Monthly Archives: November 2016

Source: Hanukkah Has Nothing to do with Christmas

It won’t be long before everyone starts asking me if I am ready for Christmas. The question usually comes up as soon as the last jack-o’-lanterns are removed from the porch.  For a Jew—and probably for a Moslem—it’s a paralyzing question. Living in this province for more than three decades I am still stumped by the question. Usually, my brain experiences a wee explosion when this happens.

What are my options? I could say
a) Are you kidding? Not even close.
b) Yes.
c) No.
d) I don’t do Christmas, I’m Jewish.
I’ve probably answered c most of the time. It’s just easier to say no — which everyone expects — than to make people uncomfortable with the startling revelation that you belong to a religion that doesn’t mark the 25th of December as the First Coming. That means no decorated trees in the house; no purchasing or exchange of gifts; no icicle lights around the eaves; no cherry, fruit, or plum cakes; no fat men in red suits; no memories whatsoever of gathering ‘round the hearth on Christmas morning, opening up presents and being surprised or disappointed by what was under the wrapping paper. I know, I know, for many the absence of the aforementioned trappings of Christmas is just too hideous to contemplate.

The other day I was talking to someone Who Should Know Better. She said, well, what a time for you to be traveling/dealing with this and that/attending so many meetings, what with Christmas coming. I was gobsmacked. What does ‘Christmas coming’ have to do with me, I silently fumed. But I didn’t say anything. It’s exhausting having to switch gears with so many well-meaning people who just don’t naturally hold the view that the world is divided between Christians and many many others.

Not so long ago, in a Secret Santa ritual played for up to $10 at a university office, I unwrapped my surprise present to find a plastic crèche. Uh, I noted aloud, this won’t do me any good—I’m Jewish, and so a tableau of the Baby Jesus just doesn’t go with my life. Oh, someone said in all seriousness, it’ll make a great centrepiece for your table, though.

Where does one start?

Years ago, after I had received a lot of attention in the media for some work I had done for the opening of the abortion clinic in St. John’s I received a number of frightening death threats and a lot of hideous, unwanted mail. It was a scary time  – mercifully before social media– but with some amusement I recall the evening I received a phone call from some older-sounding gentleman who asked me straightaway how I could be supporting the clinic “as a Christian.” Uh, I’m not a Christian, I replied. Stunned silence. He could not at all comprehend what I could possibly have meant by that. The abyss of no comprehension opened between us.

I like to think times have changed since that period, not so long ago, and that most people are enlightened about the diverse, wider world we all share. Yes, probably most Newfoundlanders in 2016 know that not everyone is a Christian. But a glance at the rise of the empowered alt-right in the US following the presidential election, and the highly disturbing displays of anti-Semitism across the world, including right here in Canada last week, leave me disturbed and not a little anxious. We can debate the degree to which that outrageous orange bomb of a presidential-elect is responsible for these acts, but these displays of hatred speak to a wider response, one T**** tapped, sure, but nonetheless exist. That slice of the population has no qualms about repeating the sins of the past—not as long as it will make their country “great again.”

But what about here in Canada? Evidence exists to suggest we are not that much different—or better. Honestly, if higher education were good for anything surely it must be to tolerate diversity, and not to tolerate expressions or acts of hatred against any ethnic or religious group.

Meanwhile, in the next few weeks if anyone wishes to ask me if I am ready for Christmas, be prepared for a firm no, never, not ever.


Ottawa in autumn. It’s not always this nice but it was the last few days when I was attending the 50th anniversary meetings of the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE). I bet it was a lot chillier in the US capital, regardless of the temperature. I admit I have been walking around with a heavy heart since the US election, wavering between despair and anxiety, trying to channel it all into resistance. Most people I know can barely talk about the orange nightmare anymore. I find myself devouring Twitter for consolation, trapped in the information bubble with People Like Me. I really don’t want to read postings from those who don’t, anyway. What they are saying is too ugly for my health and for civilization in general.

At the CBIE meetings, fortuitously timed just a week after the election, a bunch of VPs and leaders of international activities at our campuses had gathered to take the pulse of progress. Canada is notoriously slow to recruit but more importantly to export our own students for experiences beyond our borders. We are doing only slightly better than last year, but still way behind Asia and the Australians whose federal government invests massive amounts in support of internationalization.

That said, the opportunities were spread out before us like a tempting hotel buffet. Two presentations, presumably long ago scheduled, focused on Canada’s advantage in a post-Brexit Trumpian universe. Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International, first spoke to us about the profound uncertainty of international research and study in the UK. When asked, Government was fond of saying, she said, that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ But, she went on, no one knows what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ means! And so it is that educators in the UK are waiting for the next shoe to drop on their partnerships, research collaborations, and recruitment initiatives. A hugely troubling element of the Brexit vote is that it signalled a rejection of expertise and of knowledge, specifically the kind universities generate. What a good time for Canada to be poaching our students, she teased.

A similar theme was expressed by renowned scholar and internationalist Hans de Wit who described the current political reality around much of the First World globe as anti-diversity, anti-immigration, anti-internationalist, nationalist and populist. It’s enough to make you choke on that hotel buffet. Trends are discouraging: the UK, USA, and rumblings from the alt-right in France, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Israel, and the Philippines. Elections next year across Europe will show the strength of the trend, by which time one hopes Trump will have evaporated like a bad dream or have been thrown in jail for any one of a long list of offences. De Wit continued that it is almost certain that around the world public funding for higher education will decrease. Largely uneducated or undereducated white guys voted Donald Trump into office. It’s not in his or his party’s interests to be supporting public universities. Moreover, national scholarship schemes (Brazil, Saudi Arabia) will be threatened, and competition from Germany and China will intensify as those nations draw in more and more students from all over the globe.

In such a grim future it is more important than ever for Canada to be carving out a lot of space as a progressive, welcoming country. We don’t have a national education policy but we do have strong provincial commitments to supporting a more diverse and highly educated population. Internationalizing our curricula cannot happen soon enough. Our recruitment efforts need to keep the current political reality in view. We aren’t looking for a cash grab from international students. That path is doomed. Instead, our efforts need to mark us as an exceptional example these days of what an open and responsible nation this is, province by province. Laurier imagined the twentieth century would belong to Canada but he might have been off by just a hundred years.

Blog 67

I was in Washington DC for some meetings last week. I took this shot of the iconic obelisk known as the Washington Monument as I was heading back to the airport, just on the other side of the Potomac.  The Potomac… love the sound of that. And I love visiting capital cities, and D.C. especially. It’s hard not to feel the weight of American history there. The sheer monumentality of the place is meant to inspire awe—politics, corruption, beltway shenanigans notwithstanding. Do residents take the sight of the Lincoln Memorial, the Kennedy Centre, the Mall, and the White House totally for granted? I can’t. The architectural symbolism of America is concentrated in such a small geographic area that you can’t help but think you’re on a movie set. I admit I’m probably seeing the place differently after four seasons of House of Cards. I love the opening montage of that series, all those time-lapse shots of the monuments and of the Capital where Frank Underwood plotted his trajectory to the presidency. (I might add I am writing this blog on election day, fingers crossed that decency and good judgment prevail.)

In the few hours I had to walk the historic streets of Georgetown I heard over and over again from shopkeepers and wait staff the hope that Canada would “let them in” after the election. Yes, if you’re Democrats especially, I would say. You might have seen the piece in Fortune magazine this week, “Move to Canada After the Election? It’s Not So Easy,” which points out the barriers—financial, required skill sets—inhibiting easy cross-border resettlement. A retired friend of mine in California wants me to sponsor him as a political refugee. I like him, would cheerfully do that.

I spent most of the time in Washington indoors at a forum sponsored by the Education Advisory Board. Many Canadian universities pay annual dues for their services—which are amazingly helpful, well worth the dime. This was my first visit to the EAB meetings and I know I will be returning when I can. The EAB is well equipped to do research most universities crave. Their research forums disseminate their findings on a range of current topics, from recruitment and enrolment trends, budget challenges, changes in learning, infrastructure needs, how technology is transforming the curriculum, and so on. They crunch data with the best of them, offering best practices after surveying a broad range of post-secondary sites, updating their databases regularly. The forum I attended included four other Canadian and about 32 US-based Vice Presidents Academic. That’s a small enough group in which one can have an extended conversation, not just shut up and listen, although I did a lot of that, too. As diverse a group as we were there is so much we have in common in 2016.

In one of the presentations offered by the expert EAB staff, Memorial was singled out a number of times for our innovations in career advising, notably our focus on career-integrated learning. We—or more specifically, Dr. Rob Shea–was working in this area at least five years ago, but others—like the EAB—are catching up to its importance now. Needless to say, it felt g.d. good to be in the spotlight in a group like that, thank you, Rob. Overall, I felt that Memorial was in a really good place regarding advances in research and learning, very reassuring. Sometimes we really sell ourselves short, consistent complaining being a natural activity in the privileged academy. Wish we could get over that tendency.

The overarching lesson of the forum was very much in keeping, somewhat coincidentally, with my last blog on integration vs disintegration of our activities across the spectrum of university life. Indeed, this was the major theme of the meeting: in times of budget constraint, with the trend being even less money coming from public sources (and it’s really brutal in the USA), universities need to be more creative and efficient than ever. The positive note in all this is that we should be integrating our services and practices much more actively than we have anyway. But there’s nothing like hard, or harder, times to compel some fresh thinking about how we do our business. And since our business is all about providing the best educational experience we can deliver, we have rich opportunity to imagine what Memorial should look like in five to ten years from now. How do we use the resources we already have to satisfy our vision of being one of the most distinguished universities in this country?

An Integrated Planning Committee I chair is committed to exploring that question, and we will be looking to the university community for your thoughts. Start dreaming, if you haven’t already been doing so.