Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) president Vianne Timmons was live from the university’s Signal Hill campus on Friday morning, walking through some of the highlights and high hurdles of a challenging 2020.
Timmons had the chance to celebrate the university’s record enrollment of roughly 19,500 students as of the first day of fall classes, up from 18,558 in 2018-19.
On the financial front, highlights include bringing in just under $135 million in research funding in 2019-20, “funding that for the most part would not be in the Newfoundland and Labrador economy without Memorial,” she said.
In her presentation of the president’s report, titled “Rising in the East” – and through a follow-up Q&A led by St. John’s Board of Trade CEO AnnMarie Boudreau – Timmons also offered glimpses of what the year ahead might hold.
Verafin direct investments
There was mention of the landmark deal for online crime fighter Verafin, the local tech company being embraced for its start-up-to-riches Cinderella story.
As is now generally well-known in the area, Verafin has roots in MUN’s Genesis Centre innovation hub. After years in operation, with impressive growth, the company was acquired by Nasdaq in a US$2.75-billion deal announced Nov. 19, 2020. The deal came with public commitments from Verafin to maintain headquarters in Newfoundland and Labrador, but also work closely with MUN to feed operations.
That includes commitments to new scholarships, enhanced co-op programs, a US$1-million partnership with the Genesis Centre and, not least of all, privately funding at least six coveted Mitacs fellowships annually for Masters and PhD students. Timmons said the investments are still on.
“I know they’re still working on it,” she said, adding the university is as thrilled as day one, and will eagerly rollout any new details as they are settled.
Two, new programs approaching launch
Timmons teased two, new Master’s programs in development she said are tied to growth in tech and aimed at building the available pool of talent locally. They are Masters of Applied Science programs in Artificial Intelligence and Software Engineering.
The academic details of the programs – both one-year, post-graduate – are still coming together. They will have to go through academic review, including university senate review. But pending approval, Timmons hopes to see them launched next academic year.
A law school is still on the table
The university is looking at where a law school might theoretically set up, while an economic impact study is completed. The idea has gone through the university senate review and approval, Timmons said. Considerations now are financial.
She said the plan is to demonstrate, through independent means, it’s a good investment for the province. “If we bring it, there will be no public funds go into it,” she committed, saying personally she will be able to demonstrate that if it moves ahead. “It will be a self-sufficient unit,” she said
The financial cost, and commitments the law school will not pull from existing resources, will be weighed later this year by the university’s Board of Regents.
MUN’s new campus plan is on its way
Consultations started with the university community and, slowly but surely, word has spread: MUN is working on a new master plan for its main campus in St. John’s, Ocean Science Centre and Signal Hill Campus.
Consultations through 2020 absorbed comments on everything from on-campus signage to green spaces, to the availability of transportation hubs. But it’s not all said and done.
The end of 2020 marked the end of “background and visioning” for the plan. The actual draft plan is expected to come together between now and the end of June, offering more to chew on when it comes to new recreation space, parking, and a long list of other topics weaved into the work.
“When we produce it, it will reflect input from the community,” Timmons promised.
A deep discussion with government on tuition fees is still ahead
Timmons said there is a pause in going to deep into recommendations until the provincial government’s post-secondary review team completes its work and reports in.
“I’m waiting with baited breath for that,” she said, ready to tackle whatever may come.
On the campaign trail, provincial NDP leader Alison Coffin did piggyback on the release of the president’s report to make a party statement supporting a continued freeze on tuition rates for Newfoundland and Labrador students, even progressively reducing tuition fees and funding new needs-based grants, while putting more into infrastructure. The funding source was unclear, but Coffin has in the past talked about ending government funding to the oil and gas sector and very generally “making better choices” to address cost.
The university will absolutely be a part of the broader conversation on provincial finances. “The big takeaway I hope from today is that the (St. John’s) Board of Trade and people of Newfoundland and Labrador recognize that for the economic recovery in this province, the university is critical; that we are an economic driver and that every city wants a university and they want it for good reason,” Timmons told reporters.
When it comes to COVID-19, the pandemic didn’t hurt enrollment for 2020-21, but Timmons told Atlantic Business Magazine she’s eager for vaccine rollout, to bring comfort to international students working remotely and get the university’s international recruiters back on the road in addition to their online outreach efforts. She attributed MUN’s increase in graduate students to the international recruitment efforts. And MUN’s nearly 3,500 international students were attributed with injecting about $82 million a year into the provincial economy.
For all of the latest pandemic-related updates for MUN, you should look to the university’s COVID-19 information hub.