30 July 2008

Closed minds, reason and the Memorial University crisis

Education minister Joan Burke today confirmed the rumours that have been swirling around the province for months, namely that the cabinet had interfered in the process to hire a new president for Memorial University.

In her media scrum, today, Burke repeatedly spoke of following the provisions of the Memorial University Act. She then described a new process for selecting a president of the university in which a list of names would be presented to cabinet and from which cabinet would make select the person to be appointed.

That is not what was intended. The Memorial University Act is clear:

51. There shall be a president of the university who shall be appointed by the board in consultation with the senate and with the approval of the Lieutenant-Governor in Council.

The board of regents makes the appointment. The cabinet - the lieutenant governor-in-council - may reject an appointment but nowhere is it provided in law that the president of the province's university is appointed by cabinet.

Memorial University traces it roots to Memorial College, founded in 1923 as a non-denominational institution of higher learning. In a country where public affairs were more sectarian than politically partisan, this was a revolutionary move. The college became a university in 1949, but government's intention, as expressed, in the Memorial University Act was to create a publicly-funded university that operated autonomously from government.

The Act gives to the board of regents the power to run the university and central to that is the authority to select the university's chief executive officer, the president. The hiring system, as it was, has functioned exceedingly well, finding successive presidents of extraordinary calibre: Dr. M.O. Morgan, Dr. Leslie Harris, Dr. Arthur May, and Dr. Axel Meisen are examples.

Under their leadership, the university has grown. It has earned a well-deserved international reputation despite sometimes very difficult financial times. The vision of the university founders has been fulfilled. The wisdom of their approach and that of successive government administrations has been proven.

Those administrations contained men and women of no mean ability. They were no less visionary, no less intelligent, no less capable and no less virtuous than Burke and her colleagues.

There was no reason to change the method of finding a university president.

To be fair, Joan Burke did not attempt to provide reason, nor did the official news release.

She simply laid down the law, even if she violated the statute as she did so.

Before going any further, let us dismiss any suggestion that Burke acted alone here. Only someone overly concerned with insignificant distinctions, only the most partisan of partisan apologists would consider it important that Burke claims to have made the decisions rather than the Premier, as accounts such as the one in The Globe and Mail have alleged.

Only someone totally unaware of how the administration works might think that a minister who cannot travel outside the province without the prior approval of the Premier's chief of staff might have undertaken to inject herself into the selection process at Memorial without the full approval of, if not direction by, the Premier's Office.

Burke is merely the instrument of government policy and that policy is aimed squarely at dismantling Memorial University's autonomy, the basis of its success thus far. Cabinet has already shown it's willingness to ignore the board of regents with its decision to create a separate university at Corner Brook. Now it confirms the policy by usurping the legal authority of the board of regents in not merely watching, but in substituting itself for the board.

Government policy, as described by Burke, will make finding a genuinely superlative candidate all that much harder.

The potential applicant will face an entirely unknown set of criteria for selection. Merit - the basis on which selections have been made to now - has been replaced with secret considerations. If the goal is to continue the university with the sort of success it has achieved to date, we should be suspicious of anyone who submits to this selection process. It is hardly the sort of thing one would expect in an academic institution that is supposedly "competing with other institutions nationally and internationally for the right person to take on the job."

The potential applicant will also know that - as demonstrated both in the Grenfell decision and in the hiring of the president - he or she will have no say on the future direction of the university. Cabinet is the sole authority, and it must be obeyed. Burke said it plainly in her scrum.

In the end, Burke made it clear that cabinet is not interested in open discussion.

There can be no more eloquent a reason for cabinet to stay out of the future of Memorial University than closed minds and the absence of reason. For all the contradictions between Burke's words and government actions, the contradiction between the essence of a university and the essence of this cabinet could not be more stark.

The only question left for the public right now is what the board of regents - those with the legal authority to appoint a president - will do now that their authority has been usurped.

Memorial is, to use Burke's abysmal phrase, the people's university. The people should look to the board, and to the candidates for the elected alumni seats on it, to know if the university will continue to reach for the heights or if it will begin a slide into the deep.