Monday, 21 May 2018


It seems that Memorial University President Gary Kachanoski is frustrated with the Government, though it is a bit late to express that sentiment. Memorial largely ignored the warning signals about debt and risk to civil society from a decade of overspending by successive government Administrations. When the University ought to have sounded the alarm, it instead finds itself in the same boat as every other institution.

Memorial was forced to cut $8.9 million from the University's operating budget this year. In addition, the Government threatened to cut the subsidy to the University by a commensurate value of the increase if tuition fees were hiked for local students. Said a clearly disappointed University President, the province has to decide what kind of university it wants.
Memorial University President, Dr. Gary Kachanoski
Dr. Kachanoski is right to be upset about the use of tuition as a tool for anything other than pricing the quality of its offerings. But diffidence over this issue has a long history. Local students are still paying the 1999 course rate! By what measure, except in the arena of raw politics, is that sensible; inflation never having been declared dead, especially in the over-heated economy (until recently) of this Province?
And Kachanoski is right to be upset with Minister Gerry Byrne. But what did he expect? It’s not as if the Government is equipped to recast complicated public policy issues any more than it is willing to acknowledge the current fiscal crisis. From a more competent Minister, the University President may not want to hear the limited range of options anyway. The question Kachanoski raises is not a matter of what the Province wants but what it can afford.

Admittedly, Memorial is not alone in this circumstance. Every institution and employee touched by a provincial government dollar, from healthcare to education, from MUNFA to NAPE to CUPE, hopes that, at worst, the status quo will be maintained. It is faint hope to be sure and held only because all have been willingly complicit, with the government, in the denial of our fiscal circumstance.

Few would argue that Memorial is a cherished institution in Newfoundland and Labrador. Whether or not individuals have attended as students, most have a notion of how it impacts our economy, our society and our people on a personal level — their intellectual development, quality of life and careers.

For many, the faculty and staff are members of our family; Memorial is integral to the conversations held in our living rooms and at the dinner table.  No one wants to see Memorial upbraided or in any way diminished. This is not merely sentiment. A diminished Memorial University implicitly represents a poorer province, a fact reconfirmed in a recent story by the Economist magazine based upon a look at “1,120 studies across 139 countries” which confirmed “rising returns” from investments in education. Such a conclusion won’t surprise many in this province. But, realistically, when the coffers are completely empty and the fight begins over what institutions and services are most entitled, Memorial will still be in a scramble against health care, social services and a whole lot more. 

There was a time — not that long ago — when Memorial complained that its infrastructure was poorer, its offerings fewer and its salaries less than that afforded by its counterparts in Atlantic Canada. In the past decade, many of those deficiencies have been sated — though not all. Infrastructure still lags. The pension plan is still modestly deficient, prospects for growth, including a Law School, are in tatters. The initial cuts to its operating budget are likely irreversible. Indeed, it should be dawning on Memorial that this might not be another ‘one-off’ but the start of a trend. 
It does seem implausible that President Kachanoski and, indeed, all Memorial's senior leadership, were unaware of the extent to which the fiscal integrity of the province has been imperilled. 
When Stan Marshall confirmed $12.9 billion for Muskrat and the Government gave official acknowledgement that, by their own numbers, more than $400 million (more objective analysts put the figure at $500 million-plus) will be required for rate mitigation, was this not the clincher?
How could this institution not know the province’s dreadful financial state, the Premier having declared in February 2016 that it was having problems raising debt in the long-term bond market? Has not the Net and Total Debt of the province continued to worsen?
What does Memorial not understand about six deficit Budgets in a row — all well exceeding $1 billion — with the promise of more deficits to come? Is not Kachanoski’s upset over what might be a very modest cut in its operating budget premised on anything more than — dare I say it — ivory tower thinking?

There is another issue that demands stating. 
When governments fail and other institutional, business and union leaders cower over the potential costs to giving the government rebuke, to whom should the public look for leadership? Should it not be to the province's only University — both its administrative and academic leadership? 
Should they not be counted upon for sound and persistent analysis as to the implications and seriousness of the problem, for solutions and for guidance as to an appropriate public response? Is this not also how institutions cement their indispensability when threatened by competing interests?
Are these comments an overstatement of the role of an institution whose first claim is to objectivity and independence, and to the assertion that it is not the Government’s but the Province’s University? 
No one expected President Kachanoski or any of his Vice-Presidents to publicly chastise our recalcitrant political leadership. But Memorial has other tools — the ability to draw on national and international expertise, to provide larger-than-life focus to issues, including through the Harris Centre, to ultimately sound the alarm for a society clearly and unmistakably in a state of peril. Alongside the others, Memorial refused to be offside.

It may have been a terribly improvident bet, but it was a decision the University consciously made. The academic and the administrative leadership can point fingers at each other if they wish, as to who should have stepped up. But such an argument within a single University, in this small town, is likely to invite questions of dysfunction more than any other.  

Perhaps, too, it is too much to expect that Memorial students might have openly campaigned for better public administration, including for more realistic tuition fees. I suggest that they have something to learn about democracy and about public policy. In the Joey Smallwood years, when Newfoundland and Labrador was much poorer, students loudly opposed his arbitrary and often corrupt leadership notwithstanding his famed — and short-lived — policy of free tuition.
As for Memorial, the institution, it has much work to do. And not in respect to giving Dwight Ball or the Gerry Byrne enlightenment; some things are beyond everyone’s grasp. But whether the perception is the reality or not, Memorial has assumed a reputation for bloat — not unlike the government — which it has failed to dispel.
Memorial needs to look at itself in at least two respects.  
Getting more public money is not one of those. That is not an option. 
Rather, Memorial should assess how it has failed a society nearing bankruptcy, and whether it could have been the one institution that stood tall amidst so many on bended knee.
 Otherwise, it will want to assess if the standards and innovations to which it lays claim will now also include the word lean.