15 January 2010

Of Cukes and Unis

Truly, things are very strange when the guy who backed a second university for the province  - despite evidence at the time of declining enrolment – laces into critics who don’t like the much less ambitious version of “Grenfell autonomy” announced by the provincial government before Christmas.

For Former Williams administration employee Alex Marland, Premier Danny Williams attack on people inside the province must come as a complete shock. Anger isn’t always for reform, Alex. 

But the most bizarre part of the Premier’s speech in Corner Brook on Thursday was the comparison between Grenfell College and the Sprung greenhouse fiasco over two decades ago.

“With the situation of declining enrolment, we want to make sure we don’t launch this initiative and it fails and Grenfell becomes the Sprung (Greenhouse) of the west coast,” said Williams.

For those who don’t know, Sprung was the disastrous decision that spelled the end of Brian Peckford’s third administration.

Now Sprung didn’t fail because its proponents failed to support the government decision and prove the idea could work.

Sprung failed because it was doomed from the start.  Senior provincial government officials warned against the magnificent claims of the proponents, claims like growing more cucumbers in a hydroponic greenhouse in Newfoundland than could be grown with the near perpetual sunlight of a city near the Equator.

Unfortunately for the provincial treasury, that is for taxpayers, the politicians involved ignored the sound advice they got from people who warned of problems with the whole scheme and instead poured cash into the project.

In the Grenfell case, there is no sign any government officials voiced objections.  Others, like your humble e-scribbler and a bunch of people at Memorial University did point out that – among other things – the whole scheme the provincial government endorsed (the Premier included) was built on a model that needed Grenfell enrolment to double in 10 years.

One of those people – one Eddie Campbell – paid a price for speaking his mind.  That mess over finding a new president for the university led to a second major crisis for the university on top of the Grenfell one, both of which were driven entirely by politicians around the cabinet table.

And as for enrolment at Grenfell, it hasn’t been working its way to double in a decade.  Far from it.  Enrolment has been sliding steadily downward but not from lack of effort by the good people at Grenfell.  Rather, there just aren’t the students or prospective students to fill the seats.

They also endorsed the whole idea based on little more, apparently, than a rather lightweight assessment of the whole idea of Uni Two concept. That study was bought and paid for by the politicians, not by the proponents of the project.  And the study would also have figured out the enrolment problem since the signs were there at the time. 

The consultants would have figured that out if they had actually bothered to look at the issue.  Odd that they didn’t give it a thought, given that enrolment – students – is one of the big things that would drive a university’s success in the first place. 

All in all, it seems to have been a very odd first speech in the New Year for the Premier in his district.  It’s not odd that he chose the occasion to pick a fight with people or react negatively to anything less than an outpouring of unending support and devotion.  What’s odd is that the Premier linked his own decision with one of the singularly worst decisions taken by any administration in recent times, bar none.

This speech and all its implications might wind up having some not so pleasant consequences.

Meanwhile, for those who are interested in the Sprung fiasco, just scan down the right side and check out the series of posts linked there on Great Gambols with Public Money.  If that doesn’t work, just type that phrase into the search box up there on the top right.