Heated exchanges between Minister of Advanced Skills and Education, Gerry Byrne, and Memorial, vice-president academic and provost, Noreen Golfman, have not cleared anything up as both jockey for political points and public favour.
Sifting through rhetoric in public disputes is rarely easy, but there are a few fundamental issues here that can’t be glossed over by fancy talk and misguided entitlement.
The idea that academic freedom means financial secrecy is ludicrous.
Academic freedom is, according to Universities Canada, “the freedom to teach and conduct research in an academic environment. Academic freedom is fundamental to the mandate of universities to pursue truth, educate students and disseminate knowledge and understanding.”
Academia should have the rights to challenge the way people think, governments administer and how society responds — all without fear of repercussion.
Also, according to Universities Canada, academic freedom “must be based on institutional integrity, rigorous standards for enquiry and institutional autonomy, which allows universities to set their research and educational priorities.”
This means universities should not act as an arm of government, especially as it relates to what research is being done and the educational priorities of the institution.
Autonomy does not mean void of accountability, and therein lies the problem with this public debate.
Line-by-line financial statements should be available to all in any public institution and Memorial should not be an exception. The people should be able to form their own opinion on whether the tuition is too low or whether it’s justified Memorial president Gary Kachanoski’s salary is about $100,000 higher than Justin Trudeau’s.
The public is also right to judge whether $700 meals to wine and dine prospective faculty are excessive. Golfman did herself or Memorial no favours when she defended the practice with, “We’re not feeding them peanut butter sandwiches, we are doing what professionals do.”
Memorial’s brass live in an ivory tower, one that’s elevated before the general disconnect that most of academia feels within the community.
Also flaming the political fuel on this issue, Golfman fired one over the bow of Byrne and Corner Brook when she pondered whether Memorial should look at closing Grenfell Campus, then answered her own calculated question by saying it would never be an option. Golfman has never been perceived as Grenfell’s biggest supporter, but using it as a personal political football is misguided and irresponsible.
Muddling the issue to score political points, however, is not helping things.
The way for a politician to effect change within Memorial is through the board of regents. And if the board — especially one riddled with political appointments — has decided it won’t row in the same direction of the people it represents, then changes can start there.
Unfortunately, it appears Byrne came out firing first with the threat of taking his ball and going home, rather that working on a plan that would maintain reasonable tuition and lessen the elitist, jet-setting ways of the people running the institution.
There are ways to save money, and the Board of Regents doesn’t need to look beyond its own costs — at all campuses — to get there.
Fanning that effort with political rhetoric, however, won’t help things.
What’s needed are tough decisions that minimize the effect on students, teaching and research — and steer away from protectionism of “corporate” lifestyle or political kinship.