Linda Kealey reviews Stephen Harold Riggins and Roberta Buchanan, eds. Creating A University: The Newfoundland Experience.

Stephen Harold Riggins and Roberta Buchanan, eds. Creating A University: The Newfoundland Experience. (St. John’s: ISER Books, 2019).

By Linda Kealey

I opened this collection of 32 short essays with great interest as I spent 22 years teaching in Memorial University’s (MUN) History Department from 1980 to 2002.  The authors, mainly “come from aways” (CFA) or non-native Newfoundlanders, mostly from the United Kingdom or the United States, reflect on their sometimes accidental arrivals in St. John’s to teach at MUN.  Like them, I too was a CFA and like a number of them I expected to stay for only a brief period before moving on.  These “arrival” stories have common themes:  vast ignorance of the geography, history and culture of Canada let alone Canada’s tenth province; the need to learn to deal with the  weather; the challenge of starting teaching with little experience and, especially, little preparation for handling students out of grade 11 who originated from small outport communities.


Stephen Harold Riggins and Roberta Buchanan, eds. Creating A University: The Newfoundland Experience. (St. John’s: ISER Books, 2019).

Early academic arrivals often took a ship from the UK, a train from Quebec and a ferry from the mainland, trips that involved days  if not weeks .  When they arrived, they faced the challenge of finding housing, sometimes in university-owned houses in the early days when MUN had difficulty attracting faculty.  A number of new faculty members had very little money upon arrival and University policy did not permit advances. Perhaps the most brutally honest account comes from the English Department’s Roberta Buchanan: “I was 26 years old.  I was in a strange country where I knew no one.  I had no teaching experience. I was scared…I had a pack of cards.  I sat on the floor of my room, playing patience, watched tear-jerkers on television, and drank rye and ginger ale.  So began my new life in Canada” (251). While not all arrival stories in the volume are this stark, those coming to the university from outside experienced considerable culture shock, unfamiliar topography, and a myriad of challenges, including the limited availability of fresh vegetables other than root crops.  On the other hand, as many of these authors note, Newfoundland’s unique history, economy, folklore, music, culture, and physical geography became the basis of their research and publications.

MUN’s “origin story” is also part of the political history of the province, one that emanated from Jospeh R. Smallwood’s ambitions.  Part of Joey’s vision was to turn Memorial College into a university and in doing so he had to deal with reluctant academics, administrators and bureaucrats.  In the words of the English Department’s first Head, David G. Pitt, Smallwood wooed him to come home from Toronto as one of those bright young Newfoundlanders needed to fill the teaching ranks of the new institution which was founded  in 1949. The institution grew with a new campus in 1961 and more students, but high failure rates among first year students led to the creation of Junior Division which featured smaller classes taught by former high school and college teachers mandated to smooth the transition into a university learning environment.  The university also took seriously its role in reaching out to the public even in its college days with outreach courses.  Aware of the role played by Nova Scotia’s Antigonish movement led by the Extension department at St. Francis Xavier University in community development, by the late 1950s MUN had created a similar program.  According to Jeff Webb, the Extension Service provided not only direction towards economic and social development, but also fostered the cultural sector through its courses. Its use of the media to advocate for  social change in rural communities in collaboration with the National Film Board’s Challenge for Change program was pioneering and emulated in other parts of the developing world.

Under Smallwood’s modernization program, and in conjunction with the federal government, the inhabitants of many small communities were forced to relocate to larger centres, a process known as resettlement.  Cost savings motivated the plan but so too did the dubious idea that moving people to “growth centres” would improve their economic circumstances.  Sociologist Ralph Matthews writes about spending several summers during his undergraduate years in remote communities acting as a welfare officer where he observed first-hand “the privation that was my heritage” (111). Matthews went on to co-author a study critical of the resettlement process which underlined rural peoples’ views that it was forced upon them.

Contributing to the university’s uniqueness was its Folklore program which evolved out of the English Department under the leadership of American Herbert Halpert who became the first Head of the new department.  Neil Rosenberg’s chapter focuses on Halpert’s key role in founding the department, recruiting him to MUN from the US, and in creating the very rich folklore and language archive.  Given its origins, it is not surprising that the Folklore department continued to recruit many faculty from the US.

Like many campuses in North America and Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s, MUN students found themselves battling with the administration, the subject of political scientist Steven Wolinetz’s essay; in this case the President, Lord Taylor of Harlow and the Board of Regents decided to end the automatic deduction of student union dues from student fees thus precipitating the occupation of the Arts and Administration building in late fall 1972. While the President adamantly refused to give in, others negotiated an end to the occupation and, pending a student referendum, dues were to be deducted once again from student fees. Similar to other autocratic presidents elsewhere, Taylor soon left the presidency.

Other notable struggles involved fighting discriminatory practices and achieving pay equity for women faculty, the subject of Roberta Buchanan’s second contribution.  In MUN’s early years, women faculty members had to resign upon marriage; pending Board approval they might be allowed to teach on a sessional basis thus losing not only salary, benefits, and pension, but also third semester research time and sabbaticals. While expansion of the university in the 1960s onward encouraged the hiring of married couples into tenure track jobs, faculty wives were still an underclass of cheap labour.  In the 1970s faculty women organized a Status of Academic Women Committee as part of the faculty association. Several salary studies in the 1970s and 1980s revealed the extent of discrimination in pay, but it took unionization in the late 1980s and a strike in 2000 to fix the salary scales.

Today MUN is the largest university in Atlantic Canada. During the boom years of oil production, the university grew in size partly by offering  low tuition rates. In recent years, however, fiscal challenges in the province have resulted in major cuts to the university’s budget perhaps indicating significant struggles yet to come. This collection of memoirs (“MUNographies”), however, attests to the resilience and sense of community among the faculty especially in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.  While by no means a comprehensive history, its authors collectively provide personal glimpses of what it was like to build a university on the edge of the Atlantic.

Linda Kealey is a Professor Emerita of History at UNB specializing in women’s/gender history.


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The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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