I didn’t realize my last blog on the provincial budget was going to carry me over for two weeks. Thought I’d give the blogspace a pass last week since readers were still catching up to it. I thought I might get some reaction but, man, that was intense. Thanks so much to everyone who wrote, either on this space or directly to me. Those emails of solidarity and thoughtful support mean a lot. Much much appreciated. The sheer volume of responses suggests how ravenous we are for more than a superficial conversation about the implications of the provincial budget. The blog in all its frustrated expression touched a nerve, to be sure.
The first week it was posted a few regular readers commented that no one seemed to notice it. Not sure why, I said. Well, sometimes the right switch needs flicking. At the top of the second week Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategies, who has 3,866 followers, tweeted it out and, lo, the wave started coming in. People who read Usher read the blog. Emails started coming in from colleagues and friends across the country and the US. As the typically delayed reaction of mainstream news goes these days, it took about 36 hours after Usher’s posting before CBC and NTV turned it into a story, headlining it with their own adjective: “scathing,” they hyperbolized. Among other things the experience has been yet another short course in how communications work in our time. And as I wrote a few weeks ago in this space, once your message is out there and people are paying attention you have to surrender any desire to control it, because you can’t.
I sure would not want to be in the shoes of the Premier or the Finance Minister. They must feel like hostages in their own country. Reaction has been swift and largely brutal. It’s also gotten mean and personal, vulgar and even embarrassing. I have had my share of trolling insults, but nothing close to what they are getting–whether through the anonymity of social media or the brazen openness of picket signs. The common theme among the nasty and sadly misogynistic emails I received and in many I see directed towards government reinforces the importance of a good education. Go back to school, please. Most of those tweets were near illiterate, badly spelled, close to incoherent. Full of spite and rage, yes, and also full of disgust for Memorial. What’s up with that? The staff/faculty salary topic many haters focus on is a distraction from some other underlying anti-intellectual force out there. That force is alive and well in North America–hello US presidential race–and it is equally alive where we live. By the way, I consider a good companion piece to this blog a fresh column by author Ed Riche. Check out “Moving Forward in Hard Times” in this week’s edition of The Overcast.
It’s the anti-intellectualism that gets me down more than anything, and that’s what gets me going more than anything. I know those of us who work at Memorial are fiercely proud of how strong an institution it has become and promises to be. So many of us chose to work and live in Newfoundland. We weren’t pushed.
When I was first offered a job in the English department over thirty years ago a friend of mine at McGill asked me why I wanted to work here: “They’re just a bunch of yahoos out there,” he said. That comment burns me still. Memorial is as imperfect as any post secondary institution struggling to balance access and quality programming, trying to move forward with a decaying physical plant and almost constant threat of reduced funding. But it is a strong symbol and fact of this province’s commitment to higher education, to providing opportunity for its citizens. Research keeps showing that those holding college and university degrees have better quality of life, achieve higher salaries, live longer. Well, that trio of outcomes should encourage more, not less investment in the university; more, not less appreciation for the value of an education; more, not less pride in how many smart, sophisticated innovators we have graduated and populated the world with. A highly educated society costs taxpayers less for health care, for social problems, for crime. We eat better, smoke less. Who doesn’t get that?
Students often rightly feel caught in the middle of the dynamic between the university and government, however flawed it might be, somewhat helpless, not sure which side to blame or hold more accountable. It’s going to be challenging, but I really hope Memorial will not increase tuition this year. In 2016-2017 we will once again find savings and cover costs as best we can. It may mean more infrastructure delay, fewer hirings, fewer journals, but, if possible, no diminution of the quality of our programs. It will mean some diminution of morale, I know that. We need to fight that however we can, brassy blogs and all. What I can’t say is what we will be compelled to do in the future. The first cut might not be the deepest.