A top administrator at Memorial University of Newfoundland says Minister Gerry Byrne's accusations that the university is being facetious over its finances are undermining efforts to come up with real solutions to the institution's financial woes.
"It's distracting, a bit demoralizing," said Noreen Golfman, MUN's vice-president of academic during an interview on the St. John's Morning Show.
"It's become something of a national buzz all around this. You have a minister accusing us of stuff — that's heavy."
Her comments refer to comments made by Advanced Education Minister Gerry Byrne on Wednesday, who claimed that MUN has been providing inaccurate financial information to the public about the per-student operating costs.
On Thursday, MUN's administration held a town hall forum to discuss the university's dire financial situation, and try to build a consensus on how to tackle it.
Between a rock and a hard place
Golfman said it was clear at the meeting that increasing tuition or fees for students is not a popular option, but with the government cutting $10-million in infrastructure funding for the university, the administration is left with with few options to generate revenue.
"As senior administrators, we have to do the right thing," she said. "We don't want to be in a place where we are asking for more tuition from international and Canadian students, but this is the place we've come to."
Golfman said one solution could include shifting MUN from being a research-oriented institution to being centred more around teaching — a model adopted by other Canadian schools such as Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.
Another option, she said, could be to revisit MUN's relationship with Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook, something she said would undermine years of recent progress when it comes to the relationship with the campus.
"We've made great strides in our relationship over the years, we're doing fabulous things together, Grenfell is vital," she said.
Time to end the freeze?
Creating an infrastructure and technology fee, or a campus renewal fee were other ideas floated at Thursday's town hall, as was the idea of increasing tuition for international students. International students already pay double the tuition of Canadians at MUN, and at the town hall several of them raised concerns about raising their dues even more.
Golfman said even raising tuition for local students needs to be considered, despite the continued push from the students' union and others to keep a freeze that's been in place for more than a decade.
"If you see just where we are in comparison to the rest of the country – and I know that's not an argument students think is valid – even with a 16.3 per cent increase we would still be so much lower than anywhere else in Canada for undergrad and grad," she said.
"What is the point beyond which the programs that students want at a very low cost can not be delivered? This is the sort of big contradiction we are now up against at this moment."
Golfman is still confident that some sort of solution can come out of the town hall and senate meetings. She said she and other administrators feel they still generally have the public's support when it comes to creating new revenue streams, even if people still sympathize with where students are coming from.
Golfman said the university needs money to keep up with infrastructure needs and Gerry Byrne's comments and accusations only create a sideshow that is counterproductive to coming up with actual solutions.
"I wish we were having some real conversations face to face about this up on the hill, not playing this out in the media, sort of Trump style," she said. "It's just unseemly and I don't think it dignifies the province and the citizens of this province."
Asked about Golfman's comments, Byrne said Friday afternoon that he's just trying to engage in some public debate, and said Golfman comparing him to Donald Trump shows she isn't confident in arguing about the issues at hand.
"We can have a disagreement and still have a mature relationship. The moment that you begin to characterize and drag personalities into this kind of a discussion, you've lost sight," he said.
"It's not the first time that Dr. Golfman has pointed a few barbs at me. She's a prolific blog writer — but you know what? I'm about ideas. I'm not afraid of debate or confrontation every once and a while, nor should anyone be within the context of a university."