Nfld. & Labrador

Allegations of financial fudging 'unfounded,' says MUN president during town hall forum

The allegations made by Advanced Education Minister Gerry Byrne are serious and without merit, president Gary Kachanoski said before a town hall discussion on Thursday.

Advanced Education Minister Gerry Byrne says MUN should look at spending before burdening students

Three top administators at Memorial University, president Gary Kachanoski and vice-presidents Noreen Golfman and Kent Decker (right), spoke during a rare town hall budget meeting on the St. John's campus Thursday. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

A feud has erupted between a senior provincial politician and administrative leaders at Memorial University in the midst of ongoing debate over MUN's financial crunch.

It began Wednesday with Advanced Education Minister Gerry Byrne telling reporters that MUN has been providing inaccurate financial information to the public about the per-student operating costs at the university.

The dispute then spilled onto the floor of a rare town hall meeting on the St. John's campus Thursday, with MUN president Gary Kachanoski saying Byrne's accusations were "unfounded and not correct."

The acrimony is complicating an already tense situation as the university grapples with millions in cuts from the provincial government, and floats the prospect of higher tuition for non-Newfoundland and Labrador students and expensive new fees for all students.

"These are serious allegations that call into question [our] integrity," Kachanoski said of Byrne's comments. "I have complete confidence in the integrity of our financial and administration services team."

Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Gerry Byrne said once again Thursday he believes Memorial University can find more efficiencies in its spending before burdening students with higher fees and tuition. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Byrne has been critical of the way MUN is spending the more than $300 million in government money it receives each year, and stirred the pot once again on Wednesday.

He told reporters that MUN has been providing inaccurate financial data to Statistics Canada and a national university association, thereby inflating the annual operating cost per student to $31,000, far above the national average of $19,000.

'We can't operate like this'

But during a special Senate meeting earlier this week, and again today during the town hall meeting, the university used a different number — $26,000 per student.

Byrne has called on the university to correct the information, while university officials said Thursday their practices are "beyond reproach."

We want to be somewhere between fair and poor. We're nowhere near [good].- Kent Decker, vice-president of finance

The dispute nearly overshadowed what has become a serious financial situation at MUN, with some university leaders saying it may be necessary to make academic cuts, or perhaps take even more drastic measures.

"We can't operate like this right now," said Noreen Golfman, MUN's provost and vice-president (academic).

"At some point does the province want to engage in a conversation about, should we give up research, or become a small teaching college? Should we give up Grenfell campus?"

It was a full turnout for MUN's town hall forum at the university's Bruneau Centre Thursday afternoon. (Memorial University)

The 90-minute town hall meeting to discuss MUN's 2017-18 budget was a rare opportunity for the entire university community to discuss the situation, with 300 people crowding into the Innovation Centre lecture hall.

MUN has floated some examples of how it could generate new revenue, including a 16.3 per cent tuition hike for non-Newfoundland and Labrador students, a $450 annual campus renewal fee, and a $50 per course student services fee.

The university's board of regents is expected to be presented with a formal budget proposal in two weeks.

The proposals generated plenty of feedback on Thursday, and some of the loudest critics were international students who came to MUN because tuition fees are among the lowest in the country.

Some suggested they may no longer be able to stay at MUN, and said tuition and fee hikes would not help the province's efforts to attract new and skilled residents to the province.

"We are being treated as cash cows," said one student from Ecuador.

Kachanoski calls his salary 'competitive'

And once again, there were calls for the university to address what many are calling "administrative bloat," with several speakers criticizing the $460,000 annual salary paid to MUN president Gary Kachanoski.

He countered by saying his salary is competitive with other universities.

Gerry Byrne also weighed in on university spending when contacted on Thursday.

"Before new revenue (generation measures) are considered, we'd like to have assurances that the expenditures are on track, that they're as efficient as possible," said Byrne.

Another international student says she's paid almost four times the tuition that a domestic student would pay — and asked what additional fees graduate students can expect. (Memorial University)

Byrne said even with MUN's new numbers, the operating cost per student at MUN is still $7,000 higher than the national average.

"The university is not being starved of resources," he said, pointing to the $56 million being allocated to MUN this year to offset the tuition freeze for N.L. students.

He said that's equivalent to what the Government of Nova Scotia gives to St. Francis Xavier University and Acadia University combined for general operations.

I still think that efficiencies can be found without burdening students with additional costs.- Gerry Byrne, Minister of Advanced Education

"I still think that efficiencies can be found without burdening students with additional costs," said Byrne.

Meanwhile, Golfman said the university does not want to raise fees for fear of becoming like other Canadian universities.

"We don't want to be like [Dalhousie]," she said. "We don't want to go there. But what's the tipping point?"

Golfman said the university wants to find a long-term solution, as opposed to "putting Band-Aids" on problems that arise from year to year.

Hundreds of millions in maintenance, failing lights in music building

The provincial government stopped providing the university with its annual $10 million grant for deferred maintenance in 2015.

Kent Decker, the university's vice-president of finance, said the campus requires $445 million for maintenance issues — which are rated on standards of good, fair and poor.

"We are not [even] trying to be good," he said. "We want to be somewhere between fair and poor. We're nowhere near [good]."

One such problem exists in the music department, where the building's lights are failing. The entire system needs to be replaced, but there is no money, Golfman said.

"The school of music is literally going dark."