“Eliminating waste” is a favourite target of politicians who need money for projects, but who don’t want to tell citizens how they plan to pay for those projects. Build an $8 billion subway with no new taxes? “Get rid of administrative waste,” says Rob Ford. Cut taxes, reduce the deficit, and protect military spending, social security, and medicare, at the same time? “Attack waste and administrative costs”, say House Republicans.
Bien pensants tend to decry this kind of talk as buffoonish demagoguery. Yet, when it comes to dealing with university budget shortfalls, a lot of these same people immediately go full-Tea-Party, claiming that if waste and inefficiency in academic administration were cut, there’d be no need for austerity at all.
In Quebec, this tendency is particularly pronounced, no doubt in part because of some costly leadership debacles there, over the last five years: Concordia bought-out two Presidents in three years; McGill gave a mouth-watering package to Ann Dowsett Johnston, and had some very puzzling arrangements with Arthur Porter; and the less said about the omnishambles of UQAM’s Îlot Voyageur construction project, the better.
UQAM aside, though, this is all small beans. Those ill-considered executive payouts might equal $4 million over six years; the provincial government’s currently asking for 31 times that in annual budget cuts. The Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université (FQPPU) at least realized it would need a better story to make this narrative stick, and so last weekend it released this, a set of completely unsourced numbers suggesting that that the cost of administrative salaries rose by 150% between 1997 and 2008, compared to just 50% for professorial salaries. Since Statscan shows professorial salary mass growing over 70%, from 2001-2009, I don’t buy this; more likely, FQPPU has ignored things like staff reclassifications (e.g. shifting Deans from the academic to the administrative category) in order to arrive at that number.
Even if FQPPU numbers on administrative salaries were accurate, though, retroactively cutting the growth in admin salaries back to a rate equal to – say – that of professors over the same period would only generate savings of about $70 million. The financial squeeze that’s been imposed on institutions by the grant cut and the reversal of the tuition hike is three times that.
Canadian universities simply don’t spend anything near enough on administration for even the most stringent cuts in that area to make much difference on overall spending. That’s not to excuse excessive spending on executive salaries; asking others to sacrifice, while one’s own compensation is quickly rising, is just poor leadership.
Executive compensation restraint is a good gesture, but a small one. Dealing with austerity is going to require sacrifice elsewhere, as well.