HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Governance

September 19

Growth of Presidential Compensation

Let’s do another blog on this topic because everyone loves talking executive compensation.

Yesterday we looked at Presidential pay in international comparison and saw that Canadian university Presidents have fairly low pay compared to equivalents in other English-speaking countries.  But, one might argue, that’s the wrong metric.  Maybe the real problem isn’t high pay so much as a relatively quick rise in pay over the past few years.

That’s a fair argument.  But let’s see what the data says.

My data source here is the ever-handy CAUT Almanac (2005, 2010-11 and 2015-16 editions), from which we can obtain data on Presidential salaries for 2003, 2008 and 2013.  There are multiple observations for 58 institutions (44 in 2003, 54 in 2008 and 56 in 2013); any institution for which I have data for only one year is eliminated.  Now with numbers this small, one has to be careful about one or two outliers distorting averages either up or down.  With that in mind, figure 1 shows the evolution of average compensation for university Presidents in Canada.

Figure 1: Average Pay, University Presidents, Canada 2003-2013, in real 2013 dollars

Source: CAUT Almanac

What figure 1 shows is that between 2003 and 2008 average Presidential pay rose by 8% after inflation (or, about 1.6% per year).  However, between 2008 and 2013 the figure fell by a little less than 1%, meaning that for the decade as a whole the average annual increase was 0.68%.

Surprised?  Skeptical?  Well with datasets this small, it’s good to be careful.  Not all of these are observations are comparable.  In any given year, a few Presidents get hired and others leave their position.  For these people, the salaries & compensation as captured by the Almanac are not particularly helpful because their salary only covers part of the year.  In a couple of cases, you also get what look like one-off payments which inflate the salary.

To try and get around this problem, let’s look at the change between 2003 and 2008 for every institution for which we have data for both years:

Figure 2: Distribution of Real Presidential Salary Changes, 2003 to 2008

Source: CAUT Almanac

The highest value here is Acadia, and that’s clearly because the 2003 observation was for a President who was only came on board in September, thus giving her an artificially low number in the base year.  Similarly, most of the negative numbers are for people who came on board mid-way through the year in 2008, such as Alan Rock (Ottawa), Roseann Runte (Carleton) and Michael Goldbloom (Bishop’s).  But some of the negative numbers are also “resets” as universities bring compensation down when a new President is installed; for instance, Indira Samarasekara’s 2008 compensation was 28% lower than her predecessor’s in 2003.

Without a lot of fact-checking around appointment dates which I frankly have no interest in doing (free email guys: you get what you pay for) I can’t be sure exactly which Presidents fall into which category.  But assuming that the artificially high and artificially low observations more or less cancel each other out, looking at the median observations should give us a sense of what was going on at the typical institution.  As it turns out, the median here is 20%, compared to the 8% average we saw in figure 1: that’s not a “better” figure, by the way, just a different lens.  For 2008 to 2013, the median is 0% (same as the average), and for 2003 to 2013 the number is again 20%.

Just for amusement, let’s compare this for a second to what’s been going on with professorial pay. Again, the data source is the CAUT Almanac for the same years.  Guess what?  Between 2003 and 2013, the average rise in pay – after inflation – for full professors (the nearest comparator to University Presidents) was 23%.  I suspect that the rapid rise after 2008 has to do with fewer retirements and more professors staying on for more years and receiving annual pay rises.

Figure 3: Comparison of Changes in Presidential and Full Professorial Pay, 2003-2013

Source: CAUT Almanac

To sum up:  between 2003 and 2008, presidential pay was rising by somewhere between 1.5% and 3.7% per year over inflation, depending on how you look at it.  However, between 2008 and 2013 presidential pay stayed even with inflation.  Meanwhile, average pay for full professors rose steeply after 2008, and over the decade to 2003 to 2013, their average pay rises were higher than those for Presidents – substantially so if we take an average-to-average comparison.

So next time anyone complains about huge pay rises to executives, just remember that professorial pay has been rising faster.  Sauce for the goose, etc.

 

September 18

Presidential Compensation

Over the summer, the revelation that the University of Alberta paid Indira Samarasekera two full years of administrative leave at over $550,000 per year after the conclusion her ten-year (two-term) Presidency caused a series of snit-fits, the most notable one being this one from Paige MacPherson, the Alberta Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

As I’ve noted before (here and here), Canadian university Presidents are not that well paid, at least by the standards of other Anglosphere universities.  Paul Kniest, of Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union, helpfully put together a good international comparison which I reproduce below (the blog post from which it is taken is here).

Now those figures are in Australian dollars, but our currencies are close enough to par as to make no odds.  Also, yes, the Canadian number looks a little low; I think it’s because the CAUT Annual Digest – the source for the data – includes all Presidents, even if they are not serving a full year, so there are a few “partial” salaries which bring the average down.  My guess is that if you exclude those, you end up with a figure closer to New Zealand’s.  But we’re nowhere near our neighbours to the South.  For instance, the base pay of our highest-paid President (David Turpin) would place him about 250th in the US, or 118th among public university Presidents.  (Santa Ono, in case you’re wondering, took a cut in base pay of about 20% to move from Cincinnati to UBC).

I suppose one might argue that this is all a kind of “if all your friends were jumping off a bridge” argument.  There are other comparators one could use: hospital executives and senior public servants are the most obvious ones.  But even here, I’m not sure this is such a great comparison.  Neither of those are required to raise their own revenue from market and philanthropic sources to the extent a university President is.  After all, with provincial government funds now providing less than half of university funding in many cases, one could argue that fairer comparisons might be with private industry.  By this logic, some university Presidents – those say in Quebec or Newfoundland where provincial government foot well over half the bill – might be adequately or even over-paid, but equally the President of a place like U of T ($3 billion in revenue, less than a quarter of which is provincial grant) might be seen as grossly underpaid.

(I think this is probably right, btw.  I’d argue that the scandal in Presidential salaries is actually how narrowly banded they are.  The gap in executive pay between, say, UQ Abitibi-Temiscamingue and UBC should be a lot bigger because the latter is a hell of a lot of a bigger job).

The other favourite comparator is of course the Prime Minister/Premier (note that in the UK, the government is now proposing legislation to effectively prohibit university vice-chancellors from making more than the Prime Minister).  After all, he/she is in charge of the Whole Damn Country/Province, why should anyone in a public position make more?  There is some force to this (though one could apply it to the private sector too), but of course PMs and Premiers tend to make a lot of money in what amounts to deferred compensation – making speeches, sitting on corporate Boards, ambassadorships, etc.  But if there is one thing that drives people crazier about university Presidents than their salaries, it’s the idea of deferred compensation (as the Samarasekera snit-fit shows).

Presidents are mostly former academics.  Part of the academic compensation package is sabbaticals – time off from teaching every seventh year to pursue research interests.  As far as I can tell, the idea of “administrative leave” – that is, a fully-paid year off after a five-year term in administration – was originally thought of as analogous in terms compensation.  It’s not a perfect match of course – a year off after five years instead of six, full pay instead of 90% pay, etc, – but it’s close.

But some things about deferred pay weren’t analogous.  Turning the leave into lump-sum cash payments for instance.  David Johnston made off with over $1 million that way when he went to become Governor General without anyone saying “boo”, but when Amit Chakma tried the same thing at Western he got roasted.  So no one does that anymore.  In fact, a couple of contracts I’ve seen recently limit deferred compensation to a single year, even if the President serves for more than one term as President.

Are these perks similar to those seen in other countries, or are they Canadian universities’ way of surreptitiously bumping executive pay?  I can find no evidence of this kind of compensation in either the UK or Australia (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen; just that a couple of minutes’ googling on my part came up dry).  However, in the US, this kind of thing most definitely happens and on a much greater scale

Just to take a couple of examples found with a minimum of research: at the University of Florida, the former President got five years of deferred pay equal to his Presidential salary, though it was structured as a non-compete payment.  At the University of Michigan, the President receives one year’s deferred compensation if he stays at the institution – but he also is guaranteed a $2 million fund to start up a new laboratory.  In many cases, US universities (public and private) don’t offer salaried administrative leave, but do offer boatloads of “deferred payments” which are booked in the year they are earned, and counted separately from base salary (some examples here on p.3).  More broadly, US university Presidents also seem to benefit from a variety of other perks which may not be available to Canadian ones.

In other words, while our Presidents are well-paid, there’s no obvious reason to think they are vastly overpaid either.  And if we have a problem with the idea of deferred compensation, fine: just fold that extra compensation into their salaries during their term and be done with it.  Presidents could then save it, spend it, do what they want with it.  This arrangement would be clearer, cleaner and more transparent than what we do now.

 

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.

 

April 25

Who Should Sit on Boards of Governors?

Western Canada seems to be ground zero for talking about Board composition these days.  Take, for example, folks at UBC getting upset that government appointments to the Board of Governors lack a certain diversity (i.e. they all come either from old Vancouver money or the tech sector).  The Government of Alberta has decided to not automatically re-appoint any Board members whose terms are up for renewal (this actually is not something specific to universities – it’s part of a more general effort of De-Baathification of all provincial boards which have been stacked with appointees by a single party for the last 44 years). 

This raises the question: what should a Board of Governors look like?

Governing Boards in North America have a pretty simple history.  The first universities were set up by groups of local worthies (which usually included a lot of the local merchant class) to provide liberal education, mainly to train teachers and clergy.  Those universities were very small – the President was often the only professor, though he may have had a couple of assistants to help with tutorials and recitations.  Tuition was not enough to keep these institutions funded, so there were regular contributions from the local worthies.  Since the President was spending their money, they had a real interest in making sure the President was hewing closely to their views on education.  Boards of Governors were therefore primarily instruments of accountability, a way of ensuring that Presidents (and, as the schools got bigger, his employees) did not get too far out line.

Now, as governments started to take over the funding of universities, the importance of local worthies’ money diminished.  But the principle of “the payer calls the tune” remained in most places.  At public universities, Governing Boards still payed the same role, but their members were named by governments, not local committees.  Boards weren’t necessarily partisan, but appointments certainly tended to follow the party in power (this is still the case pretty much across Western Canada).  The argument at UBC is essentially that the Board looks too much like the party in power and not enough like “the province as a whole”.  This is an accurate observation, but difficult to see how in practice how this could ever be changed; on the whole, governments tend not to divest themselves of patronage opportunities.

But meanwhile, as public universities acquired an ever-increasing appetite for prestige and money, they looked to Board members to have other skills.  The first was an ability to raise funds, which tends to make them seek out people exactly like the old local worthies (if you need to ask a rich person to donate money, it helps if the person doing the asking is another rich person who has already donated).  But other needs are important, too: Boards need members with enough knowledge to oversee the increasingly complicated property and financial deals on which universities are embarking, enough judgment to understand how the university should deal with major sources of financial risk, etc.

So here’s the trick.  You need boards whose members collectively have the ability both to cheerlead and fundraise for an institution, provide it with specialized knowledge and talent whilst simultaneously holding its senior management (via the President) to account generally on behalf of the both the democratically-elected government of the day and the general citizenry.

Simple?  Not by a long shot.  And what makes it more complicated is that no one has the luxury of composing an entire board to get an adequate mix of talents.  That’s not just because most Canadian boards have a variety of elected positions in addition to those either selected by governments (in most of western Canada) or by the institution itself (more common in eastern Canada), but because Board membership turns over slowly and so the mix of talents (and hence the gaps in needed talent) are constantly changing.

So with respect to the Alberta New Democrats’ attempt to make big changes on the province’s university boards, there is both opportunity and danger.  Opportunity because the policy of not automatically renewing anyone’s term means they can change board composition quickly if they think something is amiss; danger because there’s a worry about jettisoning too many people with specific, needed skills in a bid to make the new boards “look like” the province (or “act as NDP agents”, as the case may be). 

Basically, boards are tricky.  Getting them right is a serious, delicate business.

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.

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