On August 2nd, 2023, I interviewed Memorial University Board of Regents candidate Theodore Bonnah. See the interview below:
Why did you decide to put your name forward to be a candidate for the Memorial University Board of Regents?
Living abroad as an academic, I became increasingly disappointed by the news and opinions I was hearing about Memorial. I have come home to get my son into a more diverse and accepting education system and to reconnect with friends and family. In 8 years’ time he’ll be of university age, so if I can contribute to Memorial still being around when he comes of age, that would make me happy.
What experience and skills do you have that would make you a good board member?
First, people skills. In Japan you learn a lot about forming consensus through making personal connections. I think this kind of interaction needs to happen instead of the finger pointing and factionalism we see at MUN these days.
Second, analytical skills and university experience. I do Discourse Analysis, and so you really get to see the meaning behind vacuous statements and backdoor decisions. Especially in terms of North American universities and their neoliberal style governance, a lot of it is couched as ‘common sense’ – we need to tighten the belt and raise tuition because of inflation! But when you see that execs are being headhunted and paid golden parachutes for wealth extraction by external experts, it reminds me of Joey Smallwood being taken to the cleaners by John C Doyle and other conmen who fled to Panama after bilking the fledgling province out of millions.
Ditto when people claim indigenous or gender identity to deflect criticism.
Where do you stand on the Government’s decision to remove the $68.4 million tuition offset grant?
Honestly, I am out of the loop and need to catch up on details, which is difficult as I am a single father of a special needs child busy trying to rebuild a base here. But from what little I have read, it seems the government’s explanation is that MUN is ‘in chaos’ after tuition hikes, salary cuts leading to strikes, and frivolous lawsuits by Timmons and others.
First, punishing MUN’s exec for raising tuition by reducing tuition support reminds me of Obama’s 2009 stimulus. Obama gave billions to banks in the US, only to have them give themselves bonuses and buy private airplanes. Obama hauled these CEOs into congressional hearings, but they were unrepentant. Only when he threatened to start levying heavy taxes did they supposedly put the money to the use for which it was intended. The president was closing the barn door after the horse had left.
By not putting conditions on the tuition offset grant, and repercussions if not met, the government is also in part responsible for the current mess. But it is easier to kick the ball down to the university executive level and proclaim the ministers are doing it for students. Ultimately, the cost will be passed onto students as per neoliberal standard operating procedure.
Second, for the government, this is also a handy claw back of funds they can crow about as a surplus later, when in reality Memorial mismanagement happened under their watch as well. Once again, the people at the top play power games while those at the bottom, students & taxpayers, will end up saddled with the real costs of this decision.
Where do you stand on Memorial’s decision to raise tuition?
Again, I’ll preface my remarks by saying I am still in the process of catching up and don’t know all the details. If the increases are needed to keep pace with inflation and if the money is being poured back into repairing crumbling infrastructure, funding R&D for university-led innovation, improving faculty and staff support & training, and career training and living supports for students, I’d say it might be partially justified. But walking around the tunnels and talking to locals, I doubt it is. If we look at Finland, where education up to PhD is free and of high quality, they fund it through investment and innovation by universities. The wireless EKG machine and Angry Birds both sprang from this environment. The majority of our artists, politicians, and businessfolk have come through MUN, it permeates our society, yet we still nickel and dime it because we prefer austerity to investment & innovation.
What do you think of the Government cutting millions of dollars of funding to Memorial’s operating budget in the past few years?
I’ll hold back on a detailed opinion until I’ve had time to research the issue further, save to comment that starving the only university in a region of funding is also starving the place of its future options. University enrollment is plummeting worldwide, Newfoundlanders are increasingly choosing trades or universities abroad. Seems like we like shooting ourselves in the right foot and blaming the left.
Do you agree with the additional compulsory student fees that Memorial implemented in the last few years, including the Student Services fee ($50/semester) and the Campus Renewal fee ($50 per course/semester)?
Once again, I’d have to see the figures, and especially what value is added for students. If the hikes are justified, they should come with a timetable for the improvements to be implemented, as well as a promise to secure external funding to match or exceed what students are being forced to pay.
What do you see as Memorial’s role in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador?
I’ve blogged about this on my research blog (https://daysofdiscourse.blogspot.com/), but I think Memorial is a uniquely Newfoundland social experiment. It started as the only free higher education in all of North America, soldiered on through cuts through the years as an affordable option for locals like me, then became a welcoming place for international students. However, it is increasingly become yet another American-style cash cow run for upward wealth extraction by those at the top.
For the past century, our cultural leaders, our political leaders, and our business leaders have largely passed through MUN’s gates. We neglect this at our own peril. If the only shop in town is driven into the dirt, Newfoundland will truly become a have not province.
What are your thoughts on collegial governance?
Having served on the faculty committee (kyoujukai or 教授会) on a Japanese university, with a similar system, I can see the good and bad of it. On the good side, you have academics with ethical training and who meet students face to face daily having a say in the running of the institution. This is invaluable knowledge that distant financial experts lack, but should factor into their calculations. To ignore this is to invite dissent, as we have seen.
The Board of Regents currently has a mandatory confidentiality agreement for board members. Do you agree with it? Why or why not?
Honestly, I was bound to confidentiality while serving on the faculty committee in Japan, so it is natural in a sense. I think it depends on the context. For example, when we discussed crime or financial situations of students who we were deciding on extending assistance to, we naturally made efforts to protect the privacy of those individuals. The only time I bent this rule was when I caught two students cheating in exams, and the committee moved to sweep it under the rug due to their connections to a flashy professor.
I emailed all faculty about the incident, and the committee was forced to address it. About half my colleagues congratulated me for showing proper ethics, while the other half criticized me for making waves.
Yet the Board of Regents holds even more power than faculty committees, and every decision we faculty made was kicked up to them for ratification. And they were much more secretive than the faculty.
Since Board of Regents members are mostly of financial or political backgrounds, they aren’t always the best barometers of ethical matters. At Nichidai, one of the top sports universities in Japan, a former sumo and non-academic got in as Regent (理事長) due to his connections. He turned the place into his fiefdom and cashbox, got found handing out cash and keeping bags of it lying around his office, and eventually left in disgrace. When you let a business ‘expert’ without ethical training into the driver’s seat, expect to be driven to shady places.
In your opinion, should Board of Regents members be allowed to speak publicly regarding decisions of the board and issues pertaining to Memorial?
I think it depends on the context. As mentioned above, regents and all university officials have a duty not to betray the privacy of their charges. But they also have a duty to stand up and point out ethically dubious decisions. I’d have to see the make up of the board to see if enough have this ethical training to make the right decision in a crisis. It doesn’t seem so from the past few years, but one never knows.
As I wrote on my blog, Board of Regents is a numbers game. There are 10 supposedly ‘progressive’ candidates from student and alumni ranks, but at least a third of candidates had financial or business backgrounds. This is opposed to the remaining 21, who presumably are from mostly financial or political backgrounds. There are enough bean counters at MUN, more leaders from different fields that better represent student diversity should have a say in the decision-making process.
What are your thoughts on the university using external search firms to fill senior administration positions?
I think that this is proof that they’ve completely bought into university as just another type of corporation. In Japan, all university positions are all advertised on J-Rec, the government site for academic employment. At my university, the past two presidents came from among the faculty committee because they know the inner workings of the institution firsthand, and had ethical training.
But Newfoundland has always had this inferiority complex towards experts from abroad. Witness the professor and the two Johns who stripped Joey of his cash in cockamamie schemes after Confederation. Of course, we need experts from abroad to the extent we lack local talent, but believing they are inherently better and trustworthy has to stop.
What do you think of the growing corporate influence and privatization of Memorial?
Once again, this is a malaise that has swept across North America. To financial types in charge, research & education is boring, making money is fun! Since this is coming from both government and Board of Regent levels, it is a one two punch. There is no oversight when MUN starts outsourcing its decisions to private organs like OCRO, who neither know the needs of Memorial students and faculty, nor particularly care about them.
I saw this at my former workplace in Japan, when the new dean tried to dismantle the English seminar programme I had been hired to build by the previous dean in favor of cheap outsourcing to low level private English firms. These firms get contracts with universities because they are cheaper than adjuncts, but within a year or two unis realize they have lost control of those scab teachers, educational quality plummets, and word gets round that the university is cheaping out while students are paying BIG tuition fees. Then when the university tries to rebuild the good language department they once had, it ends up costing them many times more just to return to the start line.
So much for efficiency!
What are your thoughts on freedom of expression and academic freedom?
This is what higher learning is supposed to be about, but nearly 50 years of neoliberalism has cored out the heart of university in North America just as it has decimated the free press, affordable housing, and medical coverage. The late 60’s was the heyday of political activism on this continent, and since then we have seen financial experts and politicians water down and wash away any sort of organized dissent. To neoliberals, freedom equals the free market, and ideas are only worth the financial gain they can bring.
I am happy to see that MUN faculty and students have kept a glimmer of this spirit alive, and organized to win fairer wages for educators. I was fairly politically ignorant as an undergrad, but receiving abuse as a native person, seeing racism as I travelled, and being harassed at work and school radicalized me. Fortunately, my PhD supervisor was a Frenchwoman and student of Pierre Bourdieu, so I began to see how inequality works, and how to fight it from inside. I think things are bad enough in Canada in general that the youth are being radicalized, and critical skills is the best education they can get from a post-secondary institution.
Critical skills and ethics were also what I taught to my seminar students in an economics department in Japan. Japanese students haven’t demonstrated since the 60’s, when they occupied the campuses of Tokyo and Kyoto University. Japanese politicians have capitalized on their culture of conformity to quell dissent, and make a docile, consumerist populace. When I taught David Graeber’s work on Bullshit Jobs or Marx to students, they began to see how the long work hours and family estrangement that is the norm in Japan was a product of their economic system, many vowed to build a better life for themselves. I think, in this respect, Newfoundlanders have a natural advantage in perceiving inequality and defying it.
What are your thoughts on student protests?
I think they are wonderful examples of free speech and the higher ideals of the university at work. Trying to crush these through intimidation or lawsuits is a serious breach of university ethics. Protest and dissent were welcomed or at least tolerated in earlier days. I think now we are seeing the defensive measures taken by the neoliberal management to safeguard their hegemony and source of income.
When I was in my MA, I and others stood up to a professor due to his sexist remarks. He grilled us individually to see who had squealed, and those of us who had gone to the office to complain all got Cs in a graduate course, which was unheard of. One day we were told we could redo the course with a different prof, but we’d have to pay tuition AND our old, unfair marks would not be expunged. That was the day I applied for the 1-year MA instead of 2 and got out of there.
I am proud to see students dragging these things out into the light.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
There is always hope. I fought and won against power harassment at a Japanese university, and I got my son out of Japan against all odds. Go out and read Rules for Radicals, get organized, practice self-care, and make change happen. The alternative is not worth thinking about.
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.