Monday, January 28, 2013

Smartening university growth

The University of Victoria has had a history of shared governance between its administration and its community. As the web site introducing the university's strategic plan notes, “UVic prides itself on collegiality and transparency in governance,” and the strategic plan itself speaks of the university’s commitment to “collegial forms of governance that provide appropriate opportunities for all members of the university community to participate.”

Many faculty at UVic will thus be surprised to know that the university has gone very far indeed down the path of consultant-driven restructuring, out of view from the campus community. As of March 2012, consultants from the Education Advisory Board had been working with the university for about 18 months and had conducted more than 100 interviews. I’m not sure who these interviews have been with, but I’m yet to hear from one of the interviewees, or to hear from anyone below the level of Chair who has been part of these discussions.

If you are interested in these matters -- and you should be, oh, you should be -- I’d very strongly encourage you to watch the 75-minute video currently located on the Provost’s web site, in which EAB’s practice manager Dr. David Attis explains the background to and principles of the “smart growth” approach that this university appears to have committed itself.

The key background you need, before you watch the video or talk about its issues, is that the university has not publicly addressed the disjunction between the province’s budget cut, and the university’s projected budget cut. As many news outlets have reported, British Columbia has cut its contribution to the operating budget of the province’s universities (including UVic) by 1.5% for the 2013/14 year. Its contribution to the operating budget is less than 60%, making this roughly a 1% cut to the university’s operating budget, but somehow the university has turned this into a 4% cut to all academic units.

Some units, I gather, have been told already that their funding cuts are being undone, and their funding at least partially restored; others have not. This sounds like restructuring, even if it hasn’t been examined in the media the same way that Saskatchewan’s restructuring has been (by CBC Saskatchewan and by the Globe and Mail). It's this possibility that lies at the heart of people's worries about the current year's cuts.

Now, as I've said before, this presentation by David Attis for EAB isn’t all bad news for faculty at UVic, or indeed for other members of the university community. Unfortunately, however, the administration seems deliberately to have gone against many of Attis’ recommendations about process. At different points in the lecture, he speaks against salary cuts, against relying on inequitable sessional labour, against increasing workloads beyond sustainable levels, and against unilateral top-down restructuring exercises. He speaks in favour of an open, campus-wide conversation about university priorities; in favour of making faculties and departments responsible for decisions about such things as class sizes; and in favour of recognizing connections between programs.

On quite the other hand, President Turpin has led conversations at Senate and the Board of Governors in recent months where salary cuts were discussed; he has suggested at least once in these meetings that the university should consider whether a greater proportion of its courses should be taught by sessional instructors. At least some decisions about workload and section sizes appear to have been centralized in the Provost’s office. The university’s arrangement with EAB appears still to be unknown to the overwhelming majority of its faculty, 10 months after David Attis told attendees at this presentation that he had been working here for 18 months and had interviewed more than 100 people. The kinds of data that David Attis describes as critical for an informed campus-wide conversation has simply not been shared.

We should be deeply concerned about the lack of fit between the consultant’s recommendations about process, and the university’s actual process. If we take seriously this institution’s pretensions to shared governance, we ought to be acting on those pretensions to raise all manner of objections to what is being rumoured to be a fairly thorough covert restructuring of our school’s academic programs.

Of course, we shouldn’t simply take the consultant’s word about anything: we should be pushing against some of EAB’s assumptions and analysis, for example, because the whole point of collegial governance is for everyone to exercise sober second thought. For example, this presentation seems to apply to UVic some conclusions derived from finance crises in assorted American states, and seems not to account carefully for Canada’s very different approach to tuition fees. But as he explicitly says at around the 16-minute mark of the video, his job “is not to tell you what to do.” His role is to provide a process and some analysis, so that we can undertake the long, difficult task of caring collectively for our institution.

In my view, the crucial section of this presentation runs between the 16- and 25-minute marks, covering slides 11 through 16. If you have ten free minutes this week, you could hardly spend it better than by watching this section.

Attis is a strong advocate for generating and sharing lots of data, and for thinking carefully about all kinds of non-financial benefits flowing from assorted programs. For example, he notes that too many schools focus on the number of Majors from separate programs, rather than (for example) the number of non-Major students who take the courses; he notes that some programs (like Nursing) are almost invariably money-losers and yet culturally valuable enough that few schools would consider closing them. Obvious decisions can still be wrong, because what's important is simply to think carefully about everything that's on the table for strengthening the institution's future.

Slide 12 is fascinating, because it plots (based on the experience of Capital University, in Ohio) the revenues of assorted programs against their financial break-even points: Capital’s one program that generated the most revenue was Law, but it was still lost money. Slide 13 looks at how many sections the university offers where there are too few students for it to break even financially: Attis isn’t recommending that each section should break even, but that the school and its separate programs should understand its functioning at this level of detail.

Presumably the University of Victoria has put precisely this data in the hands of its administration, because without it, there’d be no data guiding whatever restructuring is underway already. What the university needs to do instead is to make this data public. It needs to respect its tradition of collegial governance, a tradition that it claims to take such pride in. As far as I know, this university has never said what its approximate break-even point is for class size. My take on the university’s finances suggests that it’s around 24 students, without taking into account the need for cross-program subsidies (whereby expensive but significant programs are quite rightly supported by cheaper programs), but I’d never call that more precise than guesswork. That’s not good enough, if we’re going to work together to keep building this university’s future.

David Attis’ closing thought was that UVic should, to the extent possible, be trying to make cuts that aren’t particularly painful: “matching supply to demand within existing quality standards.” He’s interested in having classes run closer to their caps, for example, so that as often as possible, there are lots of classrooms full of keenly interested students. Faculty should want this, too. It’d mean secure employment for faculty, for one thing, and if we’re correct in our collective belief in the cultural value of institutions like this one, it’d also mean a secure future for civilization (however we define that problematic term).

Collegial governance is where I started this post, and it’s where I want to end it. I don’t think anyone working at UVic would say it’s a bad idea to think carefully about where we’re going, whether "we" means the institution as a whole or simply one of its many separate programs. Across this campus, though, I’m hearing a deep frustration from people that they’re not being allowed to participate in this thinking. If the administration persists in declining to engage with the university community, it shouldn’t be surprised if the community declines to see the administration as true community members.

Engage with us, meaningfully and openly, and we’ll work with you to make this a better place. I promise.

1 comment:

  1. I'd only add that a failure to engage with faculty and staff in a collegial and transparent -- truly consultative -- way is also an abject failure of leadership. The University remains a public trust, even if it is only partially funded with tax dollars, and those who mismanage it so that they must leverage disproportionate cuts upon the units that fulfil the core mission -- the academic mission -- are failing in their role as stewards of that trust. I think that perhaps an audit of UVic may be in order...