a form of field work for academics. But Richard’s example humbles one to take another perspective. It’s one thing to be critical; it’s another to rise above all the petty stuff and be mindful of just how fortunate we are, to treat others with kindness, to accept challenges with grace. As another colleague eloquently put it, Richard was a very fine spirit. Amen to that. We will always miss him.

 

 

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I love Chicago but these days I am happy not be working at the prestigious UoC. You might have seen the story about a letter a dean of students wrote to incoming students a few weeks ago. It was a statement about academic freedom that condemned the creation of safe spaces, trigger warnings, censored speakers lists, and so on. He put all those words in quotation marks, aggravating the offense, as it were. Those terms belong to the new vocabulary of campus life, a 21st century phenomenon about which many old school types are confused. I don’t know, if I were a dean of students at a distinguished university in the middle of one of the most racially charged urban cities in America I am not sure I’d be issuing a statement like that, good intentions notwithstanding.

Because this is 2016 and a message like that, harsh in its expression that “individuals [should not] retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own” was immediately denounced as short-sighted and condescending. At the very least, the letter registered a dismissal of minority viewpoints, a given of campus life in the Windy City. I am sure many administrators at the University of Chicago are scratching their heads, wondering why a declaration of freedom of expression might be interpreted as anything less than noble and universally embraced, but marshalling the discourse of contemporary campus life to do so seems bone headed—a basic violation of Communications 101. The dean might have thought that through a little more carefully.

The dean’s letter follows on a controversial “statement of free expression” adopted by the university last year. It was aimed in part at ensuring speakers on campus were not disrupted, a nightmare for presidents and campus security enforcement people. Needless to say, there have been several protests on campus since then, notably by the coalition of Black Lives Matter movement and by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. These are two of the most strident site disrupters, to be sure.

You can see where the dean is coming from. It’s a position against the view that today’s students are coddled, overly protected from the harsh realities of life, and should not be protected from them by any false constructs of ‘safety.’ That’s a time-honoured debate, of which I can still hear the echoes in my own undergraduate time. I am certain my parents thought I had it way too easy. Sometimes I channel them and think the same thing about today’s world, but generally I find it hard to buy it. It’s all relative, as we used to say with more frequency than we do today.

We certainly didn’t have trigger warnings in my day. These are basically a heads up to students about possibly disturbing course content, familiar to those of us who still regularly watch the news on television. I have been programming film screenings for decades. Until recently no one ever commented about the need for such a warning. I am ambivalent about doing so, finding it hard to believe anyone would go to a film without knowing its controversial or disturbing nature in advance, but many actually do. I am reminded of a screening I arranged a few years ago for the French film Blue is the Warmest Colour. Critically acclaimed at Cannes, it’s a graphic lesbian love story, with 20 minutes of pretty explicit sex over all. Almost all spectators in the theatre knew what they were in for, but one older academic couple clearly did not. They twitched up a storm, finally walking out when Adèle was inserting something into Emma, if you get the picture. I cringed for them, and regretted not being more explicit in my program blurb, but, then, how could they have not known? That picture was more controversial than a Mapplethorpe exhibition.

I don’t know if instructors on our campus have trigger warnings on their course syllabi, or if anyone even notices if they do or don’t. Those who object to the practice also wholeheartedly dismiss these times for their political correctness, another knee-jerk reaction to a more nuanced social reality. No one wants to censor or reduce debate in the classroom, and that’s not what such warnings are intended to do. But there’s a lot of anxiety out there about this, really a spectrum of responses to what is more commonly recognized as a courtesy—not so much ‘buyer beware’ as ‘sensitive material ahead.’

Can’t help but pity that poor misguided dean of student affairs at Chicago. Can you imagine the heat he’s taken on social media—that is, if he participates in that activity.

Blog627-11 subway ad via Fooducate. ©2013 Fooducate, Ltd

Let’s talk about cheap. As an adjective it’s burdened with value—or undervalue. As the dictionary defines it:

ADJECTIVE

(of an item for sale) low in price; worth more than its cost: 
”they bought some cheap fruit” · [more]

synonyms: inexpensive low-priced · low-cost · economical · [more]

As an adverb, same applies:

ADVERB

at or for a low price: 
”a house that was going cheap”

By any standard, Memorial University is cheap. Some out there in Open-Line Land clamor about the high cost of professors’ salaries—to which I repeat: get with the program. We are nationally competitive. Attracting first-rate faculty and staff to the university comes with a price, the market value of earned salaries. With some notable, even shameful exceptions (per course/sessional instructors, and that’s another story) we do not pay cheap. We pay what we should. Of course, if you really want to run a cheap university you’d have to start offering salaries well below the market price—and then you wouldn’t have a university at all. You’d have the educational equivalent of a fast food service, getting what you paid for.

Parking is cheap. I always love that moment when an incoming faculty or dean asks how much parking is here; when I say something like $60 they routinely say, oh, that’s not too bad a month. Media just figured this out. Recent attention to the astonishingly below-market annual rates faculty and students pay for some asphalt on which to nestle their environmentally unfriendly vehicles has just come to public notice. The university—that is, the NL taxpayer, has to subsidize those rates (at an average cost of $83 per year) for up to the tune of $890,000 annually. Cheap for drivers; for those paying the maintenance–not so much. Toot your horn if you see any logic in this cheap arrangement. I say this as a driver myself, of course, one who is willing, as are most of my colleagues across campus, to pay higher rates. It’s almost embarrassing to be talking about it these days. Parking for students is almost as high as tuition, say students. Uh, does that say more about parking or tuition?

Resident rates, tuition, fees are cheap. No argument there. Memorial remains the lowest in Canada, as the rest of the country’s institutions creep higher and higher every year. But if I hear one more student say s/he came to Memorial because it was cheap I’ll scream. Does that mean students think their degrees are going to be cheap—as in below value? Is that what they aspire to? It cheapens our conversation to think of this university that way. Faculty and staff are intent on delivering the best possible educational environment. Our students deserve that. They need to go out into the world with the belief that their degrees are actually worth something. And I know most do—so far. But the language of cheap isn’t helping. Nor is it helping to expect that high quality education and the research intensity that wraps around it is had on the cheap. It is not sustainable to think or be this way, pointe finale.

So as we move forward in our discussions around next year’s budget, in view of our own funding gaps, and as we are taking on the enormous challenge of helping out the province in its dark moment, honouring our students and researchers with an excellent education, facing the future with hope, lofty aspirations, and the belief that we can massively contribute to the social and economic well being of our citizens, let’s get rid of the whole notion of cheap. It cheapens us to think of ourselves that way.

I don’t want Memorial to be “going cheap.” I like my thrills cheap, not my workplace. People need to come and stay here because of the quality we provide. And if we can’t, well, boys and girls, we have a problem.

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Yup, that’s what I’m determined to maintain, a positive perspective. It’s easier to have this week than most. Is there any time more optimistic than fall semester, when all the opportunities are spread before us, all the hours of learning and listening, all the unexpected encounters lie ahead? Summer is fading, sure, but there is always hope in the sheer unknown of a new academic year. I have never really abandoned that feeling, having been at ‘school’ without interruption since kindergarten. Eons later the feeling of newness persists. I spoke briefly to a large theatre of parents of first-time students today, a great privilege, the air vibrant with anticipation, perhaps some anxiety, and a lot of hope for the young adults they are trying to set free from their nests. I couldn’t imagine my parents ever attending such an event back in the day. Orientation has evolved, to be sure, and I love the way we are managing it at Memorial this year, better than ever. Bravo/brava to the parents who showed up and pledged their commitment to their students’ success.

And bravo/brava to the students who are new and returning to Memorial. I wish you all only good and happy adventures and as successful an academic path as you can manage. You’ve come to the right place, I know it. Memorial has a lot going on, and so take advantage of all of it. The years ahead will comprise some of your most cherished memories.

Going forward, I have a high but not an impossible hope that the university community can sustain a rational conversation about how to cope with budget constraints. We aspire to offer the best possible post-secondary experience in the land, and can only do that with 21st century technology, infrastructure, and excellence in teaching and research. If anyone doesn’t get that then we have a responsibility to insist on it—and to tell our story. Otherwise, as a colleague likes to ask: are we prepared to be the Walmart of universities? No offense to Walmart (and its dubious labour practices) but I am sure you get the overstated point. Anyhow, I don’t want to spoil a cheery blog with musings about budgets and so here’s why I am feeling particularly optimistic about the state of things here and elsewhere in this country:

The Canadian government has sent strong signals to international students, real and potential ones, that they are welcome in this country, and that we need to dedicate all the right support systems to their success. Long-attempted pitches to the Feds for relaxing our immigration laws are finally getting an audience. (I just can’t get enough of our Prime Minister’s sunny ways, sorry).

Recent studies (Ross Finnie et al) have reminded us that a university degree significantly influences one’s earning potential. Doh. We knew that, but the research persists in showing us that this is true across the disciplinary spectrum, including the liberal arts. Yes, there is life after Chaucer or playing the harp.

The academy is becoming more indigenized. The influence of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission intensifies, as universities, like ours, take up creative responses to the TRC Report’s calls to action. More more more of that, please.

We have come a long way in thinking through how to make our campuses more accessible in every conceivable way. No one ever heard of a Wellness centre when I was a student. If you were struggling with a paper or a course you hid out in denial until your guts started to erode. At Memorial we’ve got a whole Wellness reboot in the works.

Progress has been made in a whole bunch of ways: on blurring the lines between disciplines, where possible and appropriate; on blurring the lines between experiential and traditional learning; and we are always seeking out the ways to offer career-oriented pathways without turning the whole bloody learning experience into a strictly job-seeking activity.

Today’s university sure is different from the one I attended in an age when wireless had something to do with Marconi, and only Marconi. Technology has had a lot to do with it, of course, but regardless of the myth that universities are change-resistant, students have helped drive pretty big shifts in curricula, in the delivery of courses, and in the very culture of campus life over the last several decades. On it goes, I hope.