CBC On The Go with Anthony Germain featuring MUN President Vianne Timmons

Anthony Germain and Vianne Timmons.

On December 5th, 2022, Memorial University President Vianne Timmons took part in a segment on CBC Anthony Germain’s show “On The Go.” Below is a transcript of the episode:

Anthony Germain: I have a guest in the studio and much to talk about, going to follow up on a story we brought you on Friday about Memorial University and hopefully talk about some other issues other than student protests and tuition because I think we’ve done a fair bit of chewing that over but we’ll start with that. A MUN Student Union rep came in the studio as you may recall, to tell us that university officials were a bit heavy-handed when they threatened to forcibly remove protesters from an event on campus, Jawad Chowdhury, Executive Director of Advocacy told us that they were there to give the president a symbolic pink slip and be explained why:

Jawad Chowdhury: Vianne Timmons, Dr. Vianne Timmons failed to secure sufficient public funding for Memorial University, she also misspent of the existing public funds on lavish salaries and office renovations and administrative bloat, exploiting international students by differential fees, saddling students with mountains of student debt, failure to develop a university budget that does not double tuition fees and ensure an accessible education for all.

AG: Now that was Jawad Chowdhury, Executive Director of Advocacy for Memorial University Students Union speaking here with me on Friday. Now, I did challenge Jawad when he said that he thought that should be zero tuition and the reaction from many listeners was well ‘you gotta pay something’ and unfortunately, we’ve now reached a point where you have to pay more than you used to. Vianne Timmons is president of Memorial University and she’s in the studio with me now. Welcome to the program.

Vianne Timmons: Thank you. Thank you so much Anthony.

AG: Lots to talk about, we’ve got lots of time so I’m glad you made it in here. So, lets start with whatever it was that happened late last week. Do you think that MUN officials were a bit heavy-handed with how they reacted to what the students did?

VT: Well, I was there. Students came in, we were doing a report to the community, we had an audience, and we were doing it from six sites on all the things the university has done with communities over the last year and the students ended up blocking me from being able to interact with the community. I did not hear anyone threaten them. I did go over to them Anthony myself; I thanked them for coming and I asked if they could just stand to the side so that I could see the audience and interact.

AG: So, when I saw on social media, basically for people who are listening there was like a big pink slip I mean the size of a giant billboard really so were you behind that?

VT: Yes, they blocked me from interacting with the audience. So, they were quite close to me. So, I just asked them if they could move to the side so I could interact with the audience and they declined and so I did not do the question-and-answer period and at the end of the time they stayed there quietly, they were quiet, but they were blocking me from seeing or interacting with the audience. At the end I just wanted to say thank you to the people for coming and they followed me to block me again. I went to the side and then someone stepped and just said like “you’re too close to her” and so I just thanked the audience and that was it. That was my interaction with them.

AG: Right, so then, I’m trying to remember the gentlemen’s name who told them that he was going to disinvite them from some committees or something like that so what’s that?

VT: So, Anthony I’m the chair of Senate and students are on many, many, many committees and I’m not removing them from any. He has some informal interaction with them, looking at student safety, student conduct and he may or may not choose to continue those committees, they’re informal, those his that he initiated.

AG: But that’s a punitive nature, right?

VT: I have not talked to Greg about that so I don’t know but sometimes on the spur of the moment you say something but definitely students are not going to be removed from any official university committees. I chair Senate, they’re on Senate committees, they’re on the board, they’re continue to play that role, an important role and be there.

AG: Now Vianne Timmons, it’s not your first rodeo in academica or at any university I mean it surely can’t come as any surprise to you that students are getting a little fisty when it comes to fighting their perception that tuition increases are unacceptable, right?

VT: No, that’s true. I do find my experience here though is that students, well I’ll just use Friday as an example, in my eleven years as previous president, it would be unusual for students to interrupt a community event that was celebrating community. That they chose to do, that’s fine. There are many ways for students to express their concerns and we do still have the lowest tuition in Atlantic Canada. That was really important to us that we made sure it was accessible. We’ve also invested millions into scholarships and bursaries. So, you know we are doing our best to make sure university’s accessible to all students.

AG: I guess the fact that they’re willing to go to these lengths, is it a question of them being rude or crossing a line or is it a manifestation of the level of dissatisfaction with how prices have increased?

VT: I don’t know. I can’t speculate why they do it, but I will say the world itself has changed over the last decade you know with social media, the Trump effect I think people feel more comfortable saying and doing things that they wouldn’t have a decade before and often people like myself women are targets for that kind of disrespect behaviour. I’m not saying the students were, they were not disrespectful to me at the event, but they disrupted the event, and they blocked my ability to interact with the audience.

AG: Right, so is any kind of security review as a result of this?

VT: We’re going to look at the security protocols. There was no security, no security went up to them or interrupted them and I want students to be able to protest and have the space to protest but it’s disconcerting as a women when they rush up to you and they block you. We have to learn from it and figure out how to do both things, keep people safe and make sure that students right to protest is honoured.

AG: So, how long have you been in the job now?

VT: Two and a half years.

AG: Okay, so it’s been quite the two and a half years.

VT: It has been quite the two and a half years.

AG: You’re timing has been quite something. Has it been what you thought it would be?

VT: No, not at all. So, I took the job before we had COVID. Right, I started April 1st right when COVID hit. First thing I faced was extreme budget challenges and we had to look at the tuition and the 20 year freeze on tuition was it working for anyone? So, we had to take a look at that. We’ve done really amazing things though in that two and a half years. We opened a Labrador campus which has been doing phenomenal work, we launched a strategic plan, we’re educating nurses in Gander and in Labrador. We are starting a continuing distance ed program. There’s so many amazing things that have gotten shadowed I think by some negativity so that why the report to the community was important to kind of celebrate in the past year, all six sites have done amazing work and we wanted to share it.

AG: Right, when you say it’s not what you thought it would be. What do you mean? Has it been nastier than you thought?

VT: Yes, it’s been much nastier than I thought. You know I’m coming home right so the idea of the warmth and welcoming of Newfoundlanders, which is there, it absolutely is, but I think I’ve been surprised at how nasty people are and I’m a real believer in debate and discussion and dissent even but I’m not accustomed to the personal attacks I had. I have found that pretty tough over the past two and a half years.

AG: Personal from commentators, or students, or colleagues, or who?

VT: Oh, it’s been from students, not commentators in the media but from public. They don’t like a decision, it is not uncommon for me to have an email that is full of profanity, talking about running me out of town or a number of other things and Anthony I want people to give me their opinion and I respect it when I get it. I’ve listened to every email I read, I watch social media and when they give me thoughtful, constructive feedback or critiques a decision the university made I’m really happy and I’m honoured they feel they can do that. It’s the nastiness that I’m finding disconcerting.

AG: Certainly no one wants to deal with nastiness or toxicity, but I wonder if part of you is also a bit sensitive that if you’re too defensive you risk coming across as a little precious.

VT: Yeah well, I hope I haven’t come across as too defensive but when someone swears at you and tells you that they’re going to run you out of town I think it’s okay to be defensive and to be protective a little bit.

AG: I want to change focus now, talk about the Ode to Newfoundland. You or the university took a bit of flank for dropping the provincial anthem from recent convocation ceremonies. I know that when you had your update you addressed this issue. What have you learned?

VT: So, you know I’ve learned a lot about how people feel about the Ode and I will tell you that the three different opinions are all strong. An opinion that we should have never removed it from convocation, the opinion that the Ode needs to be changed and an encouragement to promote that discussion and then people being very appreciative that we’re not singing the Ode at convocation. So those three views are strong and are varied. There is no consensus on it which is really important for a university to generate a discussion about you know tradition and things that we do that we sometimes haven’t put thought into and for many of our Indigenous faculty, staff, and students this has been an important decision. What I love about a university is we teach our students that words matter and in this case they listened to the words and came to me and said words matter.

AG: So, I’m not quite sure I understand though. Does that mean that you are going to put the Ode back or that you want the Government to change the Ode or what? I’m a little confused.

VT: We changed Oh Canada lyrics. At this point Senate is going to have a discussion on it and I’ll wait for that. I want to hear from the Senators, they’re thoughtful and after that then I’ll convene a group and we’ll make some decisions.

AG: Because I think in some ways, I mean I took a lot of flank on the show because I made the point that you just did about Oh Canada lyrics change and anthems can be modernized and not to mention it’s the Ode to Newfoundland and not Labrador so there’s exclusion as well. It’s not so much that, I’m more, I wonder if once you start going down the road that we’re not going to do this because it reflects a colonial era, and you are Memorial University of Newfoundland named after a colonial arms force. How far do you go with what you unravel? I mean we’ve seen Ryerson change its name.

VT: This is a very common discussion at universities and Ryerson did have to change its name.

AG: They want McGill to change its name. I mean how far does this go?

VT: I think it’s a conversation that could go far. You know there’s pressure on us to look at the name of our buildings and campuses so there is a presidential task force that’s beginning that discussion to look at that. So, I think it’s important that we change and grow as a society and what better place to lead change that a university?

AG: This is why Vianne Timmons it’s better to name buildings disciplines than people.

VT: I know. I know.

AG: Alright that’s a lot of serious stuff, I meet, and we interview a lot of people on the show thank to the departments and brains over at Memorial University. What would you say are the top two things you’re proudest of over across the street from us right now? To end on something positive.

VT: Well, the proudest thing I am is not across the street, it’s in Labrador and the Labrador campus for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to look at the python for example it’s a research farm that’s part of our Labrador and to look at the food that they’ve distributed this year. It is a phenomenal story. It was part of our report to the community. It is such a great story to look at the Bonne Bay Research Aquarium Centre you know in Norris Point and the thousands of visitors it had there. To look at what our physicians, our researchers, and our clinicians do all through Newfoundland and Labrador. Identifying you know genetic cause of hearing loss and looking at that you know. There are so many good stories that are so important to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. And I’m just so proud to be part of this university that does such amazing work.

AG: Alright so the nastiness, you’re not going anywhere, right? You’re sticking around?

VT: Right at this minute in front of you I am not going but one of the challenges is that there’s been a lot of transition at the university. I’ve had five Vice-President’s Academic since I come in two and a half years. Now this is something that’s happening everywhere, in other universities, in businesses, there’s a huge turnover of senior administration.

AG: Is it like retirement?

VT: Many reasons, they’ve left for many reasons, retirements, illness, leaving for a different job. All three have happened in one post in the provost’s office. So, you know it’s a challenging time to recruit and keep senior leaders right now in the country.

AG: Last question, sort of on the misfiring brain, is the law school still going ahead?

VT: Not at this time. But what is going ahead which I’m really excited…

AG: Because I don’t know a single lawyer in town who think it’s a good idea.

VT: Well, there’s many judges that do because they know the importance of law reform. But that right now is park, what we are doing is focusing on is looking at continuing education arm of the university to offer programs on evenings and weekends, to look at a life span approach, we’re looking at a senior’s college and early children learning. Stay tuned for that, right now that a really exciting change we’re going to make to the university.

AG: Okay well listen I’m really glad you could in, lots covered there, and I hope we should make this a regular thing.

VT: I would love that, Anthony. Thank you.

AG: Thank you Vianne Timmons.

Matt Barter is a fourth-year student in the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. He enjoys reading thought-provoking articles, walks in nature, and volunteering in the community.

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