Wednesday, February 08, 2006

May the cause...

Sorry about the delay on this, but life happens. Still, I said I would respond to MUN’s reaction and this is it.

Along with MUN’s response on its site, Dr. Axel Meisen did a bit on CBC’s Here and Now last Friday. And it was watching Meisen that I was reminded of the half dozen times I’ve interviewed him since he became president. He’s always struck me as an intelligent man who is working hard to bring MUN to the next level. I know there has been criticism of him for making the university too open to corporate interests. And that’s fine; that’s a legitimate debate. And I took my shot at him last week, saying maybe he ought to be fired over the Chandra mess.

But he did say something interesting in MUN’s defence – that while he wasn’t there when all this happened (he became president in September ’99. Chandra left in ‘02. Most of the mess was well under way or even over at that point) he would have done things differently if he had been there. He would have kept pursuing the truth.

And you know what, I think he would have.

My initial reaction, my rage, towards Meisen and MUN actually had a familiar taste to it. It goes back to 1993 and the federal election of that year. Kim Campbell wasn’t that bad a person and she certainly wasn’t the worst prime minister the country ever had. She was just the unfortunate receprocant of about 10 years of building, collective rage towards Brian Mulroney.

We hated Mulroney. We couldn’t get him so we took it out on her.

Meisen is currently getting the rage and ire over mistakes from MUN’s previous president. That being Art May. We can’t get him, so we take it out on Meisen.

I admit bias towards May. I don’t like him. I never have. I thought he was a terrible university president. The Muse had a special place in his heart, what with him threatening to sue the paper once, saying a controversial GLB supplement was going to harm alumni donations and cause tuition to rise (both were bullshit) and reportedly once telling a former editor that considering her grades, perhaps she should spend more time hitting the books and not spend so much time at the newspaper. Lovely.

So that this mess happened under May’s watch surprises me not in the least. The fact that when the investigation wrapped up in ’98 May wrote a letter thanking Chandra for his cooperation is infuriating. Chandra had been anything but helpful at that point.

Meisen can say it was just a phrase and that May was merely being polite. No. You know what, maybe if you’ve just spent four years investigating someone who apparently was very uncooperative and threatening legal action, maybe you don’t thank him for his help. I think that’s the very least you can do at that point.

MUN’s defence, by the way, is essentially useless. First, Meisen nicely undermined it by saying that he wouldn’t have stopped. He would have kept pursuing the truth. MUN is saying they did their best with an uncooperative professor. Meisen said you keep going until you get to the truth.

MUN is also arguing semantics. “Oh, we did too do enough. Chandra just wasn’t being cooperative.” Imagine that, he was hiding fraud and he wasn’t cooperative. People guilty of fraud are normally just so cooperative when it comes to investigations.

It didn’t do enough with someone they knew was lying and being a pain in the ass. I mean really, his assistant stole his research? Did the dog eat the rest of the research he had done at MUN over the years? No, wait, it was lost in a move.

My wife is a teacher. She hears better excuses from her Grade 4/5 class.

It’s fiddling while Rome burns. This is the story whether MUN likes it or not: Chandra is a fraud and quite possibly a thief. MUN knew (or very strongly suspected) he was an academic fraud, but because they feared a lawsuit and a loss of reputation, they buried the incident and hoped it went away. After all, it’s not like his research was all that important or life-threatening.

This is being reported by one of CBC Newfoundland’s most respected journalists.

MUN’s reaction is to pick at details in their release. At least Meisen had the right reaction: we made an effort; it wasn’t good enough. And if I had been there, we would have done more and better. And we’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

There you go, that’s the right answer. Hammer away at it long enough and maybe, just maybe, they might get out of this scrape.

By the way, at no point am I saying the quality of education at MUN is bad. I have no complaints about what I received. I know MUN has some top-notch programs.

But we know that because most people reading this blog went there. What’s the reaction to someone hearing about this out west? “Wow, that university must be a joke.” I bet you more than one person thought that after seeing the story.

But the MUN where the Chandra case happened in the 80s and 90s was still a pretty insular university. The overwhelming majority of students came from Newfoundland. Foreign students or ones from other parts of Canada weren’t important to the administrations game plan. They were having a hard enough time find space for all the local students. Which is perhaps why they didn’t care about Chandra. They weren’t worried about an international reputation. Why bother when all your students come from Newfoundland.

It’s a different university today. They are actively recruiting and trying to get students from other parts of the world. And for that to happen, your reputation counts for a lot. Yes, so does reasonable tuition, but you need a rep. Otherwise, why would someone travel half way around the world?

And this story damages that reputation. MUN is going to have to work hard at fixing it and proving they’re a better university than they were a decade ago. That it would be impossible for this to happen now.

How big of an impact will this have? I don’t know. I think it’s a bit of wishful thinking to believe MUN will get off scot-free. And it's infurating that May is getting a pass for this mess. But who knows, it could be worse. And I take some small comfort in the hope that it will be for Dr. Chandra.

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