Martin now MUN: When Will Our Government Stop Throwing People under Busses as Distraction?

Budget 2016: Throw Martin under a bus; Budget 2017; Throw MUN under a bus.

We get it, the province is in a bad place financially, and the only way the Liberal Government could be bothered to fix it is through cuts. But they don’t have to be an asshole about it.

Seems like every time this government drops a budget, they simultaneously stir up media attacks on someone who seems overpaid, to distract the easily embittered public from the real issues.

When Ball’s government dropped its hugely unpopular austerity budget in 2016, it immediately drew attention to Nalcor’s mismanagement of Muskrat Falls and the wild salary of Ed Martin, throwing him under a bus, and for what? Nothing’s changed: his replacement is still overpaid, and the project is still a mess.

But the media-manufactured Ed Martin “scandal” did what the Ball government presumably hoped it would: it took the heat off them and placed the ire on Ed Martin and Muskrat Falls, despite the reality that Martin was paid what people in Martin’s position are paid all across the country. Jeffrey Lyash of Ontario Power Generation took home roughly $1.2 million in 2016.

Cue to 2017’s budget drop, and the Ball government is at it again. The Liberal government cut 10 MILLION from MUN’s budget, and now Minister Byrne is enciting students (and local media) to turn on MUN’s administration over its mis-spending, on salaries and lavish meals meant to woo recruits.

And once again it worked. Should MUN be hosting $700 dinners, no. Do they do it every week, no. Do they have to because “other universities are doing it,” yes. Lavish university spending and salaries are the norm, and hating your university’s higher ups for it will change nothing.

What we can change, and what we should be talking about, is our government cutting funding to MUN by 10 MILLION, leaving them to contemplate tuition hikes as a consequence of the cut, not MUN wooing someone once, during a $700 meal. Or, we should at least be talking about both. But where’s all the talk this week about Ball’s dumb budget cuts?

It’s proof that we live in a culture of demonization these days. It’s easier to hate a person than understand the faults in a grander system of elitism and work towards its solution. So that’s what we do. And on media’s end, it makes for better headlines and simpler articles too. Why spend time researching if MUN operates differently than other universities, when inciting rage in the masses earns you so much social media reaction?

It’s insane what MUN’s president gets paid, but the real news piece is that MUN president Gary Kachanoski is paid what other university presidents are paid. Crazy, right? Why? Why do we allow it? Here’s what a quick Google search reveals about salaries and perks for university presidents:

McGill’s President = 587K (2009)
University of Alberta = 500K (2016)
University of Calgary = 626K (2016)
NSCAD = 221K (They average only 820 students a year!)
McMaster = 533K (2009)
University of Lethbridge = 489K (2016)
U of T = 439K
University of Guelph = 424K (2016)
York University = 463K (2016)
MUN President: 469K

Why? Well, capitalism. Those wild salaries have nothing on what CEOs of big corporations are paid, and that is precisely why university presidents are paid so handsomely: a  president’s pay package must be big enough to attract  qualified candidates away from other sectors that pay big bucks. CEOs in oil or at banks are being paid in the millions.

So the fact is, MUN had to offer president Kachanoski a wild salary because across the board, that’s what people expect to make to run a spot like MUN. It’s not right, but it’s not Kachanoski’s doing. Lob his head off, and someone else will take his place with the same pay: See the Ed Martin Incident.

If you have an issue with that, attack our elitist system, in a productive manner that enacts change, instead of fruitlessly directing rage at MUN’s president. Elitism has run wild, but we’re pointing the fingers at the people benefiting from it (Ed Martin, Kachanoski) not the system that created it. Doing that has gotten us nowhere since the dawn of capitalism in the 1400s.

Let’s remember what started the recent attention on MUN’s spending habits: our government cut 11.9 million from MUN’s operating grant, leaving them in a position to maybe have to raise tuition fees to compensate for slashed funding. How about some public ire over that, too?

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  • “What we can change, and what we should be talking about, is our government cutting funding to MUN by 10 MILLION, leaving them to contemplate tuition hikes as a consequence of the cut, not MUN wooing someone once, during a $700 meal.”

    No, what we actually need to talk about are both things: the government cuts AND the mismanagement at the university level. Right now students are focusing on the immediate threat of tuition fee increases because they are potentially being voted on in less than a week, but that doesn’t mean government is off the hook.

    This isn’t a “one time dinner of $700” we are talking about here — the “hospitality” line in the budget was almost $18 million dollars last year. I have a item by item breakdown of that line and it is absolutely shocking. Dinners at Raymonds between the MUN executive and their spouses, just as one example.

  • On another note, I do think this is a well thought out analysis, but I would encourage interested folks to check out Ryan Young’s blog “The Rogue Bayman”, his latest post also gives a great insight into this issue.

  • 11.9 million being cut from a 270 million dollar operating grant. If that highly paid, so-called “top talent” in administration can’t find less than 5% in savings through efficiency, to avoid a 16% tuition hike, then they are NOT worth the money. Comparing them to universities that are twice the size, yet the top brass earn roughly the same, makes them look even worse – it does not justify their salaries. Are the government being dicks about it? Yes. But the MUN brass are no better.

  • I agree with the general sentiment, but I fear that this article misrepresents both events in some respects.

    While Cathy Bennett did criticize rising compensation at Nalcor, she did not criticize Martin’s salary specifically. The dispute was much more about the disastrous management of Muskrat Falls – and in fact a great deal has changed since Stan Marshall was hired. There was certainly public outcry about Martin’s severance, but that was not a distraction stirred up deliberately by government: Ball tried to let Martin go on friendly terms, and then lied and obfuscated about what actually happened until the truth was drawn out by journalists and the auditor general.

    Gerry Byrne *is* trying to throw MUN admin under the bus, so here the critique is on solid ground. But the author gets some pertinent details wrong. When Kachanoski was hired, MUN’s president went from being the 24th highest paid in Canada to being the 8th highest paid. It was a big pay hike relative to his peers – not simply keeping up with the jones’. Furthermore, the $700 dinner has been put into better context documented in an access to information request. It was a $700 meal split between 9 people (so an $80 dinner tax and tip in); it was not for recruitment, but for “Dinner meeting with panel review team — Student Development”; nor is there any indication that such expensive dinner meetings happen “every week”, but instead occur much less frequently. Expensed dinners at MUN are much more typically in the $30 per person ballpark.

  • Chris Donaldson’s opinion piece makes some good points, but subscribes to some inaccurate myths as well.

    First of all, there’s a difference between a “culture of demonization” and holding public officials to account. When the actions of public officials are questioned, a quick defense is always “Stop making it personal”. But it’s not personal. Nobody is criticizing President Kachanoski over what he does in his spare time, or his choice of fine dining establishments. They’re criticizing his decision, as president of the university, to allow highly paid administrators to expense costly dinners to a publicly (tax-) funded institution (it’s not just the dinners, either – there’s other spending that’s been less prominent in public media coverage but equally questionable). And certainly he doesn’t have the exclusive power to change some of these things unilaterally, but these high officers do have a lot of power to push or initiate change, and it is their failure to even try (their active complicity with this system) that is being critiqued. It is right and even essential for the public to take an interest in what public officials do and how they do it, to criticize those actions when we feel it’s warranted and to demand changes (or replacement of public officers). That’s the nature of a democracy: we all have a vested interest in what public officials do and we all have a right to speak out, monitor and critique them. If someone doesn’t want to face that scrutiny, they should not accept a job with a public institution or public service.

    Donaldson is quite correct that there are systemic problems at play here which are bigger and broader than any one person. It’s an excellent and important point. But systemic problems are perpetuated when individuals in positions of power make decisions that reinforce those systemic problems. We cannot critique one without the other. Yes, critique the system. But also critique the individuals and decisions which make that system function. Only by doing both do we have a chance at actually changing the system.

    Donaldson also suggests that students are ganging up with government against university officers. That is not accurate in the slightest. Students have consistently maintained a principled position criticizing *both* poor administrative spending decisions by MUN, *and* funding cuts from the government. Media has paid more attention to the criticisms against MUN administrators, but that’s the fault of media, not students.

    It’s also important to note that university administrators are not the hapless victims they make themselves out to be. Donaldson, like Jon Parsons in his recent column in The Independent, implies that students shouldn’t be pitted against university administrators and everyone should be working together. In principle, yes this would be nice. But university officers such as Provost Noreen Golfman, and Dean of Business Wilf Zerbe, have repeatedly indicated they’d prefer to fund the university through tuition fees rather than government grants. They repeatedly talk about the need to reduce “reliance” on government funding, which is a roundabout way of promoting privatizing of higher education, by shifting the burden of funding from public dollars to student debt. It’s not clear why university officers would prefer to hike fees instead of use public grants, but one might speculate that it could have something to do with the fact it might mean less public (government) scrutiny over how they spend their money. It would also mean they’d have more power to raise fees more frequently, rather than have to go to the trouble of making a compelling case for public funding to government. In any event, it means the further privatization of post-secondary education, and that’s a bad thing. Students have repeatedly asked senior university administrators to join them in going to government and lobbying for more funding. University administrators have consistently and flatly refused. So they are not hapless victims and they do not appear in the slightest interested in fighting for a stronger publicly-funded post-secondary system.

    Finally, the argument “Why? Because capitalism” is a poor one. Just because a bad practice becomes prevalent is no reason to let people off the hook for buying into that bad practice. Yes, university presidents (and other senior officers) are paid enormous salaries all around the country. That’s not a sensible reason to just blindly do the same here. Bribery is common in some jurisdictions. Assassinations are common in others. Sexual harassment is in others. Just because something happens somewhere else, is not an excuse for shrugging our shoulders when the same thing happens here. We cannot always control what happens elsewhere. But we can control what happens here, under our own watch. We should have the courage and conviction to do what *we* think is right, even if others elsewhere don’t demonstrate the same courage. To argue that something should be allowed because it happens elsewhere is a defeatist attitude. Also, it’s really got nothing to do with capitalism. Capitalism functioned for many decades without requiring university presidents to have inflated salaries. It was only in the late ‘90s and early ’00s that university presidents suddenly became greedy and started demanding salaries similar to their private sector counterparts. What has Kachanoski done to justify this startlingly high salary? He hasn’t even managed to sustain the formerly high levels of public funding which his predecessor did. There are, surely, more than enough suitably trained and skilled enthusiastic people willing to take the job at a reasonable salary and do it well. The suggestion that an inflated salary must justify itself is precisely what leads to unaccountably high salaries in the first place. Just because someone has a high salary does not mean they have magic powers. It simply means that someone has decided to give them a high salary. The 2008 fiscal crisis was chock full of bankers and CEO’s who drove their financial companies into bankruptcy with poor decisions, and who got to walk away laughing with enormously high bonuses and salaries regardless of the havoc they left in their wake. High salaries are no reflection of ability. They’re an irresponsible and unaccountable gamble which more often than not turns up bust.

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