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Co-location: Are we on the same page?

June 18, 2009

Recently, the local paper has been peppered with stories about “co-location” following the provincial government’s announcement that NBCC’s new Allied Health Centre will be co-located with UNBSJ at Tucker Park while the college’s new “Centre of Excellence for Energy and Construction” (CEEC) will be developed as the centrepiece of a reinvigorated Grandview campus.  This struck me as a most sensible plan:  The Allied Health Centre would build on the existing collaborations between NBCCSJ, the hospital and UNBSJ, while the CEEC would be strategically positioned to strengthen links with industry and provide a corridor for trades students seeking to expand their professional development opportunities.

Shortly after this announcement, some folks began to raise questions:   Wouldn’t it be better (for growth, for business, for self-sufficiency, for keeping our students in NB, etc.) if, in addition to NBCC’s health area, its energy area be co-located to UNBSJ’s Tucker Park as well?  And then, in the future, the business and technology related areas?

This is when warning bells started to go off in my head, for what was being described sounded remarkably like a proposal for post-secondary education circulated by the “Shared Vision Group” back in 2007.  The bells got louder when I realized that a number of those raising questions now were/are Shared Vision Group members.  Then, as now, the idea was that Tucker Park could become an “educational powerhouse” focussed on opportunities in Saint John’s 3 anticipated growth areas:  health, energy, and advanced manufacturing.  Then, as now, it was envisioned that NBCCSJ and UNBSJ would remain separate institutions, but would work more collaboratively and cooperatively.  Then, there was also a call for a change of governance structure, with both institutions coming under the oversight of one President and one Board of Directors.  And now?   Hoping to quiet down those darn bells, I scrutinized the recent flurry of TJ items more closely, searching for a strong statement, well any statement, from the Shared Vision Group that they now understand how folly it would be to tamper with university governance (and what defines a real university), but sadly I found no such reassurance.  In fact, I was further alarmed to read Enterprise Saint John chair Bob Manning’s comments criticizing the provincial government (TJ, June 11, 2009, C2):  “They are so scared that there’s going to be another revolt and they’re so bruised that they just don’t want to even venture down that path again, even if it’s the right thing to do.”  Did I read that right?  Is he saying that, despite all we’ve been through, some folks remain committed to venturing down that same path again, despite the “revolt” of 2007 when a sizable number of Saint John citizens rejected that path in no uncertain terms?

Apparently, and thankfully, the Liberal caucus got the message.  Referring to having “5000 or 6000 screaming and hollering” at the MLAs back in 2007, Minister Arsenault stated clearly, “We’re not going to relive a battle that the community of Saint John told us not to, a year and a half ago”  (TJ, June 10, 2009, C1).

In his comments here, Minister Arsenault’s explicitly conveys the importance of “keeping the independence of each institution” (emphasis added), reflecting a commitment to honouring the collegial processes and autonomy that define a real university.  This goes well beyond assurances that appeal to simpler notions like each institution maintaining a distinctive identity.

“But dear Chalmers,” you might say, “we’re only talking about co-location.  You are being paranoid, my dear, for there are no threats to university governance here.  We’re talking about ‘clustering,’ not ‘reconfiguring.’”

Right, like those terms are clear and unambiguous.  As UNBSJ’s AVP-Finance, so often remarks, “the devil is in the details.”  While the UNB president and VP-SJ have expressed on a number of occasions a willingness to consider co-location arrangements and to pursue them when they complement our mandate as a university, it would be fair to say that UNB has not yet completed the collegial process of fleshing out the details of a clear vision for co-location and the best ways to proceed to ensure that we maximize the benefits from these opportunities while maintaining the integrity of our academic mission.  Because UNBSJ has been partnering with the hospital and NBCCSJ for a number of years in the health sciences field, it makes sense for Tucker Park’s first co-location experience to build on such a foundation.  The same can not be said of the CEEC, and a decision this past week to locate the Centre at Tucker Park would have circumvented the university’s own collegial governance processes and set us on a particular path to the energy hub for which we would be ill-prepared and which may well not be in the university’s best interests (that has yet to be carefully assessed).

For one thing, the usual collegial processes would include a careful working through and assessment of the financial details.  Assuming there is, at best, modest growth in the PSE pie over the coming years, how will the day to day operations of these new initiatives (e.g., new co-located programs and the work of new co-located centres) be funded once the walls have gone up?  Some might find seductive (in the synergistic sense) the talk of bold developments harnessing biology, business and the social sciences to applied technology and engineering in pursuit of an energy hub agenda and the achievement of excellence (phew).  But, from my current vantage point in the social sciences, what I’m seeing on the ground is a landscape characterized by an ongoing hiring freeze and perennial budget cutting and belt tightening, such that I’m left wondering, for example, how my two remaining full-time colleagues in economics and one remaining full-time colleague in politics will be able to keep what have been two strong and popular social science programs in operation.  Will co-location renew the social sciences (and the Arts and general Sciences more broadly) or deplete them further?  Right now, we just don’t know.  The details have yet to be worked out.  The people of Saint John spoke clearly in 2007 that they wanted UNB to remain as a real university in Saint John.  We, at the university and beyond, owe it to them to ensure that in pursuing these new opportunities we do not diminish or lose what they fought so hard to preserve.

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