Getting to Know Memorial University Inside a Bubble

Vianne Timmons 

The deserted campus of Memorial University in St, John’s. President Vianne Timmons looks forward to its re-opening “so I can once again walk the halls, and speak with students, faculty and staff.” Memorial University photo

I have wonderful memories of my time in Saskatchewan as president of the University of Regina. Now, I am living a new life in Newfoundland and Labrador, as president of Memorial University and making new memories.

The first memory is spending weeks in a B&B. 

Due to the provincial and regional bubbles that are restricting travel to Newfoundland and Labrador and the Maritime provinces, visitors are required to self-isolate for two weeks upon arrival. That meant I had to leave Regina almost like a thief in the night and stay at a B&B in downtown St. John’s so I could start my new job on April 1. The stay in the B&B turned into five weeks, as my husband and two daughters arrived and we quarantined together. 

The past year has been difficult for so many people in so many different ways. Personally, one of the reasons I chose to move back east was to be closer to my 87-year-old mother, who lives in Nova Scotia. I haven’t seen her since October. 

My new granddaughter arrived in January, but I haven’t met her in person yet. I have not seen one of my daughters and two grandchildren for almost two years. I recognize this is a story that many Canadians are living.

A benefit of moving to Newfoundland and Labrador is buying a house that is a 30-minute walk from the St. John’s campus. Not only do I get exercise every day by walking to work, I get time to reflect and work out issues that Memorial is facing.

Another benefit of that daily hike is running into people. An important part of my job is supporting students, and I miss them. I stop young people on the road and ask if they are Memorial students. I ask servers in restaurants if they go to Memorial. I wonder if there’s a story going around St. John’s about the very friendly woman who stops random people on the street to ask about their educational plans. 

Memorial students are amazing. They are resilient. The switch to remote learning and dealing with the stress of the pandemic didn’t slow them down. In fact, enrolment at Memorial reached an all-time high in September 2020 with more than 19,400 students. Applications for the fall semester are up as well. Our retention numbers also improved this year, which is a credit to our faculty.

My last article for Policy magazine focused on my listening tour, titled on social media #talesfromtheroadMUN. I spent a couple of months travelling the province and meeting people from all walks of life. It gave me a close-up picture of Newfoundland and Labrador and taught me so much—lessons I couldn’t have learned sitting behind my desk in St. John’s.

Vianne Timmons’ new granddaughter, Simone Morgan Mason arrived in January, “but I haven’t met her yet.” Family photo

Understanding place and culture in Newfoundland and Labrador is critically important for decision-making. You cannot understand Memorial if you don’t understand the province and the people. The university has a special obligation to Newfoundland and Labrador; it is in its DNA.

So, I decided the tour will continue to be part of my leadership. It was a way for people to get to know me, starting with my first video taken outside the B&B, when I also posted a blooper clip—people did seem to enjoy that! It allows me to reach out to people and groups if I can’t be there physically, which will be often because the province is so large geographically. 

Big changes are coming to Memorial University. Two provincial government-sponsored reports recently released (online at Public Post-Secondary Education Review and the Premier’s Economic Recovery Report) suggest this is the case and it is important that I listen and learn about the province’s expectations of the university. 

Our way forward will be partly achieved through the development of our new strategic plan, Transforming our Horizons. The consultative strategic planning process began during a pandemic. It was challenging but we succeeded. The Board of Regents just approved this five-year vision for Memorial. 

Along with implementing the strategic plan, we will be managing the provincial government’s complex budget decisions. During the next five years, Memorial’s budget will be cut by 23 percent. This is after reducing our workforce by 10 percent during the last five years and managing $52 million in cuts. 

The two reports referenced above recommend an end to the 22-year tuition freeze imposed by the province. This will mitigate some of the cuts. We know, as a provincial university, that we have to be part of the solution to the economic challenges the province faces. Memorial University has shown during the last year of COVID-19, and during the last five years of cuts, that it can adjust and manage in the most unpredictable circumstances. 

I know there will be verbal attacks and things will get personal. My only hope is that during this past year, when I could not meet faculty, staff, students or community members in person, that I was still able to develop relationships and build trust. Only time will tell.

I hope that when the world, or, at least, the university, opens up in September, that I can once again walk the halls and speak with students, faculty and staff. Communications and building relationships will be critical during the next few years. 

To survive and come out stronger as a university, we will need to ensure that our value is recognized by the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. We will have to work closely with government to ensure it is aware of the impact of the cuts. But, most importantly, we will need to engage faculty and staff in looking at restructuring and finding efficiencies. 

I am confident as we enter these challenging times that we will emerge as a stronger and better institution. Our strategic plan is inspiring and provides us with a forward focus. I am also hopeful that I can meet my new granddaughter, see my children and other grandchildren, and spend time with my mother.  

Contributing Writer Vianne Timmons is President and Vice-Chancellor of Memorial University in St. John’s.