Monday, 25 August 2014

PRESERVE MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY'S INDEPENDENCE

Memorial University represents not just a place of learning or of creativity meeting the academic needs of civil society.  Its very name is a commemoration of our young people who fought two World wars in order to protect democracy.

For that reason alone, Memorial must never flinch from its obligation to be a source of vibrancy and transparency for our democratic institutions. It should never become a convenient vehicle to promote government policy. It should rebuke government when it uses it fiscal muscle to diminish the University’s independence from political influence.

There is growing concern that such influence is growing inexorably. 

There is no better example than the attempt, a few years ago, by former Premier Danny Williams and his Minister, responsible for Post-Secondary Education, to subvert the process of appointing a University President.

Now, we are witnessing other examples of inappropriate pressures upon the University in the form of the appointment of two Nalcor Vice-Presidents, as members of the Board of Regents.

Then, too, there is the appointment of the Chair of the Board of Regents who is closely connected to the owner of numerous construction companies and major supporter of government.

Many of us accept that serious  academia is increasingly giving way to the demands of industry . But, none of us wants its credibility diminished or its integrity used for a political purpose.

Some may think this is part of the debate universities are having because skills training, a process distinct from shaping minds bent on critical thinking, has succeeded in climbing the Darwinian ladder of economic imperatives.  It is not.  Nor is it about what one Sociologist refers to as Campuses dominated by a “managerial ethos”.

This issue is fundamentally about the matter of the University’s independence; its need for autonomy.  Given the corrosive political environment that has characterized the Williams and Dunderdale Administrations, we need to ask if Memorial retains the ability to keep its independence safe; removed from the influence of bureaucrats and politicians.

Some will remember Evan Simpson, former Memorial Academic Vice-President’s letter to the Telegram, in 2008, where he talked about the control which the government exercises through its budgetary practices; a major interference in the University's ability to govern itself.

Simpson writes, regarding its budgetary practices: "...the university presents a menu of initiatives and the government chooses those it likes. In effect, Memorial has surrendered its capacity to set its own priorities."

The letter spoke spoke solely to Government's interference including its determination to micro-manage the institution despite having the right to appoint a majority on the Board of Regents.

Now, we have Nalcor bureaucrats serving as Regents; senior University Administrators serve on Nalcor Boards, too.

There is nothing inherently wrong with senior bureaucrats contributing to the management of our academic institutions. But, when two senior Memorial Administrators also serve on Nalcor Boards, one wonders if the arrangement threatens the University as a center of free expression. Is Memorial still capable of contributing to public policy issues when that very Agency is joined with an opaque and secretive Government in eschewing oversight of enormous spending on Muskrat Falls?

The recent publication from the Canadian Academy of Engineering Pathways Task Force entitled “Canada: Becoming a Sustainable Energy Powerhouse” co-edited by Memorial’s Vice-President of Research includes what some call a “puff” piece by Nalcor V-P Gilbert Bennett. 

The publication chronicles, as the Telegram’s Ashley Fitzpatrick noted, “research and development funding to Memorial from megaproject proponents including success stories from the offshore oil and gas industry”. It is, of course, 'boosterism'.

The Memorial V-P goes so far as to herald Muskrat Falls as an area where “we can capture...value and generate economic activity that will benefit all Canadians.”   Such a conclusion may be fine if Memorial had already examined Muskrat in an effort to provide context for the well-publicized views of others or to compensate for independent Review, the project having been torn from the PUB. 

But the Memorial V-P seems to have joined with Bennett to extol the virtues of a project already proven a failure. The cost of Muskrat has already far exceeded its original estimate and construction has barely begun.

Memorial has simply not played the public policy role it ought to have as it relates to this multi-billion dollar project. By and large the University's enormous array of academicians have been silent.  They have been  unwilling to apply their skills or to engage in constructive public debate in the face of a society largely ignorant of a project disproportionate to their needs and possessing the capability to cause great economic harm.  We ought to ask why?

Memorial does not walk the talk about engagement in local affairs. How many faculty members engage in public policy research and how many are prepared to engage in public dialogue on their research? The answer is: just a small handful. Why is this happening despite the renewed emphasis on public engagement and the recent retooling of the Battery Hotel to provide a platform for such engagement?

The Harris Centre, operated under the direction of the University President’s Office, provided a stage for Economics Professor Dr. Wade Locke to also engage in Muskrat boosterism but it thwarted any attempt by critics to improve upon this dialogue.

Memorial may believe that its future rests where government’s interests are co-mingled with its own, but it would be foolish to subvert its most fundamental responsibilities to temporary politicians and bureaucrats, ostensibly for extra funding. 

Memorial ought to remember that it is society and not the Government that it serves.

Memorial needs to change.

Memorial's centres of excellence should bring university research and expertise to bear upon provincial public policy issues rather than as a means to spread a patina of credibility on questionable public policy strategies; Muskrat Falls being one.

As a platform for public dialogue, Memorial ought to take a leading role on major provincial public policy issues and engage citizens with academics in that dialogue. It must never be wary that contrary views may offend the Government or any of the University’s donors.

The University should ask the alumni to come forward with suggestions as to how it might make the university more independent. Such suggestions might involve removal of Government's entitlement to appoint members to the Board of Regents.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians want Memorial to grow and to continue to be a vital part of our society.  Many of us have not been enamoured with recent Governments and their legacy of opaqueness, arrogance and unwise fiscal policies. 

We do not want our University to be beholden to them or to share their behaviour or their attitudes.

Government must back off from attempts to limits its autonomy, but Memorial's leadership must also act to counter a trend that can only harm its stature among those who are proud of the role it has played in the building of our society.

I believe the preservation of Memorial's integrity is now its most important project.  This pursuit will require Memorial's leadership to find some of the courage of those for whom the University is named.




7 comments:

  1. What a total crock of shit. Richard Marceau is new to NL and a decent man and he deserves better than this drive=by smear. He's also very knowledgeable in the field of big hydro and electrical engineering.

    Des, your animus for all thing Muskrat has clouded you on this one. Or does this simply suggest that view is not all that well founded, like David, Ron and the rest of the gang of 7? Is it Williams who bothers you all so much? Did he not appoint enough of the Pecky crowd to the paying boards?

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    1. I am not sure where this attack came from. The post was well balanced, and provoking. This typlifies debate in Newfoundland. It take 1 back and forth before it gets personal. Like most things in Newfoundland and Labrador the University has too tight of a relationship with the government. It is just another symtom of our failing state, where our independent institutions lie in servitude to the government.

      Healthy democracies would ensure 2 members of Nalcor would not sit on the Board of Regeants to ensure there is no perception of conflict.

      This post raised valid points, and once again Des is raising a issue, and attacking a government policy of control. I do not take this as an attack on the person. The new VP research is entitled to his opinion... but the opinion of others should also be permitted by Memorial. To date they have had Nalcor speak at mutliple public forums, likewise the main cheerleader locke. What is damming is that Lockes presentation was so poorly done, with incorrect data it undermined the entire Memorial Presents format. Locke's data was wrong. Feehan pointed that out in the session.

      I am not sure if Memorial Presents offered Feehan a similar soapbox? I guess if the same opportunity was offered to Feehan, or any other of the critics, then Des's assessment is perhaps offbase?

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    2. Mr. Sullivan offers a well-reasoned argument but this "Anonymous" resorts to innuendo and suggestions of personal slights to bolster his little tirade. In my opinion, you, sir or madam, are the one who is being petty and spiteful. If I knew who you were, I'd be happy to debate with you on a reasoned level….although I am not so sure you can handle reasoned debate without resorting to personal attacks.

      The only balanced reporting on the whole Muskrat Falls fiasco has come from the few bloggers and "naysayers" who dared to challenge the Williams demi-god myth that so many of our people bought into….bolstered, in no small part, by the mega-dollars flowing from deals signed by prior administrations.

      MUN is my alma mater and, as such, I have a vested interest in seeing it maintain an air of impartiality….not just the perception thereof. Any outside political interference is not in the best interests of academic expression or freedom, and these PC administrations have tried to influence the leadership of that institution way too much in the past decade. The individuals in question may very well be decent human beings but any person who benefits directly from any association with NALCOR is not going to be perceived as unbiased by others. But, again, the current administration is dictatorial and always acted in the best interests of the PC party….so their efforts to influence public bodies and stifle dissent is nothing new. It all started with the leadership model and style of one Danny Williams and that mantra is still very much in vogue within the inner corridors of power.

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  2. It strikes me that whoever pays the piper calls the tune. If MUN is not allowed, or does not want, to be fiscally independent then it will never be able to be the source of independent thought that universities have always been expected to be.

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    1. And here's the hammer hitting the nail on the head. Frozen tuition makes MUN more and more beholden to government every year inflation isn't 0% or less (so.... all of them), especially when MUN itself isn't sure what the true cost of their education is for domestic or international students. Is Memorial independence and autonomy important, absolutely. Does the entire governance, oversight and funding of Memorial need to be revamped to insure the preservation of that long term, ABSOLUTELY.

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  3. It is no place for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador to be lurking in the bedrooms of Memorial University giving out patronage appointments to members of that institution. Memorial University is our province's institution of higher learning and it should steadfastly toe the line of honesty and integrity for the electorate of our province especially as it pertains to our natural resources. It is something that has been badly lacking in our province ever since we have been governed. It is worse NOW though than ever. We all know that patronage is a form of corruption and it is frequently used to keep those who need to be controlled in alignment because of their potential influence that could work against the economic and political line of the ruling government. In the case of where members of the faculty were doled out patronage it is purely corruption at its worse!

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  4. All bumph replies.

    Des suggested that MUN is compromised and invoked the example of the new VP research because that fellow had published something that was perceived as pro-Muskrat (downplaying, of course, the fellow's major international credentials in the hydro field).
    The VP research is entitled to his opinion, as is Wade Locke and others at MUN. And unless any of you can come up with better, or should I say real examples of how academic freedom is being compromised, then this constitutes nothing more that the continuing slinging of mud at a wall in the hope that some sticks.
    Who is it that is pulling the strings on the MUN crowd? Who at MUN is having their strings pulled by those nefarious puppeteers?
    Anyone who knows anything about MUN, or most other universities in the western world, knows that there is no singular prevailing faculty opinion at any of them on any topic, and none of those many opinions could ever be controlled or silenced, by members of their governing board, by the institutions' presidents or by anyone else. If you have proof to the contrary in relation to MUN, then produce it, please.

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