On 28 November 2013, I was again impressed by how engaged, knowledgeable, interested, collegial, and caring board members are. While I do not always agree with them and there were a few foibles, overall, I am extremely honoured to part of this board.
As will always be the case with this blog, what is written are purely my opinions formed from information presented at the open session of the board meeting. I exclude from this blog any information from closed sessions, in camera sessions, and committee meetings. Opinions expressed herein are mine and do not reflect the views of other board members or senior administration of the university. This blog is not meant as a proxy for the official minutes of the meeting, but are rather meant to engage and inform the Carleton community and the public about what happened at the open sessions of the board, which are public events.
I would also like to thank the board for keeping open sessions open. As far as I could discern, there were no attempts to quash recording of the 28 November 2013 open session of the board. Nor has anyone suggested that I cease blogging the open sessions. Thanks to the board’s executive committee who I highly suspect made a conscious decision on this matter of openness of open sessions.
Compare the following paraphrased statements made by Carleton’s vice president finance at this open session:
- Demographics show that the number of provincial high school graduates expected to enroll in universities is decreasing and, within six years, will be 8% lower than current levels.
- We need lots of new parking garages and residence spaces/beds, with the currently erected parking garage being the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The vice president finance hopes to double the size of the new parking garage by eventually building it twice as high. Then later, he plans that Carleton will build two more identical double-sized parking structures to its north. If all are built, this would add over 3,600 new parking spaces. The proposed new residence would add 500 new luxury residence spaces/beds.
Even with an 8% reduction in student numbers, I can possibly understand why the university might want to put up new academic building, especially if we somehow switch to a greater proportion of graduate students who conduct research and bring in much larger grants from the provincial government. But do we really need hundreds or thousands of new parking spaces? Vacant residence rooms are a financial and security nightmare. And do I dare mention gender inequity in that we just spent a few million dollars to expand the gym because of our extraordinary men’s football team?
What makes the new parking garage even more insidious is that the vice president finance said that we can easily afford the cost over-runs for this structure. At the 8 October 2013 board meeting, this was a $25M garage. But 50 days later, at the 28 November 2013 board meeting, this was a $34M garage. This late in construction, how do you not know about such a huge (36%) cost over-run? I believe the original amount that the board approved for this garage (before my time on the board) was $21M, so this is not the first cost over-run here. I can think of far better ways to spend between $9M and $13M (the cost of the over-run) or $34M (the cost of the garage), especially in this era of special pension payments and perennial budget cuts of approximately 5% per academic unit per year.
On 28 November 2013, the board approved financing this $34M garage (~600 parking space, which means ~$55,000 per parking space) via a $25M mortgage plus $9M in parking services ancillary funds. I suspect the following pair of implications. First, the $25M mortgage means that Carleton will have far less borrowing ability for important (i.e. academic) buildings. Second, the $9M from parking services’ ancillary funds almost certainly means that all existing rates that faculty, staff, and students pay for parking will be increased exorbitantly. That seems to be the only way to make parking services revenue neutral. Such a parking rate increase will be exacerbated by the decreased enrollment in upcoming years. The silver lining is that grossly increased parking rates will provide disincentives to driving, which is the only way erecting an over-priced parking garage can be reconciled with Carleton’s sustainability initiatives. But I would rather provide incentives to sustainability than $34M disincentives, especially ones that leave ugly concrete footprints.
I need to re-iterate that the university expects that the pool of high school graduates applying to universities will probably decrease by 8% over the next six year. With ELBA (enrolment-linked budget allocation), this directly translates into an 8% reduction in funding to academic units. I really wish we had an extra $34M lying around to cushion that fall. Compounding this matter, Carleton has recently established ELBA funding for course-based graduate programs. On a side note, please see my critique of course-based graduate programs in my 25 October 2013 senate blog (click here), programs that we are touting, but which make us look less research intensive.
Senior academic administrators
I asked why some senior academic administrators were not subject to board-approved guidelines mandating that these appointees first be approved by a selection committee and, after several years, have their appointments reviewed by a review committee. The provost answered that senior advisors to the provost are not permanent positions and therefore did not fall under the guidelines. Yet, Katherine Graham has been in charge of provincial mandate review for Carleton for several years. When does her temporary appointment morph into a permanent one? I cannot help but be reminded of similar justification given by the US government to justify the never-ending “war on terror”. Furthermore, with the provost’s logic, either (1) the director of the Discovery Center has been approved by a super-secret selection committee or (2) the Discovery Center is only a temporary edifice. While Katherine Graham and Alan Steele may be the perfect people for their respective posts, it would be nice if there was some modicum of oversight.
The immediate past chair of the board asked the vice president finance whether the relative proportion of our various expenditures has changed in the past decade. He answered that the pension contribution has become a bigger piece of the pie of total expenditures, but everything else remained largely the same. Given that we were looking at pie charts, some piece of the pie had to get smaller to make up for the larger pension contributions. I doubt there was a decrease in the percentage of expenditures for utility bills, maintenance costs, or other ‘fixed’ costs. My guess is that salaries have probably decreased in the past decade as a percent of total expenditures. But, let me take the vice president finance at his word and assume that salaries have remained roughly a fixed percentage of total expenditures for the past ten years. This implies that salaries negotiated in collective bargaining are NOT causing the demise of the university’s overall financial position.
Acknowledgement that Carleton is on traditional Algonquin territory
The board approved a general statement to be used at major events regarding Carleton being on traditional Algonquin territory. I am thrilled by this approval, but was shocked at how much discussion and debate this generated in the open session. Debate ranged from why the wording of the acknowledgment was different from what was passed by university senate to the legal implications of such an acknowledgement. These are legitimate questions. But, unfortunately, I did not get a sense that people supported this motion because it was the right thing to do, especially after centuries of genocide by Europeans against Indigenous peoples in this part of the world. Instead, board members complained of voting blind and lack of due diligence in casting their politically-correct votes in favour of the motion. Compare this with the board casually approving a $9M cost over-run for parking, with virtually no information as to why the over-run occurred and about which nobody in the open session complained about lack of due diligence. Earlier on the day of this board meeting, I had the honour of attending Carleton’s visiting Elder’s program, which at most a handful of people ever attend. What a contrast between that event and the whiteness of the board meeting. Regardless, I am glad that the board will acknowledge that Carleton is on traditional Algonquin territory. But I also want to encourage board members and senior management to occasionally attend Carleton’s visiting Elder’s program. It is a remarkable event, currently with an amazing Haudenosaunee Elder.
Balancing hiring with research funding
While no surprise to sentient Canadians, since 2006 the federal government has been providing research funding to fewer researchers, but increasing the size of grants to those few researchers that receive a research grant. We have no control over this very un-Canadian inequity. But do we have control over who we hire. If funding is mainly via large grants to a few people, then why not hire those few people? Chris Worswick asked whether the university is hiring more mid-career and upper-career researchers so that we have a better shot at those research dollars. Remarkably, nobody could answer him. The president and provost were mute. When biology had a recent health science opening, which was a university priority, I asked the dean of science if he would be willing to consider interviewing a job candidate at the associate professor level. His answer was an unequivocal no because he could only get funding from the provost for an assistant professor position. This seems to be the trend throughout Carleton. I can only think of one exception, Stephan Gruber, a new CRC II in geography who was hired as an associate professor with tenure. Why not at least try Chris Worswick’s brilliant suggestion and aim higher with our hires, such as for tier I CRC positions and some full professors?
The vice president finance reported that the demand for graphics services is steadily decreasing and that he expects Carleton will close that unit within the next ten years. What are the impacts of this on printing of exams? Will those costs simply be shifted onto academic units? Will the university lose money by outsourcing the huge print run for the Ontario University Fair (OUF)? Or will OUF recruiting costs also be passed off onto academic units? This is potentially a really big deal, which I want to make sure we politically prepare for.
The associate vice president of research planning & operations discussed Carleton’s research ranking amongst our peer institutions. Our cohort is made up of Canadian “comprehensive research-intensive universities” without medical schools. We are currently ranked sixth (6th). The pitch was that we want to increase our rank to third (3rd). There are two problems with this. First, this is a zero-sum game, which is probably no good for anybody in the cohort. Second, the cohort only has seven universities: Carleton, York, Ryerson, Guelph, UVic, UNB, and SFU. And frankly, for historical reasons, I expect that we will rank lower than Guelph but higher than Ryerson.
The above text constitutes my reporting of what transpired at the open session of the meeting of the Carleton University Board of Governors. Any opinions are solely mine and are based on publicly available information. I encourage others to provide their reporting of events and to read the official minutes of the meeting once they are released. Please also see my blog of Carleton University’s senate (click here).