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Transcript: Dr. Noreen Golfman, former Provost and Vice-President at Memorial University on Reimagining HE 🎧

Chelsea Parker

Chelsea Parker

Nov 25, 2022

This is Reimagining The Future of Higher Education from Studiosity. Your go-to podcast with remarkable education leaders, sharing personal stories from their experience in and around the sector, including reflection and evidence for progress in the sector. With your host, Professor Judyth Sachs, former DVC Learning and Teaching at the University of Sydney, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost Macquarie University and Special Advisor in Higher Education at KPMG and now Chief Academic Officer at Studiosity.

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Judyth and Noreen Linkedin tile

Prof Judyth Sachs: Let me introduce you to Noreen Goldman. She is the former provost at Memorial University and also on the Studiosity Academic Advisory Board for Canada. So welcome to our first Canadian podcast on Reimagining Higher Education. But before we start, if I could just acknowledge country. Studiosity acknowledges the traditional Indigenous custodians of country throughout Australia and all lands where we work and recognizes their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to elders, past and present. So, Noreen, you were asked to bring an object that represents your approach to leadership, but also your experience as a learner. So, what did you bring today to start our conversation?

Dr. Noreen Golfman: That was a pretty impossible challenge, I have to say. I'm retired now, so I moved most of the fetish objects from my desk or desk of the past into various cubby-holes at home. And no one thing seemed appropriate. You know, there's a set of gifts, there are books, and you'll have to forgive me, I've come up with something quite silly, but in a way, it kind of embodies my whole thinking about this. I don't know whether you can see it completely - it's a penguin pillow, which a friend gave me when the news of my appointment as Provost and Vice-President, Academic, happened a number of years ago. And there's a button on it that says very important person. But it's on this ridiculous pillow, which is, again, a cartoon kind of emblem. And I kept it on my office chair all these years, across from my desk. I suppose as a reminder not to take myself too seriously. And that's what I finally landed on, thinking about some objects much more, let's say, sentimental or significant in terms of benchmarks or milestones. But I just kept resisting them and kept coming back to the pillow. And its kind of mocking identity is a very important thing. So perhaps that captures it.

Prof Judyth Sachs: I think that's a great one. Can you tell us a little bit more about not taking yourself too seriously in the role? Because there is the possibility sometimes of one taking oneself seriously and there are consequences.

Dr. Noreen Golfman: I think it's very difficult to keep one's detachment from, you know, just the flow of tasks and the big, big challenges in a senior leadership position. People expect and project a lot from and on me with that role. And it's just natural to start assuming that the kind of authority that the title or the role is endowed with and all the heaviness of it and all the responsibility, and it's really never been my nature to take myself that seriously in anything I've done. That is to say, I've always kept a strong sense of humour. I've kind of practiced detachment from most things in order to preserve that sense of humour. But it's a challenge in a role like this to do so and in the way that penguin pillow was a handy quick shortcut reminder. I can't say I always obliged it's message, but I'm aware often enough of that tension between the responsibility, the kind of gravitas of a role, particularly these days. I would say the last several years of public education and the need to kind of keep myself to some degree separate from the big machine that is the institution one has a leadership role in.

Prof Judyth Sachs: So, I'm also hearing that humour is an important part of how you navigated some of the challenges of leadership. Can you talk to me about that a little bit more?

Dr. Noreen Golfman: I come from a family of a lot of jokers. I've always been interested in comedy, in fact as a scholar, still remain so, and the whole suite of cultural studies literature I found myself drawn to, both in film and in literature. My scholarly pursuits are places where humour or wit or satire or comedy were dominant. I think that difficulty sometimes in a role such as the one I've just been describing, is that thinking you're being funny or a comic or attempting humour is often to deflate a situation which is a very handy thing to do, as I'm sure you know, can be misinterpreted or taken the wrong way or taken as glib. I mean, I've always fearful of being called glib and sometimes I was. It's just glibness is part of that kind of texture of comedy, let's say, in the way in which one sometimes finds themselves reaching for an easy way to deflate a situation rather than perhaps a more considerate or thoughtful one. But nonetheless, I have always, always found it to be a useful way for navigating some of the pretension or the seriousness of a higher calling. And for the most part, I think it served me well. You know, I can think with singly of some occasions where it kind of backfired, but I don't dwell on those very much. For the most part, I think that was me being misunderstood rather than me being deliberately glib, or whether it's profane or to trivialize the situation that demanded more seriousness. I think it's a very handy tool, and I think there's another element to that, it's the gendered one where women are not often seen to be funny or comic. I mean, this is a general kind of social note here, and I listen to a lot of podcasts by comedians and by comics as I'm out running and walking because I'm very, very interested in how comedy is useful, especially in dark days, such as we all seem to be living on this planet, as a way of getting at something through a more genial path or just a way in to something that demands a lot of attention. And women are not often given a lot of space to be humorous or funny. It's kind of risky territory. It's come naturally to me through from childhood, but I become increasingly conscious of a certain risk with it. As a woman who thinks she's funny, or tries to be funny, or is often funny in social situations or at meetings or even during speech or whatever it happens to be. So, I think that's another piece of it that I've been very conscious of as well.

Prof Judyth Sachs: But it can also be a circuit breaker and in meetings that, you know, if you reach an impasse, the insertion of humour.  Not me, because I'm also funny.

Dr. Noreen Golfman: I know. That's why we clicked from day one. I think we got that about each other.

Prof Judyth Sachs: So, that circuit breaker. You also have to socialize people into the nature of your humour. Talk to me about where it did go wrong once.

Dr. Noreen Golfman: I can't remember the detail. Two related spheres of activity that reminded me that maybe those weren't the spaces where it was working for me. Rarely, but memorably enough in the classroom, as a teacher. Where you're probably familiar with this, too. And again, I think there is a gendered quality to this. But students might remark on their teaching evaluation sheet in their anonymous comments that they found me sarcastic. That was a slight that was perceived to be instead of them saying that I was condescending or some other word that they couldn't quite find, the catch-all, especially for undergraduate students, would be sarcastic. Now, this bad observation didn't dominate the evaluations, but that tends to be what you stick on when students are writing that because it is a reflection of their perception. And the last thing I was trying to do was condescend or demean their experience and their sensitivities in the classroom. Related to that, I think a much more complex environment would be in speaking to faculty union leaders or the union leadership. Where, I mean, those are bloody serious conversations. You are negotiating terms and conditions of employment. And so, of course, the perception is often if you're in the senior leadership management role, that you damn well need to be taking things very seriously. And of course, I always did, but I the humour that I might attempt to when you say circuit break or just kind of lighten the intensity of a very, very charged discussion, would just fall flat like a dull thud in the middle of the table. And again, that's not where somebody might call it sarcastic, but a version of that. Nobody would have said that, but I could just tell from the adults in the room, these were not undergraduates, that they just didn't find whatever I would be saying very funny at all. But those two stand out as moments or to some degree kind of recurring situations, not that frequent, but those are the kind of things one remembers that might kind of keep you up a night or two, of course one to reflect on how one is being perceived, but it's counter to the way you want to be perceived.

Prof Judyth Sachs: Yeah. Let's get back, you talked about students. So, can you talk to me about your experience as an undergraduate student, being a graduate student, and what you took from your own experience into your life in the academy?

Dr. Noreen Golfman: Oh, there's so much to say about that. I don't want to be too boring about it. I'm sure I share with a lot of people who have pretty much never left school, the best moments of the undergraduate experience are certainly epiphanies or moments in the classroom or in discussion with the professor where you could really feel something important was happening. Lights were going on. I certainly modelled a lot of my thinking and probably behaviour on those professors, male and female, who most impressed me, who were opening up worlds to me through literature and film in particular. Who had the confidence, and that was key for me, to be talking about these works of art that I was so passionate about but did not yet have the vocabulary to speak analytically about or the kind of sophisticated ways that I was starting to glean from some of the critical literature. But people in the moment, without notes in the classroom, and eventually, of course, a graduate seminar speaking with that confidence and assurance, even if they didn't feel that way, to me as a younger wannabe scholar, that was absolutely key. And I know that I said in some conscious way to myself, "That's what I want to be". I want to have that confidence to be able to speak to what interests me, to generate the knowledge that I am celebrating and finding and discovering to other people and impart the same sense of discovery, about whatever the subject happens to be. And that was true in philosophy classes or other humanities classes that I took where I enjoyed most of all conversation, all the insights,  the professors who made the most impact on me and both levels of learning were the ones who had that clearly their own enthusiasm about what they were talking about. That's always so important for undergraduates to know that the person in front of you is in some ways authentically registering their joy with what they're talking about. They're not just rehashing old notes or platitudes about the literature, but it's the emotional experience that is so fundamental to learning, that some chemical reaction happening. And it becomes a different thing as a graduate student to some degree, where you have now somewhat more competence. I mean, you know, after the high of graduating as an undergraduate, you're brought back down to the space in graduate school where imposter syndrome sets in big time and you start feeling pretty insecure about what you don't know, let alone the little that you think you do know. And you kind of crawl yourself back out of that if you want to stay in that game, and again model yourself after those people who are helping you to get that confidence. And that's how I would overarchingly describe my experience as a student, which has brought me to this moment. I mean, I just feel so lucky that was the path that I just got the courage to take, and that I did take.

Prof Judyth Sachs: So, are you suggesting that what happens is for you and for many others, is that your undergraduate and postgraduate experience, was it apprenticeship of observation? Or by observation, that you used to base your own approach to higher education and being an academic?

Dr. Noreen Golfman: That's well, well said. I haven't thought about it quite that way. The latter part of that statement as an academic. But I think that's fair when you consider that I really swerved at some point, not 100%, because I carried over my earlier learning and focused on literature, on written text to film, which is a visual text with great deal of kind of ardent interest and dedication. Because in film, I had even more opportunity to be, if you will, a voyeur. It's so much part of the experience of watching cinema is there is that kind of self-consciousness of being on the outside of something that's being manufactured for you, but yet is determined to bring you into the inside of that narrative, that story, that visual plane. So, I notice a kind of creative element of the spectatorship of the experience that became a subject of my own scholarship. So, I think you're right. It's again, it's that kind of inside, outside, watching, observing and, you know, some people went into sociology and focused, became social scientists to do that. But my gates were through literature, through text and narrative, and the fictionalizing or the dramatizing of the world that I was observing was just more natural to me. And I grew up as a young leader and I could never take to go back to our earlier theme, social science, literature, I couldn't take it that seriously. I was far more willing to admire and surrender to the craft of a novel or a well-made film than I was to the kind of pseudo-science. I mean, this is terribly unfair, but just speaks to what I was interested in, of a social science project where predicting human behaviour seems far less tenable than a novel was working through? So that's kind of a long winded yes to your question.

Prof Judyth Sachs: So, you talked about insider or outsider perspective, where you are now. You're still an insider, but you're an outsider in terms of understanding what's happening in higher education. How would you compare student experience, contemporary student experience at the university with the experience that you had as a student?

Dr. Noreen Golfman: I'm not in the classroom these days, so I can only speculate based on the many, many, many conversations I've had over the last recent years with students, both undergraduate and graduate. Well, there's technology, to say the least. I mean, they are distracted by many more things than I was. Their concerns about their futures, I think, are far more pressing then was the case for me. I was at once naive, but also inhabiting a far more or a far less stressed, I think, undergraduate experience. I believed that something would come out of all that learning, that I would get a job or something. I'm not sure undergraduate students have the confidence to say that with 100% conviction these days, there's so much more fragmentation of the social environment which they're in. Not to mention the economic prospects seem kind of doomed in so many ways. The planet. We didn't have any of those overarching, I mean, to some extent, but nothing like the experience of potential students are just fed or being told to live every day right now. And we didn't have the technology to be, no social media of that kind with television and film. So, a kind of limited landscape for understanding the world. And, of course, newspapers and other ways in which you would glean at a much slower pace the big movements of history or the changes that we're going now. Everything is just so much more intense. So, I don't think I'd like to be an undergraduate student today, but if I were, I think the challenges would be daunting and I'd have to find ways of surviving through it if I wanted to stay dedicated to that path, for sure.

Prof Judyth Sachs: So, if you imagine yourself still in the role of provost, where you had resources and you had influence and you were able to persuade the movement of resources, what would be one thing that you could put in place that would improve the experience of students, at your university?

 Dr. Noreen Golfman: I don't know that there's one thing. It's almost too hard a question, to answer. One thing I did that sted my need to be centering my thinking on students as much as possible, because, as you know, the more senior you become, the more detached you become from that student experience. It's a kind of brutal paradox of that role. But I formed a what I called a, sounds corny, but a student success committee, and I brought together all of the people who most I would say faculty in fact, and staff are kind of unaware of who are operating in that sphere of university life that has to do with everything from recruiting students to all, the whole package of retention, whether it's extracurricular services, options for advanced skill training, social activities, housing, food, food waste. Just the day-to-day experience of being a student that is now, you know, there's considerable infrastructure dedicated in postsecondary education to the student experience. In a way, I doubt really exist to the same degree or investment in my time, as well as wellness, counselling, all of that. And so what I did was brought together all of the directors, the staff, the managers in charge of all of those units, and there was about 25 of them who didn't really interact with each other except glancingly, and I dedicated several hours a month to hearing from every person they would give, as informal as they liked, reports, full report on what was concerning them: what was happening at the coalface, in their offices, in their union. And I learnt a great deal about that, from the challenges that were not necessarily on my radar at all, about let's say, student housing, or problems of the cafeteria, or problems getting access to a service on campus, or the under-resourced nature of this unit or that unit, or the lack of response from a certain faculty unit. So it doesn't really answer your question, but that is the way I tried to deal with that very question in a senior role, to give myself a sense of being in touch, even though I wasn't talking to students directly, but I was talking in a way to their liaison or their minder, and able to make some improvements slowly as I could find resources to cover off where I could see gaps and what was healthy for the group and for me, as chair of that group, was a bigger understanding of the bigger picture that had to do with all the ways in which the student experiences inflected and all the points of intersection that they all had. You know, it's a fairly complex thing, institution as post-secondary institutions are to be responsible on so many levels. It's so much more than just the 3 hours in a classroom a week or whatever happens to be.

Prof Judyth Sachs: So, you have to understand each other's business.

Dr. Noreen Golfman: Absolutely.

Prof Judyth Sachs: And so that much more connected, much more joined up and gratification. Less duplication.

Dr. Noreen Golfman: Less duplication for sure. Although, there wasn't that much of that, in fact, because they were working in their silos, doing their thing. So it wasn't so much duplication in that bureaucratic way as although our conversations led to the very bureaucratic challenges students did have to deal with to go from this office to that building to that place to get something done that was not so much duplication, but just kind of a lack of understanding of the institution and of how much more streamlined things could be if everybody was just focused on process that little bit more coherently. And that was the most fun committee I would say, honestly that I chaired not to, you know, throw any other committee too much shade that I was part of, because part of the joy is, you know, of that role. It's working with really good people and always, at all levels, dedicated to the student health and the success of the institution. But that taught me the most. Every single meeting taught me a lot about what was actually happening on the ground.

Prof Judyth Sachs: So, given that this is about reimagining higher education, what would be the elements of your reimagining higher education?

Dr. Noreen Golfman: I think about this a lot, and I don't have, haven't yet, come to a place where I've settled completely on what that might be. I do think a lot of what we do is broken. I do think that in this century as time marches on, all the challenges I spoke of before that students are experiencing I'm not sure the institution, and I guess I can speak of my own, but also of others that I've been part of, at least for others that I've been part of over the years, have really quite taken the full measure of how change needs to happen bureaucratically. You have to speak of repetition and the kind of expectations that we have that are some degree ridiculous, some ways impossible. Not just of student experience, but of our staff and faculty experience as well. There are so many contradictions that I think we don't even have time to think about that we're living through. Take an obvious example is, of course, the pressure to be either number one or the top ten in the ratings as an institution. The kind of pressure that puts on staff to be publishing or to be streaming their work to certain niches. This is an old story, dedicating their time as a researcher, let's say, to discrete areas of interest that are not necessarily connected to institutional needs, or certainly student needs. And I was not very good at coming to terms with all that. Overused term, of course, is the corporatization of the university as public funds have increasingly been withdrawn. And it became clear to me as time went on and the role, and now it's clearer than ever, that it's very hard as an individual to avoid being complicit in the very thing that one wails about or is frustrated by institutionally. And I wish there were ways of confronting together that complicity, certainly of senior leaders. But I think we don't do ourselves the service of giving ourselves the time or the safe space, if you will, to be having some honest conversations about where we're putting our energies. I mean, I think we have good intentions, and we're doing what we do to keep the machine running, and all of that. But I think, I don't think we have stepped away from some traditional practices enough to give ourselves the benefit of enacting real transformational change at the university level.

Prof Judyth Sachs: And do you do you think that sort of driving transformational change goes back to our history? You know, universities will be the second oldest institutions to say.

Dr. Noreen Golfman: Exactly.

Prof Judyth Sachs: And so, it's sort of going back to our history, actually. For some people is a romantic, nostalgic idea, but for others it's deeply frustrating and is that the tension?

Dr. Noreen Golfman: So that's one way of characterizing it. I mean, we are a conservatory and all that, better than that word. So, we might think of ourselves as, you know, interrogators of authority. Many of us, you know, pursue that romantic path, perhaps to give ourselves the freedom to be questioning and challenging. But the rigidity of the time-honoured institutions makes it difficult for those changes to happen. Certainly, part of the tension that I'm talking about, before. I don't think we allow ourselves enough space to try new things, new ways of teaching and learning, relax some of the discipline, boundaries or disciplinary boundaries that, of course, have been built up over 150 years or so at the universities of the west. You know, we're still doing pretty much what we were doing since the early days of university formation with some changes, of course, but not enough, I should think. And, you know, that's a huge task. But it's a project that involves a lot of people. And that, I think was part of my frustration is I'm one person trying to have these conversations, but then I got to get on with the job. And even when I would get together with my colleagues across the country, you know, provostal meetings or conferences and, you know, we tend to be talking about budget or finding efficiencies and we fall back on using the same kind of tired language of the corporate university, because we're just trying to keep our heads above water and the way in which that just leads to a lot of wheelspin.

Prof Judyth Sachs: But in some respects, COVID provided a disruption where universities had to respond really quickly.

Dr. Noreen Golfman: True. And have certainly I mean, what choice did universities have? They have to keep the play going, keep the show going. And, you know, in 2020, when all this started, most universities had at least some measure. A technological apparatus to allow for remote learning or stepped up pretty quickly to it. It's not that difficult. Many, many universities have been doing it for some time. So, there are a lot of good models. But, you know, there's a lot of stumbling along, but we kind of got through it. What's going to be more interesting than I'd say, perhaps a self-congratulatory, you know, nimbleness will be what happens now? What kind of changes will the institutions make, will they default back to some of these more tired practices? Will some of the shortcuts for getting to programs or getting stuff done that happened because of COVID, will they be abandoned? Will it open up a risk opportunity for universities or will they kind of shrink back? I don't know the answer to that. But, you know, in my weaker moments, I fear they'll retreat back to some tired practices. But we'll see. I think certainly there is far more openness, a conversation happening right now amongst students and staff about workload changes, fatigue, exhaustion, the differences between in-person and remote learning, pros and cons. All of that is happening, which is good. So, it's forced a lot of conversations, a lot of thinking about learning, that we just kind of took for granted or gave lip service to before. So, we'll see, perhaps there's a silver lining to all of this.

Prof Judyth Sachs: So, my last question is what advice would you give to the younger Noreen about herself as a leader and as a learner?

Dr. Noreen Golfman:I'm not sure I would do anything that radically different from what I did do or, you know, what path I did take. I did take some chances. I did walk through some doors that seemed to be open for me that I was happy to have done so. And that's what I called a few times naive. But perhaps that romantic, that kind of openness to learning and experience of being a student, I wouldn't change. I wouldn't want to tell that younger Noreen, you know, "things are going to change, you’re going to feel more hurt about those things later on". No, I mean, I'm glad I had that. It took me to a very good place in the sense of, you know, optimism and openness to learning and the world of people that I think has done me well. So, the advice would be to everybody is, you know, don't close yourself off. Try to be open to possibility. Don't be afraid when you're younger. That's the last time you want to be afraid of anything. So, I feel very lucky, actually. I very, very lucky, that fate and whatever other conditions were in place took me on a path through several university programs and even into senior leadership.

Prof Judyth Sachs:Thank you for your time, this evening for you and this morning for me. It's been a wonderful conversation and it's been just terrific to make contact with you again. So, keep continue to keep safe and to keep well.

Dr. Noreen Golfman:Thank you, Judyth. It's been a pleasure.

 Prof Judyth Sachs: Great talking to you. I hope we do it again some time. And don't lose the sense of humour.

 Dr. Noreen Golfman: I don't think I can, really hope not anyway.


Watch the full interview, herevimeo.com/studiosity/noreen-golfman

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