HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Governance

March 13

Tea Leaves on the Rideau

Last Tuesday, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau set the date for the federal budget for next Wednesday (March 22) and naturally people are wondering: what goodies are in store?  Without being privy to any inside information, here’s my take on where we are going.

At the press conference announcing the budget date, Minister Morneau dropped some important hints.  The biggest one is that, contrary to what had been heavily promoted for the past year, this budget will not be an “Innovation Budget”, but will represent a “downpayment” on an Innovation Budget.  From this we should probably deduce two things.  One: the feds are broke.  Well, maybe not broke, but certainly unwilling to increase borrowing in the face of a $30 billion deficit, slow growth and adverse demographic trends.  Two: the government has – THANK GOD – attained enough self-awareness to discern that does not really know what it’s doing on this file.  I noted back here that the Finance Minister’s Economic Council was flatly in opposition to the Innovation Ministry’s ideas about innovation clusters, and it probably came to the conclusion that making big budget commitments in the face of such disagreement was untenable.

To be clear: I am thrilled with this outcome.  Yes, it’s too bad the feds seem to have wasted a year on this file.  But far better to take a sober second look at the issue and make smart policy rather than to charge forward in order to meet an artificial deadline.  I also take it as a favourable sign that the government has brought Ivey Professor Mike Moffatt – co-author of a large recent piece on Innovation Policy by Canada 2020 – into the ministry on a temporary basis. For one thing, he actually understands what innovation policy means outside the tech sector, a concept which has been missing from ministry discourse since the minute Minister Bains was appointed.

(Many of you have been asking to me on twitter to explain what the hell the terms “Innovation” and “Innovation Policy” actually mean.  Sit tight: we’ll work on that one this week.)

There were also hints from the Minister that this would be a “skills” budget, a sentiment which has left many puzzled.  A year ago, the big issue for the near term was supposed to be the renegotiation of Ottawa’s Labour Market Development Agreements with the provinces, which mostly hasn’t happened. Since then there have been no major policy initiative apart from that.  There has been – via the consultations on Innovation policy – something of an understanding that skills are a big part of the innovation problem, but government thinking doesn’t appear to have progressed much beyond “more coders”! as a result.  (At a rough approximation, this government’s skills policy is more or less the same as the last ones, only if you just take out all the references to welding and insert the coding instead).

The worry here is that the “big initiative” will in fact be the implementation of the horrifically-named “FutureSkills Lab” promoted by Dominic Barton, chair of Morneau’s Economic Advisory committee (which I described back here).  If that’s the case, we may be about to view the first really big policy disaster of the Trudeau era.  First of all, no one is going to buy FutureSkills – essentially a kind of policy laboratory – as something which will help Canadians in anything other than the long term.  Second of all, the feds have yet to discuss the idea meaningfully with the provinces and without their buy-in, this initiative will be Dead on Arrival, just as the Canadian Council on Learning was.

To be clear: I don’t think this is going to be the “big initiative”.  I don’t think the Liberals are that stupid.  But I guess we’ll see.

What about Science?  Here, the news is not good.  You may recall that the Government of Canada commissioned a Fundamental Science Review, and asked by the inimitable David Naylor to run it.  Naylor, as requested, submitted the report to the Minister of Science in December.  The Government of Canada has yet to publish it and refuses to answer questions about when it might be published.  Why?  It seems transparently obvious that the government found some of the findings inconvenient, and would prefer to bury it until after the budget.  Maybe the report suggested the system needed more money (which would have been beyond the committee’s remit since it was only asked to comment on the management of the system, not the size).  Maybe the report suggested that certain science bodies which the government has already decided to fund were redundant.  Either way, the government seems to have decided the budget will be easier to spin if we haven’t all first read Naylor’s report.  I have a hard time imagining how this could a harbinger of good news.

In sum: don’t bank on anything big in this budget.  In fact, brace yourself for at least one major piece of goofiness.  Fingers crossed it doesn’t happen, but best to be prepared.

March 01

Under-managed universities

I have been having some interesting conversations with folks recently about “overwork” in academia.  It is clear to me that a lot of professors are absolutely frazzled.  It is also clear to me that on average professors work hard – not necessarily because The Man is standing over them with a whip but because as a rule academics are professional and driven, and hey, status within academia is competitive and lots of people want to keep up with the Joneses.

But sometimes when I talk to profs – and for context here the ones I speak to most often are ones roughly my own age (mid-career) or younger – what I hear a lot of is about work imbalance (i.e. some professors are doing more work than others) or, to put it more bluntly, how much “deadwood” there is in universities (the consensus answer is somewhere between 20-30%).  And therefore, I think it is reasonable to ask the question: to what extent do some people’s “overwork” stem from the fact that some professors aren’t pulling their weight?

This is obviously something of a sticky question, and I had an interesting time discussing it with a number of interlocutors of twitter last week.  My impression is that opinion roughly divides up into three camps:

1)      The self-righteous Camp.  “This is ridiculous I’ve never heard professors talking like this about each other, we all work hard and anyway if anyone is unproductive it’s because they’re dealing with kids or depressed due to the uncaring, neoliberal administration smashing its boot into the face of academia forever…”

2)      The Hard Science Camp. “Well, you know there are huge differences in workload expectation across the institution – do you know how much work it is to run a lab? Those humanities profs get away with murder…”

3)       The “We’ve earned it” Camp “Hey look at all the professions where you put in the hours at the start and get to relax later on. We’re just like that. Would you want to work hours like a junior your whole life? And by the way older profs just demonstrate productivity on a broader basis than just teaching and research….”

There is probably something to each of these points of view.  People do have to juggle external priorities with academic ones at some points in their lives; that said, since most of the people who made the remarks about deadwood have young kids themselves, I doubt that explains the phenomenon. There probably are different work expectations across faculties; that said, in the examples I was using, my interlocutors were talking about people in their own units, so that’s doesn’t affect my observation, much.  Perhaps there are expectations of taking it easier as careers progress, but I never made the argument that deadwood is related to seniority so the assumption that this was what caused deadwood was… interesting).  So while acknowledging that all of these points may be worthwhile, I still tend to believe that at least part of the solution to overwork is dealing with the problem of work imbalances.

Now, at some universities – mainly ones which have significantly upped their research profile in the last couple of decades – this might genuinely be tough because the expectations of staff who were hired in the 1970s or 1980s might be very, very different than the expectations of ones hired today.  Places like Ryerson or MacEwan are obvious examples, but can also be true at places like Waterloo, which thought of itself as a mostly undergraduate institution even into the early 1990s.  Simply put, there is a huge generational gap at some universities in how people understand “the job” because they were hired in totally different contexts.

What strikes me about all of this is that neither management nor – interestingly – labour seem to have much interest in measuring workload for the purpose of equalizing it.  Sure, there’s lots of bean counting, especially in the sciences, especially when it comes to research contracts and publications and stuff like that.  But what’s missing is the desire to use to adjust individuals’ work loads in order to reach common goals more efficiently.

My impression is that in many departments, “workload management” means, at most, equalizing undergraduate teaching requirements.  Grad supervisions?  Those are all over the place.  “Service”?  Let’s not even pretend that’s well-measured.  Research effort?  Once tenure has been given, it’s largely up to individuals how much they want to do.  The fiercely competitive may take on 40 or 50 hours a week on top of their other duties, others much less.  Department heads – usually elected by professors in the department themselves – have limited incentive and means to get the overachievers to maybe cool it sometimes and the underachievers to up their game.

In short, while it’s fashionable to say that professors are being “micro-managed” by universities, I would argue that on the rather basic task of regulating workload for common good, academics are woefully under-managed.  I’d probably go even further and say most people know they are undermanaged and many wish it could change.  But at the end of the day, academics as a voting mass on Senates and faculty unions consistently seem to prefer undermanagement and “freedom” to management and (perhaps) more work fairness.

I wonder why this is. I also wonder if there is not a gender component to the issue.

What do you think?  Comments welcome.

January 10

The Politicization of University Accounting

Back in the fall, the Canadian Alliance of University Teachers (CAUT) published an interesting little guidebook called CAUT’s Guide to Analyzing University & College Financial Statements, written by Cameron and Janet Morrill, two profs at the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business.  Stripped to its essentials, it purports to be a DIY guide for faculty to help hold their institutions to account over finances.

Nothing wrong with that.  Learning how to read financial statements is a good thing.  The issue is the subtext (“THEY’RE LYING TO YOU!”) and the curious way in which they treat the matter of internally restricted funds.

In practice, universities have three types of funds.  There are unrestricted funds: money which they can do whatever heck they like with.  For the most part this is equivalent to the annual operating budget.  There are externally restricted funds – money which can only be used in manners specified by outsiders who have provided them money.  These include most research budgets and infrastructure money (you can’t take CFI money and blow it on beer and popcorn) as well as – of course – money destined for the school’s endowment.

But then there’s a third and slightly more curious type of money called “internally restricted funds”.  These are funds which institutions have set aside themselves for various purposes, usually related to the long-term health of the institution.  They don’t show up as a separate category on balance sheets, though a quick read of notes accompanying the financial statements is usually sufficient to work out their size (admittedly not the most exciting pastime).

The CAUT document is implicitly a guide for how to hunt for evidence that administrators are lying about the institution’s health.  The document starts off in fact by the authors telling the tale of how gradually they came to understand that their own university’s financial position was not fragile but loaded, thanks to their sophisticated understanding of “interfund transfers” (i.e. the process of putting money into internally restricted funds).  Left unsaid: hey, these internally restricted funds could be going to increase professor’s salaries!

Occasionally the document seems to accept the existence of and rationale for internally restricted funds, but the kicker is in the appendices, where they produce a step-by-step guide to working out how much unrestricted cash an institution really has on hand, and use the financial statements of the University of New Brunswick and the University of Ottawa as their case studies.  The formula they use is a little complex but basically it comes down to 1) find out how much money they have in “investments” 2) subtract the endowment and externally restricted funds 3) the residual is “unrestricted cash and investments”.  Which of course can only be true if you completely ignored internally restricted funds.

According to the Morrills, UNB has about $130 million in “unrestricted cash and investments” – you know, just loose money hanging around – while Ottawa has $331 million.  This is preposterous, as even a cursory look at each institution’s financial statements.  At Ottawa, for instance, note 19 of the financial statements clearly notes that the university has $297 million in internally restricted funds (ie., almost exactly what the Morrills claim to be “unrestricted cash and investments”) and note 12 of the financial statements lists a number of the uses of these funds, including: a $57 million for capital expenditures (e.g to match an external grant), $30 million to support faculty research activities, $31 million in a sinking fund to retire long-term debt, etc.

At both UNB and Ottawa – and I think it’s safe to assume it’s true at other institutions as well – internally restricted funds also cover money set aside to cover the unfunded costs of benefits programs, and funds for strategic priorities.  They also cover (and this is one of Canadian higher education’s dirty little secrets) many millions of dollars which are under the control of individual faculties and departments with respect to which the central administration has barely any understanding let alone control.  How did they get these?  Simple: many universities allow faculties/departments to roll over any unspent non-salary-related money in their budgets from year-to-year.  Over time, these can become formidable war chests.  I know of one medium-sized university in western Canada where such funds add up to around $60 million.  But is this really “unrestricted cash/investments”?   I can’t imagine any university administrator trying to take such funds away from lower units.  The words “from my cold dead hands” leap to mind.

So what we have here is a document from CAUT which is encouraging its member locals to label “internally restricted funds” as “unrestricted cash and investments” and hence, presumably, available for distribution to faculty members during collective bargaining talks.  And there is a sense in which this is correct: the designation of certain funds and certain priorities are political designations within the university itself.  It was a decision by the Board of Governors which restricted these funds and the Board could just as easily have not restricted these funds, or restricted them to some other purpose.

It might be a good idea to have an honest discussion about the size and use of these funds, and the trade-offs they entail.  Should professors get more pay at the expense of paying off the institutional debt or covering the unfunded costs of future benefits?  Should the institution have a lower tuition increase this year paid for by raiding faculty funds built up over the years for internal priorities?  I think those kinds of discussions would be helpful and clarifying.

But that’s not what the Morrills and CAUT are trying to do here.  Quite clearly, by claiming that internally restricted funds are in fact “unrestricted cash & investments” what they are trying to do is get more of their members to believe that universities have plenty of money lying around to spend and hence that any holding out at the bargaining table is chicanery rather than prudence.

Let’s not beat around the bush.  This is a lie, one designed specifically to increase labour strife by increasing distrust in university financial statements.  I wonder what CAUT has to gain by publishing it?

August 24

Carleton’s Loyalty Oath

I am a proud Carleton alumnus.  If you want a master’s degree related to public policy, there are (or were, anyways) few better places in Canada to study.  You get a great mix of students there, many of whom brought perspectives from their work in government or NGOs, and that greatly enriches the learning experience.  I’m always talking up Carleton.  So it’s frankly been a bit dismaying recently to see Carleton’s Board of Governors acting like goons.

The kerfuffle has to do with a Professor by the name of Root Gorelick, who was the faculty’s representative to the Board of Governors.  Like many elected faculty board representatives, he has over time developed a reputation as being oppositional: he views his job as helping to hold the institution to account.  He also views himself as a representative; that is, he communicates to what he believes are his constituents through a blog about issues that are confronting the board through his blog (available here).

The executive committee of the Board – and, one can safely presume, the university’s senior administration – do not share Gorelick’s views about his role as a “representative”.  Instead, they have spent the last few months arguing essentially that although some Board members are elected (student and staff representatives, for instance), their job as Board members entails a fiduciary duty to act for the good of the institution and not to act as “representatives” in a parliamentary sense.  In particular, they further argue, once the Board makes a decision, Board members must collectively defend those decisions and not go blogging critically about them.

This is not an indefensible point of view, I suppose, though not one I share.  You don’t see corporate board members of major corporations (or even many non-profit ones like hospitals) blogging about internal divisions within the Board.  But then again, University Boards are by design meant to have some democratic features that corporate boards do not.  Some people view this as a defect in university governance, but it’s  workable provided there are proper safeguards (you don’t let the faculty representative on the committees which discuss collective bargaining, for instance). 

What is indefensible is adding a clause to the Board’s Code of Conduct which is in effect a loyalty oath. To wit, Board members shall “Support all actions taken by the Board of Governors even when in a minority position on such actions. Respect the principle of Board collegiality, meaning an issue may be debated vigorously, but once a decision is made it is the decision of the entire Board, and is to be supported”.  This is absurd: a University Board can have a loyal and respectful opposition; it does not require the rigid solidarity of a federal Cabinet or a Supreme Soviet.

One suspects that the Carleton Board has not taken this step purely because of some abstract principles about governance.  Gorelick comes across as a bit of a stereotypically cranky aging academic, and certainly if you believe his account of recent events (written up here in Academic Matters, the heart of his dispute with the Board is over specific policy issues, not abstractions.  Specifically, he seems to have irritated some other Board members with his opposition to increasing levels of security and secrecy around Board meetings and on the composition of the Board itself. 

Personally, I think Gorelick is right about the first issue (if UBC teaches us anything, it’s that the first sign of a Board going astray is when it starts doing more things in secret) and out to lunch on the second (reducing the number of external governors invites governments to do more direct micromanaging of universities).  But Gorelick’s politics are immaterial here.  Dissent on a Board is not something that needs to be stamped out.  Requiring Board member to sign a loyalty oath before seating him on the Board is wrong.   Carleton needs to re-think this policy.

So says this alum, anyway.

April 28

Two Theories About University Governance

I recently had a chat with a colleague about a piece I wrote a few years ago called “Time for a New Duff-Berdahl”.  And over the course of the conversation we came up with two theories about university governance in Canada (and elsewhere I suppose).

Theory #1 is that we have a governance problem because we have lost the culture of informal engagement within universities.  Back when universities were smaller, and when faculty spent a whole heck of a lot more time on campus, they would sit and talk together in coffee lounges.  There were also faculty clubs where Deans, and vice-presidents were easily accessible.  Basically, there were a lot of places you could have low-stakes discussions about the direction of the university outside of formal bodies like Senate and Board, and that was to the good for four reasons.  One, people knew each other better and that reduced the tendency towards demonization of opponents; two, low-stakes discussions (as opposed to formal ones in decision-making bodies) tend to lead to a more open exchange of ideas and hopefully coming to a little bit more common ground; three, in practice a whole lot more people got to participate in these discussions and as a result; four, institutional culture was more cohesive and so there was a lot less petulant foot-stamping all around.

What follows from theory #1 is that somehow, we have to find ways to re-create that kind of engagement.  It’s a tricky one because you can’t just re-open all those faculty clubs that were shut in the 90s, and you can’t force people to spend more time on campus because God only knows the fuss that would create and you can’t go out directly and do something like an “engagement exercise” because faculty would smell a rat and you can’t hold town halls because “OMG More Meetings”?  But presumably some creative types could imagine ways to create a little more common culture in the name of creating a better shared campus culture.

Theory #2 accepts the basic premise of Theory #1 – not enough shared culture – but basically says any attempt to try and reform it is doomed to failure.  As research has taken on a prominent role in our universities, the culture of academia has made academics care a whole lot more about their discipline than their university.  More to the point, profs are much more likely to be collaborating with colleagues at other universities than inside their own.  So, frankly, why should they care about better institutional governance?

It’s a collective action problem, really.  Pretty much everyone cares about shared, collegial governance, but almost no one cares enough to put in the hours necessary to make it work.  So profs in effect outsource the tough work to administrators, who they find irritating in many ways, but not quite irritating enough to make profs do the work on their own.  For good measure they unionize, which is arguably a way of outsourcing the task of sticking it to administrators when something goes wrong.  Hedging, you see.  And so, effectively in the name of professorial convenience, you get an administration/union dynamic which dominates what used to be a Board/Senate dynamic.

Yet what I found interesting about what has happened at UBC over the last four months is that when faculty decided to start engaging with university governance (which I wrote about back here), they didn’t do so primarily through their faculty union (not that UBCFA was indifferent, just that it was not always taking the lead).  Come crisis time, faculty sometimes still have the old collective-governance instinct.  The question is: is there a way to make that ethos come through even in the absence of a crisis?  Theory #1 says there is, theory #2 says Good Luck With That.

Curious what you readers think: have a go in the comments section, I’d be interested to hear your views.

 

March 10

A New Focus for Student Unions

It’s that time of year when student elections are on and occasionally I get asked a question like “what’s the future of student unions?” and “what could student unions be doing better”?  These are good questions. Here’s my answer.

For the most part, student union budgets go into providing “services”.  Often, an awful lot of this ends up simply paying for light, heat and maintenance of student union buildings.  Big chunks also go to managing and overseeing the vast number of clubs.  This is irritating, nitpicky stuff, but it’s what most students actually find useful about student unions, so it’s probably money well-spent.

As a result a fairly small proportion goes in to actually representing students, which is odd since in theory that’s the purpose of student associations.  And the majority of that money goes to the external/government relations portfolio to talk to government.  Only a tiny fraction of funds in student unions goes to representing students inside their institutions.

And yet representing students to their administration is the one thing students can’t count on anyone else to do for them.  Lower tuition?  Any number of outside groups can argue for that.  Actually changing things inside an institution to improve the standard of education?  Only students can do that.

The number one issue for most students today is the fear of not getting a good job after graduation.  There’s not a whole lot student unions can do about that directly, but what they can do is put a lot more pressure on institutions to make sure they are as well-prepared as possible.  They can push institutions to deliver experiential learning.  They can push administrations to look at how to display co-curricular records on transcripts.  They can push faculty and departmental units to engage more with the labour market and adjust teaching and assessment accordingly.  These are all things which student organizations could do (but usually don’t) in a co-ordinated, effective, and meaningful way.

One of the reasons student leaders don’t focus on this area is because victories – when they occur – are so slow in coming.  It’s a rare student politician who can push a change in academic process or planning and expect to see a positive decision within the one-year lifespan of his or her career as an executive.  Student unions, by nature, are after quick hits.  But this is where provincial and national organizations like the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations and the Canadian Federation of Students can play a role: student leaders there have slightly longer tenures and are thus able to focus on longer-term issues.  For instance, in the UK, the National Union of Students puts a lot of work in on helping student associations work on quality assurance within institutions.  Now that’s somewhat easier to do in the UK than here because quality assurance processes are a lot more transparent, public and standardized over there.  But it’s not impossible to imagine it happening here.

Imagine local student unions spending time engaging their members to find out what kinds of outcomes they want from their time in university.  Imagine them spending time translating that into real policy options within the institution.  Imagine national student organizations spending time training people at the local level, teaching them how to understand university administrative and political structures, how to talk “Senate-ese”, and how to be effective champions of curricular change.  Imagine local student organizations putting time and effort into making sure that every student on every periodic review knew how to advocate effectively for change during the review process.

(Actually, if they were smart, universities themselves would get on this effort: increasing the number of students who can make intelligent contributions to university governance activities can really only be to the good).

To sum up: Canadian students have talked for years about access.  Less frequently have they really faced up to the question: access to what?  It’s past time they engaged more on this question, and just as importantly, empowered their members to act effectively in this area.

March 02

Faculty Power and the Expansion of Administration

There was an interesting little op-ed in the Vancouver Sun the other day, to the effect that faculty are “waking up”, “realizing their voices matter”, and taking collective action to “effect substantive change at UBC”.  You can read it, here.

I think it is a fantastic piece.  It’s great when people in a community realise they have the power to change things, and begin acting together to effect that change.  My only question is: what was stopping them from acting on this before?

The answer, if we’re honest, is “nothing”, and the authors admit as much.  Canadian Senates – or academic councils, or General Faculty Council, or whatever they are called in your neck of the woods –  have an enormous amount of power to drive institutional policy; at the faculty level, things differ a bit from place-to-place, but there is no doubt that at most universities, the collective professoriate is able to develop and drive policy, if it wants to.

But the plain simple fact of the matter is that at most universities, most of the time, they don’t want to.  There was a time, when universities were much smaller, cheaper, and less complex, when academic staff could take on a lot of non-academic work as part of their day jobs, and universities could run more or less without professional non-academic staff.  But with massification and the growing importance of research in academia, staying engaged in senior levels of academic governance is a real struggle for many.  So they do what they are supposed to do: delegate to professionals, and hope these people do a good job.

And for the most part, they do.  Or at least they do it well enough that there is no concerted movement by professors to turn back the clock and put more academic oversight into the system.  It’s tacitly understood that a university that doesn’t hire good communications professionals, good fundraisers, and good government relations people is likely to be a smaller, poorer university.  We might bemoan this fact a bit, but everyone knows it’s true.  And so by and large, the expansion of administration over the last 30 years has tacitly been endorsed by faculty, because otherwise they are the ones who would have to do that work.  And, y’know, thanks but no thanks.

Where administration becomes an issue is when those professionals are no longer seen to be of good value: that is, they are paid too much relative to their value, or when they are perceived to put their own interests ahead of those of the academic enterprise.  And while rare, this does happen every once in awhile.  And when it does, there is nothing to stop academics re-taking the wheel.  Which is as it should be.

So in sum, it isn’t a matter of faculty “re-taking” power in universities.  Faculty have always had power in universities; they’ve just chosen for the sake of convenience not to use it very much.  If this is changing, and faulty  want to exercise power to a greater extent, as the UBC editorialists suggests, that’s perfectly A-OK.  Just remember that everything has trade-offs.

February 08

(#fake)Tenure, Governance, and Academic Freedom

If you follow higher education news from south of the border, one scrap you’ll probably have noticed over the past year or so is the one over tenure in Wisconsin.  Until recently, tenure provisions at the University of Wisconsin were inscribed in state law.  Last year, Wisconsin Governor and erstwhile presidential candidate Scott Walker decided to remove tenure protection, leaving the University’s Board of Regents to inscribe it in their own rules.  At the same time, the Governor gave university management more power, free from the scrutiny of Senate and other shared-governance arrangements, to close or modify programs.  Put these two things together, add the fact that public sector unions in Wisconsin are legally forbidden from bargaining over anything other than wages, and you have a situation where it’s a lot easier to get rid of professors than it used to be.

So far, so clear.  For obvious reasons, professors at Wisconsin are upset about this, and many are calling this new system #faketenure because they believe that any tenure protection given through new Board of Regents rules is effectively undermined by the new management powers to eliminate or modify programs.  This, they say, means that there will be a form of academic chill at Wisconsin, with people afraid to voice controversial opinions or undertake challenging research for fear of political backlash.

Now, I get why most professors would prefer the old regime to the new, but the idea that challenging or difficult research can only take place in environments where tenure is ironclad and all program modifications can only take place with faculty agreement is simply not true.  If this is genuinely your position, you have to have a good answer to the question: “what about the UK and Australia?”

In the late-1980s, the Thatcher government in the UK simply abolished tenure for anyone hired after 1987.  People were still hired on permanent contracts (though as in the US and Canada, massification also led to an increase in the use of part-time contracts), but there was nothing stopping institutions from making people redundant by chopping whole departments – as is the case in Wisconsin.  Of course, unions can deter this to some degree by insisting on buyouts, redeployments, etc (as indeed Canadian unions do, too – see here for more on this).  But essentially, the conditions in the UK are pretty close to what some in Wisconsin are calling #faketenure, and yet one doesn’t often encounter the claim that UK researchers are doing ideologically cowed, or less daring research.

It’s the same thing in Australia.  Universities give out “permanent” positions somewhat more quickly than our universities – their equivalent of “tenure-track” is maybe half as long as it is here – but academics are much more actively managed (a fall in publications will bring a rise in teaching load relatively quickly), and large-scale institutional restructuring is much more common (La Trobe University, for instance, more or less slashed its entire economics department a couple of years ago).  Again, possibly not a model to follow if you’re a prof, but can anyone really claim that Australian academics are less free, less bold, less daring than their counterparts elsewhere?

To put this simply: people make a lot of universal declaratory statements about tenure and academic freedom.  For the most part, they aren’t true.  There is lots of top-notch research – even in the social sciences and humanities, where a lot of the most controversial stuff is concentrated – that occurs in places without the specific North American context of tenure and shared governance.  This is undeniable.

Now, this isn’t to say that removing those kinds of protections over here in North America wouldn’t have an effect.  One of the reasons the loss of protection in Wisconsin is cause for concern is because Wisconsin’s Board of Regents is increasingly a partisan body, with its members entirely appointed by the Governor, and it’s not that far-fetched to imagine them going after specific programs or even specific professors.

But that’s precisely the point: claims about the effects/benefits/drawbacks of any particular constellation of policies on tenure and academic freedom need to take very close account of the legal and political context in which they are operating.  Claiming that tenure *has* to be inscribed in a collective bargaining agreement, or that it *has* to be inscribed in legislation are equally incorrect; the point is that there are many possible equilibria on tenure, governance, and academic freedom.  Claiming the opposite is simply evidence of a fairly limited imagination about how higher education can be run.

February 03

The Economics of Interdisciplinary Programs at Small Universities

A minor kerfuffle blew up yesterday in Sackville when the coordinator of Mount Allison University’s Women’s and Gender Studies announced that, due to budget cuts, she had been informed that the university would no longer be offering classes in this program, as of next fall.  Cue petitions, angry students, a buzzfeed listicle, etc.

What follows here is a little explainer with respect to the economics of this situation:

Mount Allison is a small school.  Enrolment last year was 2,369, which was down 8.5% from four years earlier.  Not good.  Total projected operating revenue for the university this year and net money from the feds, like Canada Research chairs, is a shade over $44 million, of which very slightly under 50% comes from tuition fees, with domestic students paying $746.50/course.  A similar amount comes from the provincial government in a lump sum, which is not formula-driven.

The Women’s and Gender Study Program is one of those typical interdisciplinary programs you see at Canadian universities.  It does not offer a major, only a minor.  In practice, it consists of four courses (one each at the 100, 200, 300, and 400 levels), plus some fourth-year independent study and “special topic courses”, which in practice don’t get taught much.  In order to obtain the minor, one must take each of the three lower-year courses, plus at least one of the fourth-year courses, and then another 12 credits from a selection of about forty related courses spread across a dozen or so disciplines (see program description here).

For quite a long time, the program seems to have only had a single dedicated academic staff person, who sadly died late last year.  The coordinator role has since passed to a faculty member in the Psychology Department, and all of the teaching responsibilities have passed to an Instructor (i.e. sessional/adjunct) who – if you think RateMyProfessor.com is of any value – gets rave reviews from her students.

Enrolment is reasonably healthy.  There appears to be roughly 190 course-enrolments across all four of the courses – or about 19 FTE students.  Now, how you turn that student count into revenue is a bit tricky.  In a formula-funded system you could just add per-credit tuition, plus per-student grant, and voila!  In a block-funded system it’s trickier.  One could argue that this money simply doesn’t belong to any particular unit because even if one program disappeared, those students (and that money) would still be in the institution.  So, if you only count tuition as revenue, this program earns $145,255; if you choose to count government grant money as being associated with specific enrolments, then you get double that, about $290,510.

Now, I don’t have access to financial expense data at Mount Allison but it’s not hard to do a back-of-the-envelope estimation of program costs.  A sessional with a little bit of experience costs $10,000 per course at Mount Allison, give or take $1K (that’s cost to the institution, including payroll taxes, benefits, etc.); so a 4-course program like this would likely cost $40K a year, or so.  Coordinators usually also get some course-release, which implies another $10K to hire a sessional to cover this.  The program also shares an administrative assistant with two other departments.  I have no idea what the actual cost-sharing arrangement is, but let’s say it’s another $10,000, or so.  Throw in some other direct costs – phone, mail-outs, maybe a wine-and-cheese once a year, plus a guest speaker flown in – and you get to $70,000, give or take.

But that’s without overhead.  Now, how you count overhead on an academic department is a bit tricky.  It’s easy enough to simply take all costs like utilities, IT, student services, registrar, physical plant, and admin, and then divide it across all students: according to CAUBO finance statistics, that would give you a number not far off $7,700 per student (or $146,300 total).  But on the other hand, there’s also the argument that this is money the university would pay anyways, even if the unit didn’t exist (i.e. the same argument why you shouldn’t count the government block grant money, only in reverse).

For simplicity’s sake then, let’s not count either the government grant or the overhead costs.  We’ve got a program that appears to cost $65,000, and brings in $145,255.  So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that this fantastic situation only works as long as a sessional is the one doing all the teaching.  If the teaching is done by an Associate Professor (as indeed it was until quite recently), the economics change completely.  The minimum salary this year for associate professors at Mount Allison is $85,568.  Add in the costs of benefits, pension, etc., and you’re looking at something in the range of $110,000 at the absolute minimum for compensation.  Then throw in any costs associated with hiring replacement faculty for research leave, sabbaticals, etc., and of course admin costs on top of that, and you’re very quickly back to about $130,000.  But that’s minimum, assuming the lowest pay rung for an associate professor.  With annual pay rises, top-salary associate professors make almost $50,000 per year more than newbies.  In other words, it might break-even for a couple of years with a full-time prof, but would be unlikely to do so over the long-term.

Let that sink in for a second: at Mount Allison – and many other universities – it takes more than 19 FTEs (or 190 course enrolments) to support a mid-career Associate Professor.   That’s what our combination of faculty salaries and tuition policies have brought us to.

Now, I haven’t spoken to anyone in the Mount Allison administration about this issue: but it seems to me the logic would go something like this:

i)  As an institution we’re on seriously thin ice, financially: our per-student operating income is about $5,000 per head below what it is at U15 universities, and about $3,000 per head lower than Acadia;

ii)  We cannot sensibly run an entire program with nothing but sessional instructors;

iii)  This program will have difficulty breaking-even over the long-run unless it is taught by sessionals;

iv)  Maybe we shouldn’t offer this program anymore.

One could of course make the case that Women’s and Gender Studies is so important that it deserves cross-subsidies from elsewhere in the university.  And at larger and wealthier universities, this would be the case.  But at an institution as small and as cash-strapped as Mount Allison, it’s a tougher argument to make.  Most other departments are only just getting by, too.

Unpalatable choice, to be sure.  But that’s what running a university is all about these days.

January 12

Management in Universities

In organizations, people work in teams, but teams work effectively is difficult: this is what management is for.  It doesn’t always work well, but efficient management – making teams work together smarter, faster, and better – is the key to organizational success, whether you are in the private, public, or non-profit sectors.

Universities, of course, are an exception.

OK, not entirely.  Every university has units that must act as a team in order to deliver results.  Bookstores, admissions offices, physical plant: if teamwork goes down, if work is badly managed, the unit will not produce the desired results, and this can have deleterious effects on other units (difficult to do lab work or teach classes if the heat isn’t working properly; tough to pay staff if admissions are falling, etc.).

But in academic units?  Ha!  No.

It’s not that academics are resistant to team work.  The lone wolf is rare in academe.  If an academic is running a lab, s/he is running a team.  Any major long-term project – whether funded through a granting council or self-initiated/funded – involves co-operation with one or more scholars and co-authors, and requires co-ordination of work among scholars who may be all over the world.  Teams are everywhere.

But for most profs, the term “team” simply doesn’t apply to the folks down the hall who just happen to have adjacent offices.  That’s not to say they dislike those folks; they may go for coffee together, they may team-teach the odd class, and they recognize “they are all in this together” in the sense that they are all getting paycheques from the same source. But fundamentally, departments and faculties are not seen as a key unit of collaboration.

To people not embedded in the academy, this sounds bananas.  For instance, academic staff in colleges, where departments are seen as teams jointly delivering an integrated academic program, tend to find this behaviour nonsensical.  But in universities, non-professional undergraduate programs (i.e. those not subject to accreditation) and degrees are only dimly seen as a product that requires “management”.  Indeed, the entire academic architecture of North American universities has been set up to avoid thinking of degrees as a specific set of inputs requiring efficient management.

We set up degrees as smorgasbords from which students choose, rather than (as in most of the rest of the world) a fairly structured set of modules requiring integration.  Get so many credits from bucket A, and some from bucket B, and a few from bucket C, and Presto!  A degree.  No integration required.  And then we inculcate professors in a peculiar academic ideology in which the principal meaning of academic freedom is what some call “classroom sovereignty” – i.e. what happens in class is my business and no one else’s.  The idea that a particular class covering a particular subject might belong to the department as a whole, rather than the academic unit responsible for ensuring quality control, is a violation of academic freedom – at least according to the Canadian Association of University Teachers, our august national faculty body.

(Note: I am very definitely not endorsing this point of view.  Just explaining it.)

So, having set up degree programs so that teamwork is unnecessary, except for somewhat pro-forma curriculum reviews, profs are unsurprisingly a bit bewildered to find there are a lot of managers floating around, particularly at the faculty level.  What are they all doing, exactly, one reasonably wonders?

And the answer, briefly, is that a lot of people who get called “managers”, and may even have the title of manager, are in fact not managing anybody, but rather are simply doing tasks that are deemed to require professional competence.  Sometimes these people are academics on secondment (in which case, they get a small bump in pay and an “Associate Dean” title of some sort), or they are non-academics with a particular skill: someone to do communications, marketing, alumni relations, development, event co-ordination, etc.   A lot of them get “director” or “manager” titles not because of managerial responsibility, but rather because of simple title inflation.

So yes, there is a lot of management in universities.  But it doesn’t involve managing academics, who on the whole prefer to be left unmanaged.  And as long as one could assume with some confidence that everyone was pulling their weight, and being rewarded according to their contributions, it would be fine.  I leave it to the reader to decide if that’s actually the case.

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