Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Policy changes and collegial governance

What are some signs that governance is in trouble at a university? Naturally one might expect rumblings about strengthening the faculty association (check), or worries about the representation that staff and faculty on governance bodies (check), but there are also some more subtle points where worries can manifest.

What if a university decided unilaterally to stop following its traditional approach to policy development affecting faculty and librarians, an approach mandated through collective bargaining?

Policy development almost invariably occurs in relative secret, and it's a good idea to guard against the social panics and whatnot that can come from the too-early release of too-imprecise language. As a result, it can take a while before it becomes clear that a consultation and approval approach turns out to have changed, but here at UVic, this seems somehow to have happened. The Faculty Association has lodged official objections on a few policies now, and the objection process has been underway for a little while, so I'd hoped that we'd see some improvement. When I attended this morning's Board of Governors meeting, though, the President's report on policy development (beginning at page 120 in this document) didn't suggest any reversal of course in the offing.

The Framework Agreement between the university and the Faculty Association is very clear about how policy change ought to occur, when policy has to do with terms and conditions of employment. The contract identifies that such a change cannot occur without the prior agreement of the Association. The university has this year approved policy changes affecting terms and conditions of employment, without so much as raising them with the Association, and it's drafting changes to others without yet having brought them to the Association's attention.

I think that this is patently unacceptable, given this university's stated commitment to collegial governance, but let's look at some contract language, shall we?

Current policy, practices and procedures are captured under article 7.2 of the Agreement as "Existing Practices," and existing practices are protected thusly: "all Existing Practices applicable to the terms and conditions of employment of Members shall remain in effect and unaltered during the term of the Agreement, except as may be specifically agreed between the Parties from time to time." Yes, I can hear you asking, yes, but what does that waffle "specifically agreed" really mean? Article 7.3 has the answer:
The University will not introduce amendments to or repeal Existing Practices that affect the terms and conditions of employment of Members, as defined in this Agreement, without the prior agreement of the Association.
So there you go, no unilateral amendments: "prior agreement of the Association."

Development of new policy is similarly circumscribed at article 7.4:

The University will not adopt new policies or procedures that affect the terms and conditions of employment of Members, as defined in this Agreement, without the prior agreement of the Association.
So there you go again, no unilateral imposition of new policies or procedures.

Oh, and if you're wondering how exactly this agreement might be sought or obtained, well, the Framework Agreement has an answer about that as well, at article 7.7:
The forum for consultation regarding the application, development or modification of University policies shall be regularly scheduled meetings between representatives of the Association (President and members of the Executive) and the University (President, Vice-President Academic and Provost, and such others as are designated by the President).
Meetings. That's all it would have taken for the university to obtain the necessary "prior agreement of the Association." The trouble is that these "regularly scheduled meetings" haven't been happening. They stopped being scheduled before bargaining began in early 2012, so the cessation has continued through the overly long bargaining process (entering, as we are, our twelfth month without a contract). Still, there's no clear reason that they should ever have stopped, and there's no reason that they couldn't have resumed. Heck, they actually are resuming on May 28, with arbitration still to come in September.

But even so, a cessation of "regularly scheduled meetings" simply cannot justify the administration's acting as if there was no need to obtain the prior agreement of the Association.

Let me be clear. At regular intervals, the university needs to update its policies that relate to terms and conditions of employment for Association members. From time to time, too, new policies also need to be generated and approved that touch on members' employment. More than that, the Association can't unreasonably withhold its agreement for a reasonable new or amended policy.

So as I've said before -- for a university's governance to be truly collegial, its executive needs to talk to its community members. In this case at UVic, community membership is defined under the Framework Agreement as faculty and librarians, represented by the Faculty Association.

Rather than talking to the Faculty Association, and following the other obligations spelled out in the Framework Agreement, the university's executive has chosen to unilaterally impose new and amended policies on its faculty and librarians.

And that's just not cool. For pete's sake, is it so difficult just to speak with representatives of the Faculty Association?

Why should you care? Because policies at some stage of development or revision include:
  • communication
  • research funding management and financial accountability
  • teaching and organization of courses and programs
  • intellectual property
  • research or teaching involving animals
  • indirect costs of research
  • research policy, and
  • external research funding agreements.
These subjects matter to all of us.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

LTD and the UVic Faculty Association

Let me tell you a story.

At UVic, the members of the UVic Faculty Association fund their own LTD plan, jointly with UVic members of the Professional Employees Association: 100% of LTD funding comes from employees, and 0% from the employer. There's a Board of Trustees for the fund, three from the university executive, and one each from PEA and the UVic FA.

And you, dear colleague, should be upset by the LTD fund's governance structure and funding model. Well, unless you're comfortable with employer paternalism, zero contributions from the employer, and a very high tax rate on the plan's earnings.

Early in 2008, the trustees decided that they needed to eliminate the LTD plan's unfunded liability. Basically, an "unfunded liability" is the amount needed to pay the lifetime LTD benefits of everyone currently receiving LTD, if no money ever came into the fund ever again. It's an actuarial principle, representing a hypothetical obligation, and that's all it is. Please, please, don't make the mistake of assuming that the plan is running some kind of deficit, or that it's in debt, because the LTD plan's significant assets are growing rapidly! I'm tempted to use quotation marks to talk about the plan's "liability," but we're grown-ups, aren't we?

As of June 2008, the fund held about $3.4 million in assets, so it could only cover 36% of its total hypothetical liability. (This means that if no more money ever came into the plan, it could still cover 36% of future benefits if everyone receiving benefits remained on LTD until retirement.) In consequence, the trustees boosted the member contribution rate from 1.75% to 1.93%.

By June 2011, the fund had more than doubled its assets, to about $7M, and its funding ratio had risen to 60%. By March 2012 the numbers had increased to $8.1M and 63%, and by March 2013 the numbers had increased further to $9M and 69%.

In other words, the fund's assets are increasing by about a million dollars every year. In five years, the fund's assets have grown impressively from $3.4M to $9M, and its funding ratio has increased from 36% of its total hypothetical liability to 69%.

Doesn't this sound wise? It's just basic financial responsible that the trustees would want to cover the plan's total liabilities, right?

Three problems:
  1. the plan's income is taxed, and its current taxation rate is 43.7%. Since 2008, the plan's assets have grown by $5.6 million; the plan has paid almost $400,000 in taxes to the federal and provincial governments;
  2. the administrative structure is paternalistic at best. The employer contributes zero money to the plan, remember, but it charges a small administrative fee to manage the funds. Far more importantly, the employer has an absolute majority on the Board of Trustees. Genuine consultation with the PEA or with the UVic FA has been sadly, sadly lacking; and
  3. the "unfunded liability" and its 10-year "remedy" are purely accounting matters, without basis in reality. Back when there were zero representatives from PEA and the UVic FA, the Board of Trustees decided that it would be best to eliminate the liability in 10 years. It considered going with either 5 years or 19 years, each of which would have led to quite different contribution rates, so there was no essential reason for choosing the 10-year window.
You may be interested to know that UBC's contribution rate is roughly 1/3 the rate at UVic: 1.93% at UVic, and 0.65% at UBC. And at SFU, the LTD plan is 100% funded by the employer.

There are some differences in the three plans, so it's complicated to work through the details, but honestly, I'm having serious trouble seeing anything positive about UVic's LTD coverage for members of the UVic Faculty Association and for PEA members.

Things must change. Either someone needs to settle me down in the comments area below, or....

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Collegiality and in-house comparisons

In general, I've had very positive feedback from my colleagues about this blog, both from colleagues at my university and from those who work elsewhere. One reply, though, gave me real concern, and I've been thinking hard about it ever since. In part, that's why I slowed down my posting again, just when I'd started to develop something of a rhythm.

The objection was really that in discussing differences between academic units on campus, I was myself escalating whatever factionalism might already exist between the units, and weakening the cross-department collegiality that's the only thing encouraging all of us to speak on behalf of units other than my own. When I compared the teaching loads for History and English, for example, it was suggested that I was undermining the relationship between these two departments.

And this wasn't my intent. I don't think that's what the post did, either, but clearly at least one thoughtful person thought that it did. In consequence, I've decided it makes sense to clarify my views about collegiality, data, and differences between academic units (taking "academic units" in the broadest possible sense to mean departments, faculties, employment categories, whole universities, and really any possible community of interest within the postsecondary sector).

Fundamentally, I assume that genuine collegiality is the basis for every principled question or comment about some aspect of postsecondary educational institutions. That's not to say that we should all hold hands all the time (here's someone else, somewhere else, talking interestingly about collegiality's challenges): disagreement is extremely valuable within a collegial environment.

An academic institution needs to be operated along principles that support its academic mission. I can't believe that this needs to be said (hi, Tom Lukaszuk!), but there you go.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Financial fear-mongering

I'm not the least bit happy about getting into this subject: indeed, I'm not happy any time that I find myself compelled to say things about my employer that I'd rather not say. In brief, members of the University of Victoria's executive are making statements that, whether the individuals realize it or not, I'd interpret as borderline unethical tactics to discredit the well-grounded bargaining position of its Faculty Association.

It's no secret that funding is seriously tight for Canadian postsecondary educational institutions, and that government priorities are changing strangely. The province of Alberta is in the early stages of ideologically amplified financial slashing, with shocking budget cuts, so here in BC we're grateful not to be facing this -- and if I may say, intensely supportive of our Alberta colleagues as they prepare for an unprecedented struggle.

My point in this post, however, is actually a very narrow one. Today, I just don't have the stomach to deal with larger budgetary matters, so I want to take on a single aspect of the executive's campaign against the Faculty Association.

I've heard rumours of the phrase being used orally, but today, I saw it in the wild for the first time, and in written form at that. When someone in the administration executive wants to talk about financial trouble, a key factor in that uncertainty is now being identified as "the upcoming Faculty Association arbitration."


Monday, March 11, 2013

Talking unionization

Today and tomorrow, I'll be attending some (maybe all!) of the events being hosted by the UVic Faculty Association to talk about unionization in an academic setting. For the record, here's the info about the sessions, and below this outline, I'll talk about the issues in a little more detail*:
Monday, March 11: 3pm-5 pm: Mac D116: “What are the faculty union experiences at other Canadian universities?”
Panel Discussion: Dr. Neil Tudiver, Asst. Executive Director, CAUT, and Dr. Nancy Burfoot, Professor, Queens University, former President Queens FA 
Monday 11 March: 5:30 to 7:30: Wild Rose Room, University Club (refreshments and snacks provided)
Informal discussion with Drs. Tudiver and Burfoot, and UVic FA Executive Committee 
Tuesday, March 12: 2:30pm-4:30pm: Mac D116: “What does the unionization process look like, and what are the challenges?”
Panel Discussion:Dr. Neil Tudiver, Asst. Executive Director, CAUT, and Dr. Nancy Burfoot, Professor, Queens University, former President Queens FA

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rethinking an academic department

Times are awful everywhere in the humanities, we keep reading. Anyone who has ever been part of a newspaper story recognizes the often-large gap between life and the journalistic version thereof, of course, but still: university budgets are under pressure, and everyone's got an idea about how to do more with less.

But hey, maybe the current structure isn't always the best one, you know? After all, every academic structure is really an agglomeration of traditions that in a best-case scenario seemed like good ideas at the time. This suggests that a clean, formal, professional review of curricular offerings might be both a great idea and doomed, but let's worry about that another day. For now, I'm saying simply that there's rarely (never?) a good reason to think that one lives in the best of all possible worlds.

Like many other departments around here, our English department is reviewing its curriculum, largely at the direction of the Provost's office. We like what we've built, mostly: an extremely successful Honours program, a small but potent Professional Writing minor, very good grad students, talented colleagues, that sort of thing. But if we had to build it all over again, would we choose to offer the same slate of courses that we do now, with the same class sizes?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Gendered salary inequities

Note: This blog represents my personal views. As I've said before, I'm not writing on behalf of the Faculty Association in this or any other post. I sit on their executive, but the FA has a formal communications process (in which I participate), and the FA's page is where you should go for the FA's view on any particular issue.
One might think that universities would be places where merit and potential are judged blindly: where men and women start with similar salaries, get promoted at the same rate, and see comparable salary changes over time. It's meant to be an evidence-based environment, but the studies keep showing otherwise. Gender inequity occurs lots of areas, and it turns out that universities, indisputably, are no different.

Every university is different, so every one of them needs to look closely at the differentials in salary, promotion, status, and so on. Here in Canada recently, it was very big news among postsecondary institutions when UBC announced they'd be implementing a 2% pay increase for all female tenure-stream faculty, retroactive to July 1, 2010. The university's Equity Office looked closely at the numbers, and then the university negotiated with its Faculty Association to come up with an agreement to redress the average of $3,000 per female faculty member that couldn't be otherwise accounted for.

Here at UVic, as you might expect, the response to the UBC announcement has been a bit complicated.  We're all very pleased for UBC's female faculty, but "Why not us?" has been a common refrain. The Academic Women's Caucus has been watching over and talking about a gendered salary gap around here for a long time, and let's just say that UBC's move didn't relax anyone at UVic with gender climate concerns, especially if those concerns had to do with salary.