The election for Memorial University’s Board of Regents Alumni representatives is in its final stretch. On August 21th, 2023, I did a follow-up interview with candidate Dean Oliver. We discussed the election process and his campaigning up to this point, along with his thoughts on the Indigenization of Memorial, mental health, sexual assault policies, accessibility, the decision to remove the Ode to Newfoundland from convocation, a mandatory U-Pass program, the idea of free education, and the president’s compensation.
How did you find the election process and campaigning up to this point?
The process for the candidate is easy enough. The process for the prospective voter, wading through 45 dossiers, appears daunting. I read through all of them, shortlisted ten or so, reread those, and then decided close on two hours of parsing and pondering. You have to be a very interested alum to get through it. The brevity of the bios helps, but it is still a labour.
What are your thoughts on the Indigenization of Memorial?
The phrase is overused and somewhat inelegant, and its outcomes in many areas are too soon to tell, but the commitment of the university, students, and faculty to it appears to be strong, consistent, and appropriate. Its lodgement within MUN’s key strategic and vision documents is clear and timely, and the establishment of supporting structures and procedures is very welcome. It will be important, rhetorically as much as procedurally, to maintain the distinctiveness and urgency of Indigenous initiatives, especially in relation to other important EDI vectors with which they are sometimes unhelpfully conjoined. In times of austerity, both issues will require firm grounding and eloquent defenders.
What are your thoughts on the state of mental health resources on campus?
I am neither a student nor a faculty member and have no direct personal experience of the quality or available quality of these. As a sector, however, post-secondary education is beset with challenges from housing to childcare to personal debt to equity to employment support, a gamut that also includes serious burdens on junior faculty, graduate students, and non-academic staff. The combinative weight of mental strain is real, demonstrable, and growing. It must be an institutional priority and, therefore, closely observed by its governing bodies.
What do you think of Memorial’s sexual harassment and assault policies and resources?
I am neither a student nor a faculty member and have no direct personal experience of the quality or available quality of these at MUN. I have had a very direct experience of it at another Canadian university, where one of my daughters was a victim of incomprehensible, outrageous treatment at the hands of a male contract lecturer. To say that the Byzantine, evasive, reflexively defensive university bureaucracy was ineffectual in this instance would be a cosmic understatement. Her case, quite literally, went unresolved and unanswered before she graduated, despite two personal interviews with senior university administrators. It was, in a word, a shit show, designed in my opinion, to defend faculty against litigation while re-victimizing traumatized students with invasive, self-justificatory interrogations. While such cases are, for obvious reasons, deeply confidential, my reading of the open sources regarding MUN on such issues is guardedly optimistic but with great room for improvement.
In your opinion, is Memorial an accessible campus and are there sufficient resources and supports for persons with disabilities?
MUN has serious accessibility problems, in part due to aging infrastructure in many buildings but in part, it seems, from handling some accessibility issues as part of its ‘deferred maintenance’ budget prioritization lists. This historically appears to have continually relegated accessibility concerns to optional status, which – in fairness – senior administration appears to have committed to fix in 2022. That the announcement appeared to have coincided, roughly, with the commencement of an expensive provincial audit was likely no coincidence, but it was a small win for accessibility, nevertheless. In reading into the university’s files, and despite the rather fulsome webpages on administrative support for accessibility, which appeared clear and helpful, I could not find either the legislative or social standards the university believes itself to be following, nor an indication of any past accessibility audit that might have laid out mandatory or voluntary standards that the school might be striving to meet. Recent federal legislation in this regard has been dramatic but exceedingly helpful in establishing activity areas, foci for innovation, and delivery mechanisms, with targetable durations for the delivery of results. But perhaps even more useful is the review and certification process of the Rick Hansen Foundation, which is also linked to the UN’s sustainable development goals. The process is not a good-bad rating but one intended to help administrators establish priority areas, schedules, and targets for consistent improvements, in everything from architecture to visitor signage. In moving on any such initiative, however, stakeholder engagement, including faculty, staff, and students, is absolutely vital, as is the delegation of reasonable authority to any task group assigned the review.
Do you agree with the administration’s decision to remove the Ode to Newfoundland from convocation ceremonies?
I categorically do not. But it was much more than just a question of the ‘Ode.’ The decision appeared to have been insular, executive, top-down, and insensitive, and its ex-post facto defence illogical, insulting, and evasive. Reasonable people can agree in principle that diversity, representation, and voice should be reflected in the trappings of official aspects of identity, and the more so, the better, while also understanding first that part of this consideration are the views and beliefs of those for whom such trappings are deeply meaningful, historical, and emotional, and second that the process of recommendations for change or for change itself can and should include appropriate, modulated forms of communication, engagement, consultation, and dialogue. Whether or not the ‘Ode’ is a provincial anthem (it is a fact over which senior university administration appeared to be charitable, blithely unconcerned), and regardless of whether its wording can be rendered more inclusive (it certainly can), this was a grievous self-inflicted wound by the university’s executive. For me, it also seemed sadly, annoyingly reflective of a university administration simply tone-deaf to the views and opinions of the citizens whose tax dollars are its sustenance. The ‘Ode’ decision was one of several that led me to think about trying to offer my own small service to the province and its people by Board membership. But there were others, including the reaction of university administrators to public critique over office renovations and executive salaries and, more recently, the university’s support (via the Marine Institute) for the OceanGate submarine project, which ended in tragedy. In the latter instance, a dubious private venture on an uncertified private craft for which wealthy private clients paid $250,000 per person to be voyeurs at an underwater grave was supported in kind by a cash-strapped public provincial institution. This is beyond incomprehensible.
Would you support a mandatory U-Pass fee for all students?
I am always wary of mandatory fee structures, regardless of the stated purpose, but as with previous answers regarding finances, I would benefit from a comprehensive review of university accounts and prospects before passing judgment.
K-12 is free, and an undergraduate degree is now equivalent to what a high school degree used to be, as research by several sources states that over 70 percent of jobs now require some form of post-secondary education. What are your thoughts on the idea of free education?
This is a larger question that requires a long, careful, and contextualized response. Responding by anecdote is unfair and unhelpful to you and your readers, but I venture a small one just the same. Evaluations of free admission to national cultural institutions in the UK, which had been intended to democratize access and advantage traditionally underserved groups, resulted instead in greater access for the same socio-economic groups already attending and proportionally less use by those who’s been ostensibly targeted by the venture. In other words, the wealthy and the middle class came more often. And with greater numerical access came greater maintenance bills, which meant higher costs, a generalized cost structure that would be passed along to ratepayers. The reason, of course, is obvious in hindsight: discrete service usage is based on many things other than point-of-access cost, including life demands, education, family structure, mobility, accessibility, public transit, equity, etc. But to reiterate my point: this is a complex, important question of enormous possible impact, and I feel unqualified to answer comprehensively or helpfully in this format.
Memorial recently hired a President Pro Tempore with a salary of $434,000. Do you agree with the president being paid this amount? What should the compensation be for Memorial’s next president?
This would require greater comparative data than I have in hand, plus a full review of duties, obligations, and expectations – most of which would be resident in the performance review process, which is confidential. As a top 20 Canadian university, MUN must be competitive at all employment levels, including those at which organizations are now struggling for talent; most of the latter, however, are not in the executive suite.
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.