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Ultimate insiders’ guide

Memorial pioneers reminisce in new book Creating a University

Campus and Community

By Janet Harron

New and returning students looking for the ultimate insiders’ guide to Memorial University would be wise to pick up a copy of Creating a University: The Newfoundland Experience.

The book was edited by retired faculty members Drs. Stephen Harold Riggins and Roberta Buchanan and published by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences’ ISER Books.

“I think students are more likely to successfully meet their educational goals when they acquire a basic knowledge of the history of the school they attend and some insight into the professional lives of their teachers,” saids Dr. Riggins, a sociologist who taught at Memorial for 25 years. He believes that such knowledge will help students identify with a faculty, school or wider academic community.

Co-editor Dr. Buchanan, a retired English professor and one of the founding members of Memorial’s women’s studies (now gender studies) program, agrees.

“It’s important for students to realize that the university was and is created by individuals who are motivated by ideals … it’s an exciting process to be part of.”

Dr. Roberta Buchanan
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Standout reminiscences

Given the challenges currently confronting Memorial University, it’s fascinating to look back at the significant challenges that faced an earlier generation of scholars. Creating a University details the experiences of 33 pioneers who literally created the university, often working in very difficult conditions.

There’s the example of Kjellrun Hestekin, who was one of the founding members of the School of Music.

In her chapter, “Another Viking Invades Newfoundland: The Music School,” Prof. Hestekin remembers the temporary music building as “A big cardboard box perched on concrete blocks. No washrooms. No water of any kind.”

And the lack of sound insulation in the practice rooms made it easy for teachers to know what issues to focus on in studio lessons.

Among the revelations in this collection of standout reminiscences are those of Korean physicist Chung-Won Cho, who contributed his observations on the experience of being the first non-white professor granted tenure at Memorial; Howard and Leila Clase (chemistry and linguistics) discussing the development of the Botanical Gardens and sociologist Marilyn Porter revealing the crash course on all things Newfoundland and Labrador that she learned from her first students.

Societal shift

Other struggles discussed in the book include the systemic discrimination against women.

Rule VI.18 of Dr. Buchanan’s terms of employment in 1964 read: “Upon the marriage of a female teacher, her employment shall terminate, but the Board of Regents, on the recommendation of the President, may continue her employment on a temporary basis for such period as the Board may determine and may further continue such employment from time to time on the same basis.”

In “Faculty Women: The Struggle for Equality,” Dr. Buchanan outlines the issues around pay equity and hiring that women faculty members at Memorial faced and challenged. Although this was part of the wider process taking place in universities across North America, Dr. Buchanan writes that her pay discrepancies with male colleagues were not fully addressed until after a strike of faculty members in 2000, a full 36 years after she began teaching at Memorial.

Rich influence

The role of geography is a major theme in the book as many early faculty members were immigrants to Canada, mostly from the U.S. and Britain, but also from further afield, including Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

And many were themselves among the first in their families to attend university – a fact that current students who are also first-generation university attendees may find reassuring.

“The university is not a static entity.” — Dr. Roberta Buchanan

Dr. Riggins believes that international and non-Newfoundland and Labrador students who are just discovering the province’s culture will enjoy “reading about an earlier group of naïve come-from aways who chose to remain on the island following their own personal discovery of Newfoundland and Labrador.”

One of those naïve come-from-aways was folklorist Neil Rosenberg, who arrived from the U.S. in 1968 to work with Dr. Herbert Halpert in the new folklore department.

The very establishment of the Department of Folklore – still one of only two in Canada, the other being at Laval University – is tied directly to Memorial’s founding document. In the University Act of 1949 Memorial University was charged to “encourage the preservation of Newfoundland culture.”

Ultimately, Creating a University showcases how Memorial has grown and adapted to change over the years, and how key individuals have played significant roles in making that change happen.

“The university is not a static entity,” said Dr. Buchanan. “It is created by individuals, both faculty and students, and the university of the future will be influenced by our ideals and vision.”

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