Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Memorial University's campus in St. John's is pictured in June. More than 19,000 students attend the university according to its website.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

High salaries, expensive dinner parties and nearly $23,000 in custom-made chocolates are among a litany of red flags raised by a report Monday from Newfoundland and Labrador’s Auditor-General about spending and operations at the province’s only university.

Denise Hanrahan’s blistering account says the university lacks oversight, adding that nearly a third of the school’s expenses are decided by its president and not reviewed by its governing board.

“Overall, we had concerns with the spending and operations of Memorial University,” the document says. “Memorial did not effectively monitor its financial information, activities from delegated authorities, compensation, and expenses in a meaningful way.”

The report comes after a difficult few years for the school, which included a controversial tuition hike, a faculty strike and the departure this year of its former president, Vianne Timmons, after questions arose about her claims of Indigenous heritage. More than 19,000 students attend the university according to its website. Its largest campus is in St. John's, N.L., and it has smaller campuses in Labrador, Corner Brook and Harlow, England.

Hanrahan and her team examined the school’s expenses and operations from April 2019 to December 2022. They found it had the highest administrative salaries per student – $2,369 – compared with other universities of its size.

The university’s compensation policies were “either non-existent or outdated,” and several executives were receiving salaries beyond the top level of their pay scales, the report said.

The document also takes aim at expenses that could be considered “unreasonable or excessive,” including those made by Timmons, who was president from 2020 until this April. The report refers to her simply as “the former president.”

It highlights bills totalling $56,504 for renovations to the president’s office in 2020, $2,700 of which was used to buy a desk and chair for Timmons’s home, the report said.

She is also singled out for claiming nearly $1,500 to host a 10-guest dinner for the school’s vice-presidents and their spouses at her home, exceeding the allowable limit of $250.

The president’s office bought $1,792 worth of custom chocolates in December 2020, to be used as gifts from Timmons to “employees, other stakeholders and visitors,” the report said. Other offices also bought the sweets, including the Office of the Provost, for a total tab of $22,800.

The auditor also flags the school’s spending on recruiters to fill its highest ranks. Over the three years studied, Memorial paid $1.1 million to headhunters to fill 15 management and executive positions, five of whom are no longer working at the university, Hanrahan and her team wrote. Three of those people resigned within their first year.

Another consultant hired for $65,000 turned out to be a board member for the school’s campus in England, and nobody alerted the university’s conflict of interest committee about it, the report added.

John Harris, executive director of external affairs with the school’s student union, said it was “a real shame” that the university decided in 2021 to more than double tuition while it was “misspending” public funds.

“This report really sheds light on what students have been saying for years, and what the student union has been saying for years, that there is administrative bloat at this university, and there needs to responsibility,” Harris said in an interview Monday.

Students and faculty have long been calling for more representation on the school’s board of regents, and Harris said that would allow for more transparency and accountability about administrative spending. He also noted that students and faculty have vocally opposed the school’s use of recruiting agencies to hire for its top positions, including Timmons, who took office in April 2020.

The auditor makes eight recommendations to improve oversight and transparency, including an evaluation of the school’s compensation policies. In a statement on the university’s website, the Board of Regents said it accepts all eight suggestions.

“Since the audit period, there have been significant changes at Memorial and we are already working to address the concerns that have been raised,” said Neil Bose, the school’s president, and Glenn Barnes, the board’s chair. “This work will continue.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe