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 17th, 2023, I interviewed Board of Regents candidate Dean Oliver. 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 felt the time was right to try to give back. Moving next month to a private sector job after 25 years of federal public service, and having watched MUN struggle recently in terms of leadership, identity, and public trust, I believed that my experience on boards, granting agencies, and in leading major public initiatives – including those in the areas of history, culture, and Indigeneity – could be of some service to Memorial and the people it represents. Specifically, I felt that the convocation decision on ‘The Ode to Newfoundland’ was deeply troubling, poorly handled (before and after), and, it seemed to me, reflective of a university culture that had become far less sensitive to and respectful of the people, places, and cultures of the province than it should be. Then, frankly, it must be.
What experience and skills do you have that would make you a good board member?
I’ve worked in senior leadership positions for all of my 25 years in the cultural sector, but I have also served on numerous boards (e.g., the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada), as well as national granting agencies (e.g., SSHRC) and advisory groups. I’m a historian by training, but I also ran for nine years the multidisciplinary research team at the Canadian Museum of History (the country’s most visited) and have extensive experience in capital projects, strategic planning, and public-facing projects, including public consultation and outreach. I’ve spoken on such subjects several times in Newfoundland and Labrador in recent years, including at the invitation of MUN and The Rooms. More than any of this, however, I suppose I’d see my principal advantage as having worked joyfully in the world of ideas for more than a quarter century and believing in my bones that this ecosystem needs to survive the current international assault on knowledge, science, and public institutions. Quite literally, the planet hangs in the balance.
Where do you stand on the Government’s decision to remove the $68.4 million tuition offset grant?
Where do you stand on Memorial’s decision to raise tuition?
What do you think of the Government cutting millions of dollars of funding to Memorial’s operating budget in the past few years?
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)?
Specific comments on budget decisions are difficult without seeing, hearing, and discussing the broader aspect of financial health and sustainability (personnel, projects, infrastructure, innovation). Universities are enormously complex institutions with multiple inputs and outputs, and the details of these reside only in part in the publicly available (usually one-year outdated) fiscal reports and data sheets, to which are added institutional projections, strategic choices and priorities, departmental work plans, and the normal vicissitudes of macroeconomic impacts. That said, as a principal value proposition of the Government, MUN must grow its operating budget if its existing strategic plans are to be brought to fruition. Across the world, governments are struggling with post-pandemic financing, given both the demands of health- and human security-related expenditures and, more recently, military security in light of the war in Ukraine. Inflationary pressures continue. Diversifying university income while strictly prioritizing expenditures will both be key, especially in the medium term – out to 5-6 years, and the balance of these (e.g., alumni funding, corporate partnerships, tuition, Government operating grants, etc.) will not be easy.
What do you see as Memorial’s role in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador?
MUN must live fervently its mandate: to be FOR the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, and not just a big and excellent university IN the province. Its role, though complex and multifaceted, is also singular: to be the province’s centre for research, teaching, learning, and innovation about us, and in ways that situate the province within the global communities of knowledge, experience, and education, to benefit our shared humanity and chances for global survival. The current strategic plan covers much of this and with great promise. But its emphasis on “the world” and “the future” seems to overwhelm “the province” and “the present”, not to mention “students”, the University’s real-life blood. I’d see a strong role for the Board, within its designated mandate, of helping negotiate adherence to or clarification of strategic priorities, via close review of those files coming to it and perhaps via extant or specific committees struck to investigate such issues. The province in most MUN executive documents seems to me to be a stepping stone to international distinction, and not its core, a springboard from which many things proceed but rarely sui generis as its heart and soul. I was personally disappointed in the ‘Horizons’ document, and – while Board membership would commit me to support it – I would nudge the University, wherever possible and appropriate, towards greater emphasis in its management, administration, and oversight, towards the province and its people. I cannot find in this or other university strategic commitments the beating pulse of the place I adore, the people I love there, or the music, wit, wisdom, and lore that made me. This must sound terribly parochial. Nevertheless, it reflects why I am running: because I think the University has partially lost its way, moving ever farther from its Memorial and provincial centre towards the same kinds of international gambits, accreditation lists, and far-flung partnerships as every other similarly accoutered post-secondary institution. This is not distinction, much less uniqueness. In fact, I might argue that it sacrifices uniqueness in order to chase distinction.
A very small example: MUN was founded in 1925 as a memorial. To whom? Now, go through MUN’s strategic documents to try to find evidence of this continuing commitment. Aside from a 2021 private donation from a single generous family for a history postdoc, I could find none. Zero. Not even rhetorically. In the history department, where such a commitment might be expected principally to reside, there are precisely the same number of positions with research interests attributed to medieval Europe, Guatemala, Bermuda, and Sweden as to military history or veterans: one. And not one of those mentions Newfoundland and Labrador’s military history, remembrance, or veterans. Likewise, in the “research interests” section of the current faculty of the Department of Political Science, not one permanent faculty member lists Newfoundland and Labrador as a research specialty. Not one.
What are your thoughts on collegial governance?
The concept per se is fine, not to mention admirable, even aspirational. But – like “institutional culture,” “consensus decision-making,” etc. – it is often a barbed charge hurled at extant processes or structures that critics believe impervious or tactically disadvantageous. It is, therefore, sometimes a clever claim for additional power or representation, cloaked as a presumed best practice. Governance, collegial or otherwise, is indeed often the problem, but so too are related concepts like transparency, trust, leadership, and vision, with related concomitants that include proper documentation of decisions, clear mandates, and appropriate forms of consultation and communication. It was, I know, an issue in the recent faculty strike, but I’m not sure that ipso facto its greater promotion would have, for example (and as sometimes implied), led to a different decision by the Presidential Selection Committee on which – via the Senate selection process – faculty representatives were already present. Likewise, deploying bare-knuckled university policies against student critics of executive management is not a governance question per se but more one of executive behaviour and potential abuse of power.
The Board of Regents currently has a mandatory confidentiality agreement for board members. Do you agree with it? Why or why not?
In your opinion, should Board of Regents members be allowed to speak publicly regarding decisions of the Board and issues pertaining to Memorial?
I have no issue with the Board’s current bylaws, though I reserve the right to suggest amendments or additions should, with experience or in light of specific challenges, the opportunity arise. The current wording concerning open versus closed sessions, and the specifics surrounding documentation and reporting, seem reasonable to me and are perfectly consistent with those of other organizations which I’ve served. It can, of course, be difficult to explicate or defend perceived secrecy in any aspect of public service, and yet such protections and reasonable precautions contribute not only to collective trust and honesty of expression, which are essential, but also – and perhaps more importantly – to confidential and sensitive discussions of mandate-related issues, including those related to personnel, compensation, harassment, and competitive contracts. In any collaborative group, reasonable people will disagree and often do so strongly, but once decisions have been taken – by vote, consensus, majority, etc. – it is both efficacious and respectful that all members publicly support the work of the organization to which they have committed their efforts. The option of resignation, on the point of strong disagreement or principle, remains. Within this or any group, the key is to ensure that all opinions, and especially those that might prove disputatious or shed light from an unexpected angle, be aired and queried. In a Board of 30 diverse people, that challenge is prodigious, yet good chairs and co-chairs manage it all the time.
What are your thoughts on the University using external search firms to fill senior administration positions?
External firms are one of the tools at the University’s disposal to find and retain senior people, but often a critical one, bringing to the table industry data, best practices, and sectoral awareness that HR departments or governance boards cannot easily acquire or evaluate. They can also create a non-denominational space between key administrators and their preferences on the one hand and value-neutral evaluations of candidates on the other. Determining what an organization wants or thinks it wants and juxtaposing these criteria with such factors as compensation, competitive advantage, market position, and candidate pool are additional advantages that qualified search firms regularly provide, especially in systems where senior hiring practices are well-delineated. In cases where they are not, search firms can help establish underlying procedures that lead to better outcomes. That said, they are not a panacea, and the cost versus benefit calculus is not always clear. Search firms, even those working closely over time with valued clients, are mercenary contractors whose practices are malleable to client needs and stated expectations and therefore are not immune to the normal pressures in any process – vanity, lack of clarity, implicit bias, opacity, etc. Search processes can also prove remarkably secretive, arising from intimate dyadic conversations and memos between themselves and the organization’s most senior leaders, raising the obvious and perilous possibility of hiring without the benefit of external challenge or stakeholder validation.
What do you think of the growing corporate influence and privatization of Memorial?
I have no data on the magnitude or pace of this growth, including historical norms about funding data. This might be publicly available, but if so, I apologize for not having consulted it and seen it succinctly rendered in longitudinal form. That said, post-secondary institutions need diverse and expanding funding inputs in order to survive and prosper. This will be especially important in the post-COVID macroeconomic climate. Freedom of expression must remain sacrosanct, however, and funding acceptances must incorporate this explicitly and fulsomely, up to and including rejection of ‘strings attached’ offers. The same challenges and opportunities exist in all public sectors where private support is also countenanced.
What are your thoughts on freedom of expression and academic freedom?
What are your thoughts on student protests?
Civil protest, student or otherwise, forms part of the social dialogue at the centre of which all universities must comfortably exist. Talking the talk isn’t enough. Safety and security matter immensely, of course, as do others’ coincidental rights and expectations, but so too does deep and fundamental respect for the overriding principles of democratic life, which include opposition, dissent, debate, agitation, and resistance. The boundaries of all such things are ever in flux, and definitional differences can be combustible (as Ottawa residents well know!!), but they must be entertained. Protest also exists on a continuum that includes consultation, engagement, and collaboration, and with outcomes ranging from consensual acceptance to visceral rejection.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I’d like to thank you for your interest and questions, which made me pause, think, and focus. I’d also like to thank you for your boldness and your commitment. In a field of 45 candidates, I am unlikely to succeed. But I am deeply grateful to have had this exchange and to have chatted with Anthony Germain this morning. MUN’s alumni will elect who they think they need. And I wish them well.
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.