At a time when some are describing Memorial University as being in chaos, forty-five alumni candidates are running for the school’s governing body. On August 8th, 2023, I interviewed Board of Regents candidate Jeffrey Blackwood. We discussed his interest in serving as a Board member and his views on Government funding cuts, tuition increases, collegial governance, the confidentiality agreement, the corporate influence and privatization of the University, free expression, and student protests. See the interview below:
Why did you decide to put your name forward to be a candidate for the Memorial University Board of Regents?
I had put my name forward originally at the last election, but due to changes in life that I had at the time nominations closed, I decided to withdraw. Now, I feel that I am established enough in said changes that I can run again. I feel that this is an opportunity for me to not only give back to Memorial but learn more about the inner workings of the University itself to gain a better understanding of how such an important facility works.
What experience and skills do you have that would make you a good board member?
In my vocation as a Priest, I have spent the last eleven years in chairperson capacities, as well as having served on various Church committees, including Diocesan Synod, Diocesan Executive Council, and Provincial Synod. Being a part of these bodies has given me the skills to listen and collaborate, as well as knowing when the time to make tough decisions has come.
Where do you stand on the Government’s decision to remove the $68.4 million tuition offset grant?
I feel that, due to the current global economic climate, the Government was working within a tight fiscal restriction. Was it a bit much to cut by so much in a short period of time? Most likely. However, there needs to be an acceptance of the fiscal reality of the province.
Where do you stand on Memorial’s decision to raise tuition?
I feel that the rise in tuition was too much too fast. I do feel that an increase was far overdue (having the “cheapest” tuition in the country whilst having crumbling infrastructure is not exactly good marketing), but it needs to be slow and gradual such that it can be easily adjusted to. We see the cost of everything skyrocketing with little to no notice, and if there is going to be an increase, it still needs to keep tuition accessible.
What do you think of the Government cutting millions of dollars of funding to Memorial’s operating budget in the past few years?
It is an unfortunate reality to see budget cuts, and there needs to be a middle ground between large cuts and realistic spending.
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)?
The biggest issue with new fees is seeing them allocated for exactly what they are calling for. If students are paying extra fees, there needs to be a visible outcome to them. If Student Services/Campus Renewal isn’t happening, then the fees serve no significant purpose. If there is improvement, then the fees are beneficial.
What do you see as Memorial’s role in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador?
Memorial’s role needs to be as a leader in equipping the future generations of the province to actually be the future. When students graduate from Memorial, they should feel that their chosen academic path can lead to successful careers within the province.
What are your thoughts on collegial governance?
Every person sitting on any board deserves to have a voice and be represented. In a facility such as Memorial, there needs to be adequate representation from all sides, including faculty, lecturers, alumnae, and students.
The Board of Regents currently has a mandatory confidentiality agreement for board members. Do you agree with it? Why or why not?
As a Priest, I have signed confidentiality agreements with the Diocese and with the Health Authority, as I do deal with private conversations and moments almost daily. With the gravitas of decisions the Board has to deal with, confidentiality is needed. Just because members sign a confidentiality agreement doesn’t mean everything is secret; it just means information that is sensitive needs to be protected until made public.
In your opinion, should Board of Regents members be allowed to speak publicly regarding decisions of the Board and issues pertaining to Memorial?
There is a reason that the committees within the Board have their spokespeople and that the Board issues official statements – unity. If members start speaking their full opinions publicly, and those views are in stark contrast to the Board’s statements, then the integrity of the Board looks compromised. Members should always be aware that full external expression does affect the overall view of the Board itself.
What are your thoughts on the University using external search firms to fill senior administration positions?
It may seem like something that the University shouldn’t be doing if there are Boards to “do this job,” but using an external firm is just a normal part of a large-scale operation. Sometimes these firms have the expertise that local boards just may not have. And if Memorial is to be a leader and competitive in seeking the best, sometimes an external firm is necessary.
What do you think of the growing corporate influence and privatization of Memorial?
I have not seen any inclinations of attempts to privatize Memorial, and if corporations donate monies to help the University in exchange for building names or other things, that is all a part of the nature of universities across Canada.
What are your thoughts on freedom of expression and academic freedom?
There is a very fine line that needs to be maintained when talking about freedoms. Unfortunately, in our society, we take freedom of expression as meaning “being able to say or do as one wants,” but every expression can be viewed as disrespectful or even offensive to someone else. The same can be said about academic freedoms. We need to be acutely aware of the feelings of others in any expression of opinion.
What are your thoughts on student protests?
Student protests, again like freedom of expression, hover a fine line at times between a protest and an attack. A protest needs to remember that there are humans involved on the other side of the argument, and the issue should never attack the character of the person involved. People in public life, including University faculty in this instance, sometimes have to make decisions that people will inherently disagree with. A protest should always be about the decision made, never the decision-maker.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
All Alumnae should take serious consideration to all candidates and make their votes count. May the best candidates win.
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.