HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Faculty

May 17

Diversity in Canada Research Chairs

One of the hot topics in Ottawa over the past couple of months is the issue of increasing diversity among researchers.   Top posts in academia are still disproportionately occupied by white dudes, and the federal minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, would like to change that by threatening institutions with a loss of research funding.

There’s no doubt about the nature of the problem.  As in other countries, women and minorities have trouble making it up the career ladder in academia at the same rate as white males.  The reasons for this are well-enough known that I probably needn’t recount them here (though if you really want a good summary try here and here).  There was a point when one might reasonably have suspected that time would take care of the problem.  Once PhD completion rates equalized (until the 1990s they still favored men) and female scientists began making their way up the career ladder, it might have been argued, the problem of representation at the highest levels would take care of itself.  But it quite plainly hasn’t worked out that way and more systemic solutions need to be found.  As for Indigenous scholars and scholars with disabilities, it’s pretty clear we still have a lot of pipeline issues to worry about and equalizing PhD completion rates, in addition to solving problems related to career progression, is a big challenge.

Part of what Ottawa is trying to do is to get institutions to take their responsibilities on career progression seriously by getting them each to commit to equity plans.  Last October, the government announced that institutions without equity plans will become ineligible for new CERC awards; earlier this month, Kirsty Duncan attached the same condition to the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program.

(A quick reminder here about how the Chairs program works.  There are two types of awards: Tier 1 awards for top researchers, worth $200,000/year for seven years, and Tier 2 awards for emerging researchers, worth $100,000/year for five years.  There are 2000 awards in total, with roughly equal numbers of Tier 1 and Tier 2 awards.  Each university gets an allocation of chairs based – more or less – on the share of tri-council funding its staff received, with a boost for smaller institutions.  So, University of Toronto gets 256 chairs, Université Ste. Anne gets one, etc.  Within that envelope institutions are free to distribute awards more or less as they see fit.)

The problem is, as the Minister well knows, all institutions already have equity plans and they’re not working.  So she has attached a new condition: they also fix the demographic distribution of chair holders so that they “ensure the demographics of those given the awards reflect the demographics of those academics eligible to receive them” by 2019.  It’s not 100% clear to me what this formulation means. I don’t believe it means that women must occupy 50% of all chairs; I am fairly sure that the qualifier “of those eligible to receive” means something along the lines of “women must occupy a percentage of Tier 1 chairs equal to their share of full professors, and of Tier 2 chairs equal to their share of associate and assistant professors”.

Even with those kind of caveats, reaching the necessary benchmarks in the space of 18-24 months will requires an enormous adjustment.  The figure I’ve seen for major universities is that only 28% of CRCs are women.  Given that only about 15-18% of chairs turn over in any given year, getting that up to the 40-45% range the benchmark implies by 2019 means that between 65 and 79% of all CRC appointments for the next two years will need to be female and probably higher than that for the Tier 1s.  That’s certainly achievable, but it’s almost certain to be accompanied by a lot of general bitchiness among passed-over male candidates.  Brace yourselves.

But while program rules allow Ottawa to use this policy tool to take this major step for gender equality, it will be harder to use it for other equity categories.  Institutions don’t even really have a measure of how many of their faculty have disabilities, so setting benchmarks would be tricky.  Indigenous scholars pose an even trickier problem. According to the formula used for female scholars, Indigenous scholars’  “share” of CRCs might be 1%, or about 20 nationally.  The problem is that only five institutions (Alberta, British Columbia, McGill, Montreal, Toronto) have 100 or more CRCs and would thus be required to reserve a spot for an Indigenous scholar.  An institution like (say) St. FX, which has only five chairs, would have a harder time.  It can achieve gender equity simply by having two or three female chairs.  But how would it achieve parity for Indigenous scholars?  It’s unlikely it could be required to reserve one of its five (20%) spots to an Indigenous scholar.

Many institutions would obviously hire Indigenous faculty anyway, it’s just that the institutional allocations which form the base of this program’s structure make it difficult to achieve some of what Ottawa wants to achieve on equity and diversity.

 

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 31

Hiring Decisions

One of the more thoughtful replies I received to my piece on CAUT’s politicization of university accounting pointed out that one of the reasons people didn’t trust university accounting was because they made seemingly incomprehensible decisions with respect to hiring.  How was it, my reader asked, that there was plenty of money to hire sessionals but never money to hire full-time, permanent faculty?  Isn’t that money fungible?  Why spend on one and not the other?

I can see why this might be puzzling if you’re used to seeing budget decisions in annual terms, but it’s actually fairly simple.  Yes, on an annual basis, one new assistant professor might cost the same as eight sessionals (or whatever – pick a number), but on a longer-term accounting, it’s a completely different story.

At this point I should point you to a recent piece by Carleton University’s Nick Rowe, entitled “University Budget Surpluses: Irreversible Investment and Uncertain Demand” which lays out the basic challenge in accounting for academic staff on the university’s books.  (This, by the way, is not the only Nick Rowe piece on universities you should read – everybody should read, and I mean now, his “Confessions of a Central Planner” which is the best thing ever written on university finance ever, by anyone.  Seriously, it’s genius).    I am doing a bit of violence to Rowe’s argument (which is somewhat broader than the case I am making here), but the simple version is this:

University income are uncertain – and in fact getting more uncertain all the time as universities increasingly become more dependent on market operations (i.e. money from students, both domestic and international).  That’s not the fault of anyone in the institution: that’s simply the way public policy has been moving for the past few years.  Now, if you’re a provost or a VP Finance trying to plan for a future, what’s the absolute last thing you want to do?  Add permanent costs.

Well, as Rowe points out, hiring a full-time prof is about as permanent a cost as it gets.  In fact, given the way tenure works and how collective bargaining agreements are written and the fact that retirement is increasingly a thing of the past, a new hire is pretty much the same category of investment as a new building: it’s going to be there for 40 years, minimum.  A new assistant professor should not be viewed as an $85,000 annual cost ($100K with benefits); he or she should rather be viewed as something like an extremely illiquid $6 million asset.

The analogy here is one with personal finances: say you were being paid $100,000 per year and you’re debating whether to buy a house or keep renting.  Then someone came along and said: listen, we’re going to pay you $80,000 and pay you a bonus of between $10,000 and $25,000 per year.  In all likelihood, this means you’ll end up right about at $100,000, but there’s a non-trivial chance that your pay may fall below that level.  Quick: are you now more likely to take on the responsibility of a mortgage?  Or do you stick with renting?  Not everyone will have the same answer here, but certainly most would consider the latter to be the “safer” option.

In any case: institutional policy on temporary vs. permanent hires is probably not a gauge of miserliness or what have you.  A more accurate analysis would suggest that such policies are actually a function of institutional confidence in future revenues.  Where institutions feel good about the future, they will make full-time hires; where they are less confident temps will be hired more often.  That’s not something anyone ever says out loud, for obvious reasons, but it is nevertheless a perfectly sensible long-term planning perspective.  No conspiracy theories about university budgeting practices required.

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?

November 29

Faculty Salary Data

We haven’t looked at Faculty salary data in awhile.  Time for a gander.

Let’s compare data from the years 2009-2010 and 2014-15: a nice round five years.  The data for 2009-2010 is from the old Statistics Canada UCASS survey, discontinued but recently revived; the 2014-14 data is from the National Faculty Data Pool, an organization set up by Canadian Universities to keep the UCASS going after it was defunded.  I have restricted the sample to the 38 institutions which appear in both datasets.  A few institutions chose not to participate in the NFDP exercise, most significantly Montreal, Laval, Sherbrooke, UNBC, Winnipeg, Brandon, St. FX, Cape Breton and Mount Saint Vincent; Victoria is excluded because its data is not available from 2009-10.  On the whole, these missing institutions tend to have lower salaries than other universities in Canada, and as a result, the national averages that arise from this exercise are going to be somewhat higher than a true national average.   So, focus on the change over time (which is very accurate, for institutions accounting for over 80% of professors across the country) and not the averages.

Got that?  OK, good.  On to figure 1, which shows average change in professorial salaries by rank.  For purposes of comparability, the 2009-10 data is shown in 2014-equivalent dollars.

Figure 1: Average Canadian Professorial Salaries by Rank, 2009-10 and 2014-15, in constant 2014 dollars

ottsyd-20161129-1

So, what we see here is that across all ranks, faculty salaries for tenured and tenure-track professors have increased faster than inflation since 2009-10.  The increase was largest for both full and associate profs at just over 5%, while for assistant professors the figure is just 1.1%.  However, the average rise in real salaries across all ranks is a whopping 12.4% over five years – or roughly 2.3% per year on top of inflation (for comparison: economy wide, average wage rates over the same four years rose by just 1.5% or 0.3% per year).  How is this possible?  Simple: the professoriate is aging, and a greater fraction of professors are now in the upper (and better-paid) ranks than was the case five years ago.  Progression Through the Ranks makes a huge difference.

Now, let’s compare Canadian salaries to American ones, using the annual American Association of University Professors’ Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession for 2014-15.  This is tricky for three reasons.  The first is the problem of differing exchange rates; I deal with this by using 2014 Purchasing Power Parity value ($1C = $0.85 US).  The second is that the US has a much wider variety of institutions which get included in their national statistics: at the top end there are a lot of very rich private universities and at the bottom there are a lot of institutions which are what we would call community colleges, neither of which are included in the Canadian data.  To deal with this I chose to compare professors at public doctoral institution in the US only with professors at 13 research-intensive universities in Canada for which the National Faculty Data Pool has data (i.e. U-15 minus Montreal and Laval).

The third and trickiest issue is how to account for the fact that American salaries cover 9 months of work while Canadian ones are for 12, with Americans free to top up their salary by up to 2 months’ worth of their regular salary (2/9 = 22%) with money from research grants (these are sometime called “summer salary”.  To show a range of possible comparators, I show 9-month US base salaries, 12-month salaries for those with summer salary, and a weighted average of the two, based on data from the National Research Council’s Assessment from Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States suggesting that 69% of academic staff at research institutions hold research grants.  Note that no data exists as to how often grant money gets used from summer salary; for lack of data I assume here that everyone who receives a grant takes the maximum two months, which almost certainly results in an overestimate for US salaries, so caveat emptor, etc.

With that in mind, Figure 2 provides the comparison of salaries across professors at public research universities in Canada and the US.

Figure 2: Canadian vs. US Professorial Salaries at Public Doctoral/Research Universities by Rank, 2014-15, in Canadian $ at PPP.

ottsyd-20161129-2

The quick conclusion from figure 2 is that base salaries in Canada are higher than those in the US, but that much of this goes away once research dollars are included, especially for full professors.  However, across all ranks, Canadian professors at research universities not only have higher average salaries ($144,153) than American ones ($127,298), and that this result remains true even if we look only at American professors with research grants ($134,879).

Now on to figure 3 where we look at changes in salaries over the past five years.  I’ve again restricted the comparison to research/doctoral universities, but for fun I’ve included US privates.

Figure 3: Real Change in Salaries, in Canadian at Public Doctoral/Research Universities by Rank, 2009-10 to 2014-15, Canada vs. US

ottsyd-20161129-3

Across all ranks at doctoral/research universities, Canadian research university professors’ salaries rose 13.3% after inflation.  For US privates, the equivalent was 2.9% and at US publics it was negative 0.8%.  At each individual rank, the differences are smaller (and in fact at the assistant professor level, rises in Canadian salaries are smaller than in the US).  Why the difference?  Well, mainly, it’s that in the two countries we are seeing two completely different demographic shifts.  In the US, a decreasing percentage of professors are of “full” status, whereas in Canada it is increasing.  Their lower ranks are growing, ours are shrinking.

I would just remind everyone that these stonking increases in compensation are occurring at a period which the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) continues to refer to as one of “austerity”.  I therefore propose that CAUT get on the phone to their counterparts in Greece and explain this fascinating model of austerity in which the average professor is receiving annual raises equal to 1.5 to 2.5% above inflation, year after year.  I bet they’d really get a kick out of it.

November 22

Higher Salaries + Lower Workloads = More Sessionals

On Sunday night, the University of Manitoba and its faculty union hashed out a tentative deal to end a three-week strike.  No details are publicly available yet, but I think the dispute – and the likely strategies used to resolve it – are a useful way of understanding some general concepts around the economics of universities in Canada.

Directly or indirectly, institutions get their operating funds from having students sit in classrooms.  Tuition fees are directly related to credit hours and government operating grants are usually at least indirectly related to them.  One might question this in a place like Manitoba, where there is no actual funding formula and money is just handed out as a block on a historical basis, but as I showed back here the distribution of funding between Manitoba institutions actually looks almost exactly like it would if the province were using a weighted enrollment formula system like Quebec’s or Ontario’s.  So we can more or less dispense with that argument and make the simple equation “bums in seats” = revenue.

The main issues at play in the Manitoba dispute were related to salaries (faculty want more) and workload (faculty would like to limit management’s ability to increase it).  Now, if you want a big rise in pay, the university needs to find revenue to compensate.  In general, the way Canadian universities have been meeting faculty pay demands over the last six years or so is to raise enrollment, in particular international student enrollment, because it usually brings in more dollars per student.  On the whole, they’ve been reasonably successful at doing so. But the other faculty demand – maintained or reduced workloads – makes this a difficult trick to pull off.  Even if you fully accept the logic behind reducing workloads, the fact that revenue is a function of bums in seats means that faculty’s two goals are essentially incompatible.  Effectively, what is being demanded is that the university spend more and earn less.

Absent a major tuition increase, there are only two ways to square this circle.  The first, which the faculty association likes to talk about at great length is that the university can afford to do both because there are millions of dollars being salted away in various nefarious ways (which for the most part is nonsense because what on earth so senior administrators possibly have to gain by not spending money?) or, frivolously spent on fixing buildings or that old favourite “administrative bloat”.  While it’s certainly true some non-academic expenses have been rising, an awful lot of those increases have been concentrated in areas like IT and student services rather than everyone’s favourite bogeyman of “central administration”.  Undoubtedly some savings could be found in these places and diverted to faculty salaries, but they would be unlikely to do the trick entirely.  According to data from the Financial Information of Universities and Colleges (FIUC), the U of M’s entire “academic salaries” budget was just over $158 million in 2014-15; a 6.9% increase would mean an $11 million hit just in salaries plus another $2 million (roughly) in benefits.  In contrast, the entire budget for salaries in central administration is $22 million.

The second way of dealing with the problem is to allow faculty salaries to rise while simultaneously lowering the average cost of instructors.  A contradiction in terms?  Well, no.  All one has to do is hire more sessionals.  Since they are remunerated at – effectively –about a quarter of the rate of a full-time professor  it’s possible to both increase bums in seats (i.e. revenue) and keep the increase in average instructional costs to well below 6.9%.

I obviously don’t know what’s in the agreement reached Sunday night and there’s not going to be anything in the agreement which explicitly says “let’s go hire more sessionals”.  But it’s implicit in the logic of the faculty’s demands.  Universities don’t like to admit this is how they deal with faculty pay hikes because they are wary of charges of “cheapening” undergraduate education, and faculty unions don’t like to admit this is what happens because GOD FORBID their pay demands have negative externalities.  Still, both sides know exactly how this process works and neither side can claim the least bit of innocence in the process.

It’s the way the game is played.

October 04

Authentic Academic Eyes

It’s a reasonably common occurrence for academics to diss non-academic professional staff.  “They’re taking over”.  “They’re not like us”.  “They’re ruining the university”.  Book-length whinges (not very good ones, mind) have been written about this.

These whinges usually combine two distinct arguments.  The first has to do with the mere existence of some non-academic positions, who often act as the interface between the academic institution and the market (think research services, alumni/advancement, recruitment, marketing and – God forbid – branding).  That these positions exist at all is often seen as some kind of neo-liberal front to the ideal of a university.  The second has to do with the behaviour and attitudes of the people who staff these positions, which are often seen as alien or inimical to academic values.  The former view is a noisier and more virulent one among faculty; the latter quieter but more widespread.

The distinction was brought home to me in a recent online conversation I had with a senior faculty member whose university marketing people had just made some howler or other. If I recall correctly, it was a marketing tagline along the lines of “At University of X, we don’t just teach Y, we live it”, with some people wondering why any university would use a phrase that even vaguely sounded like teaching was a second-best activity.  The faculty member said to me “obviously, no set of academic eyes ever laid sight upon that before it went out”.

Exactly.

I don’t think there are many profs that genuinely question that  there is a need for having masses of non-academic employees doing that interaction-with-the-outside-world stuff and “selling” the institution and its merits.  Most people understand that If those people weren’t out there bringing in the money, academics wouldn’t be able to do their thing.  And these are in fact professional services: they aren’t jobs academics could do themselves even if they were inclined to do so.  So it’s not a matter of “taking back” responsibilities which once were academic and now are not: one might regret the need for quite so many of these positions, but a job’s got to get done, the right people should be hired to do it.

But what is aggravating beyond all get out is when people in these positions don’t get the product they are selling.  When, in the process of selling the institution, language is used which actually works at cross-purposes to the values of the institution in question.

So while virtually no one wants to put profs in charge of marketing efforts, institutions should make it a point to ensure everything that goes out bearing your institution’s name has had a set of “academic eyes” on it.  Get academic input on marketing campaigns before they start.  Not to obtain creative direction or, God forbid, to do wordsmithing (that way madness lies), but simply to ensure that what is said in the institution’s name is said in a tone that doesn’t do violence to the academic mission.  It could save everyone a lot of potential embarrassment.

September 20

Sessionals: Equal Pay for Equal Work?

Following up on yesterday’s piece about counting sessionals, I thought it would be a useful time to address how sessionals get paid.  Every so often, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) issues a press release asking that contract faculty get “equal pay for work of equal value”.  And who could be against that?  But what they don’t say, because no one wants to say this out loud is that, in Canada , adjuncts and sessionals are far from being underpaid: for the most part they actually are compensated fairly.  At least according to the standards of the academy itself.

I know that’s an unpopular opinion, but hear me out.  Think about what the correct comparator to a sessional academic is: it is a junior-rank academic, one who has been given assistant professor status but is not yet tenured.  These days in Canada, average pay for such folks is in the $80,000 range (your mileage may vary based on an institution’s location and prestige).

How much of that $80,000 is specifically for teaching?  Well, within the Canadian academy, there is a rule of thumb that a professor’s time should be spent 40% on teaching, 40% on research and 20% on some hazily-defined notion of service.  So, multiply that out and what you find is that only $32,000 of a new tenure-track prof’s salary is devoted to teaching.

Now break that down per class.   Depending on the institution, a professor is (in theory at least) teaching either four or five semester-long classes per academic year (2/2 or 3/2, in the academic vernacular).  Divide that $32,000 payment for teaching by four and you get $8,000 per one-semester class; divide it by five and you get $6,400.  An “equal work for equal pay” number therefore needs to be somewhere in that range.

Here’s what we know about adjuncts’ salaries: in 2014, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario published a study on salaries of “non-full-time instructors” in the province.  It showed that sessional instructors’ salaries in 2012/13 ranged from about a little $6,000 per course to a little over $8,000 per course (with inflation, it is likely slightly higher now), with most of the big universities clustered in the low-mid $7,000 range.  At a majority of institutions, sessionals also get health benefits and may participate in a pension plan.  In 2013, University Affairs, the in-house publication of Universities Canada published results on a nine-institution survey of sessional lecturer compensation (see here).  This showed a slightly wider range of compensation rates: at Quebec schools they were comparable to or slightly higher than Ontario rates, while elsewhere they were somewhat below.

To re-cap: if you buy the 40-40-20 logic of professorial pay, most universities in Canada – at least in central Canada – are in fact paying sessionals roughly the same as they are paying early-career tenure-track academics.  In some cases the benefits are not the same, and there may be a case for boosting pay a bit to compensate for that.  But the complaint that sessionals are vastly underpaid for the work they are contracted for?  Hard to sustain.

Sessionals themselves would naturally argue that they do far more than what they are contracted for: they too are staying academically active, doing research, etc.  To which the university response is: fine, but that’s not what we’re paying you for – you’re doing that on your own time.  The fight thus isn’t really about “equal pay”, it’s a fight about the right to be paid for doing research.

And of course OCUFA knows all this.  The math involved is pretty elementary.  It can’t really think these staff are underpaid unless it believes a) that the 40-40-20 thing is wrong and teaching should be a higher % of time and salary (good luck getting that one past the membership) or that sessionals need to be paid not on the same scale as assistant profs but on the scale of associates or full profs (again, I would question the likelihood of OCUFA’s membership thinking this is a good idea).

But if neither of those things is true, why does OCUFA use such language?  It’s a mystery worth pondering.

April 14

A New Deal

Yesterday, I noted that  for the last few years provincial governments have refused to either increase funding to PSE institutions to keep up with inflation, or give institutions latitude to raise tuition to make up the difference. Effectively, provincial governments seem a lot more concerned with ensuring that post-secondary education is cheap than with ensuring that it continues to receive real increases in income.

There are competing opinions about why this is the case. My view is simply that few provincial governments see much political return in allowing institutions to increase fees and/or increasing government grants – which is another way of saying the present value proposition for undergraduate education is not very attractive. I would love to see more evidence about this. Imagine if university and college government relations-types would actually go straight up to MLAs/MPPs/MNA/MHAs and say “what is it we could do to get you to spend more money/allow us to raise tuition”? But they seem not to be doing that (or if they are, the answers are disturbing enough that they are not telling the rest of the community). I’m going to go with Occam’s razor here and stick with: they aren’t buying what the sector is selling at the price the sector wishes.

So what to do? Well, broadly, there are two choices.

The first is to do nothing. Don’t change a thing. Avoid the hard questions and the hard trade-offs and keep telling each other we just need to tell better stories. The result will be years of slow decline. To be fair, some people may prefer this to large-scale change. Fair enough. That’s a defensible position. After all, we could drop twenty percent of real dollars per student and still only be back where we were in the late 1990s. It’s unpleasant, but not the end of the world.

The second is to face up to why public support for new money in post-secondary education money has been dwindling. I don’t have any special insight into this but my guess would be that the cause is rooted in some mix of

1) A perception that salaries at post-secondary institutions are too high. To take one example, when the Windsor Faculty Union gets militant starts threatening strikes despite  an average salary of over $134,000  in one of the country’s least expensive housing markets, you have a perception problem. The same issue arises when universities continue to add senior non-academic staff positions at salaries over of over $100,000, or when a president double-dips his or her salary. In Ontario, the number of university and college employees in the sunshine list has gone from 1190 and 39 (respectively) to 17,065 and 4,910. The numbers will differ a bit across Canada but not much. And yes, that’s not a completely fair comparison because the cutoff line hasn’t been adjusted for the ~50% inflation over the same period. But public perception is not always fair. The reality is that the public looks at institutional salaries and it sees fat

2) A perception that undergraduates – in arts and sciences at least – are a low priority to institutions. There are too many stories of undergrads stuffed into 1,000 seat auditorium, taught by sessionals for half their degree, or finding required courses unavailable due to either size-cap or simply disappearing from the calendar for a semester. This is unfair to colleges, because frankly they do a whole lot better than universities in terms of keeping education at a human scale, but what universities do in lower-year infects a lot of the public perception about PSE in general.

3) A perception that they are not preparing students for the labour force. This one drives many in universities round the bend, because there are lots of disciplines which are not designed to lead to particular careers. But that’s not the issue. Majors are majors and careers are careers – they don’t need to line up and in many cases they shouldn’t. But according to over 80% of students (and probably around 100% of legislators) the reason students and governments pay for post-secondary education is to help students get better jobs. Institutions can accomplish this through a number of different means: providing experiential learning (like, actually provide more, not just the exercise in re-labeling I’m seeing at many universities), building more explicit assessment of communication, team-work and critical thinking skills into the curriculum, and generally treating learning outcomes and career transitions as if they mattered. Colleges are in some respects better than universities at this, but even there many programs don’t have direct labour-market transitions (anyone looked at placement rates in Police Foundations programs lately)

4) A perception that PSE Institutions are not transparent with data. This is undeniably true. I don’t think I need to elaborate on this.

Regaining a measure of public trust will almost certainly be a prerequisite for increases in public investment. Universities and colleges are going to need to make changes – fairly dramatic ones, I think – in these four areas. If I were in university government relations, I’d be field-testing ideas with politicians, to see what it would take to create a New Deal for post-secondary education. What if institutions froze salaries over $100,000, shrank undergraduate class-sizes, revamped curricula to make them more outcomes-focused and became much more transparent with data? Would that be enough to convince the public that what was on offer was a better, more valuable product, one worth investing in?

I don’t know. But it’s worth asking. Because that other option, the long, slow, decline option, looks pretty unappealing.

April 01

“Slow Professors”

I read with interest this piece in University Affairs about “The Slow Professor”, which is the name of a book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber – English professors from Brock and Queen’s, respectively – who think that professors need to push back against the hecticness of the modern academy.  To wit:

“The authors offer insights on how to manage teaching, research and collegiality in an era when more professors feel ‘beleaguered, managed, frantic, stressed and demoralized’ as they juggle the increasingly complex expectations of students, the administration, colleagues – and themselves. ‘Distractedness and fragmentation characterize contemporary academic life,’ they write. Today’s professors, they argue, need to slow down, devote more time to ‘doing nothing,’ and enjoy more pleasure in their research and teaching. It’s time, they say, ‘to take back the intellectual life of the university.’”

Hmm.  Hmmmmm.

I don’t doubt that the majority of Canadian professors work hard – very hard indeed, actually.  Not all, of course; but on the whole, absolutely.  In fact, some data from the 2007-08 Changing Academic Profession Survey suggested that Canadian professors might actually work the longest hours of any professors in the world.  And that’s OK, given that the Canadian professoriate is also the best-paid in the world.   Maybe the two are linked.  Not directly of course; nobody actually correlates pay to effort in Canadian higher education.  But overall, maybe we’re getting a good deal: high-paid, hard-working professors. Nothing wrong with that.

So, how to interpret a demand for less work such as that contained in the Berg-Seeber piece?

The most cynical answer I suppose, would be: hey, look, two profs who want to work less for the same pay?  But this is perhaps too churlish.  The authors do after all make a less-is-more argument – that they will be better academics if they have more downtime.  One could imagine a deal that trades time for performance.  That is, say we could come up with a performance metric for professors that lets them reduce their hours, provided they hit particular targets.  But of course the metricization of higher education is something else the authors rail against, so that’s probably not an option, either.

This leaves a third possibility: why not let professors trade salary for time?  If you want to be on a 40-hour/week track instead of a 55-hour/week track, do it – but take a pay cut.  Sounds fair to me.  Of course, the only way to implement this is to have a system in which management actually pays attention to workload in a systematic way.  We don’t have that here in Canada – but other places do (notably Australia).  Maybe it’s time we moved in that direction?

One final point.  The authors locate the source of stress in the academy as the university’s “corporatization”.  This is a hard claim to evaluate without knowing which of the myriad definitions of “corporatization” they are using, but let me simply suggest an alternative explanation. Maybe, just maybe, the academic rat-race is a product of really bright, driven people pushing themselves even harder when they are surrounded by other bright, driven people.  That is, it’s an emergent property of academia itself, rather than something imposed from without by mean old administrators.

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