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Spring is still officially a month away, but Friday 21 February 2014 reminded us that it is coming soon. Yesterday was the first day in quite awhile with temperatures above freezing, although just barely, and even a centimeter of rain. Lots of road salt got washed into our watersheds (sorry, fish). Red maple flower buds are getting perceptibly larger. But this brief warming streak also meant that I needed to go into my research laboratory in the Carleton Technology & Training Centre (CTTC) and carefully place bailing buckets. For a few years now, ever since we switched building maintenance contracts, whenever there are heavy rains or lots of snow melt, the waters pour into my research space. Fortunately it is easy to know where to place the buckets, some up to 125 liters, because maintenance workers no longer replace the waterlogged, crumbled, and (sometimes) missing ceiling tiles. Ironically, less than a month ago, a Joint Health and Safety Committee inspection cited our research laboratory for “lack of general clean up”. Yet much of the mess is due to crumbled ceiling tiles and buckets to catch flooding, buckets that are often precariously balanced on strategically placed furniture. It is not just my research space that predictably floods. Lights in the hallway and washrooms of this building flicker because electrical ballasts are water-filled and slowly dripping. I am told that the ceiling in the women’s washroom looks near collapse. [Kudos to the dean of science who immediately mobilized maintenance workers to take care of the symptoms as soon as I informed him of the flooding yesterday]. Even newly renovated parts of this building have flooding and ugly black oozing that occurs with wet weather. Such problems do not just affect the building where I reside. The biology department chair’s office, in the adjacent Nesbitt Building, has flooded for as long as I have been at Carleton. The basement of that building sometimes has massive waterfalls (members of the biology department have startling videos; I also have some photos). I have even seen trash cans collecting flood waters in the office of the dean of science, in Herzberg Laboratories. And the dean’s suite is neither on the top nor basement floor, and was recently renovated.

Maintenance problems are not just limited to roofing. There are also problems with heating, cooling, electrical, and plumbing. For instance, the heat was not turned on in my office until 20 January this year. At least the heat was on in the hallways, but it was a cold two months during which I really dreaded coming into work. These basic services really can affect education, as Jonathan Kozol highlighted in his 1991 book “Savage Inequalities”. I encourage members of the Carleton community to report other major infrastructure problems to the university administration (or to me if you wish to keep some anonymity).

My reason for blogging this, over a month before the next board meeting, is that Carleton pours millions of dollars into erecting new structures, sometimes out of our own coffers, such as $34 million for a parking garage that Carleton does not need and several million for a new gym for our great men’s only football team. But we seem unwilling to maintain existing buildings. Yet, maintaining infrastructure pays for itself. Re-roofing a few buildings would obviate the band-aid approach that building maintenance seems to have become. My graduate students could actually conduct their research, rather than do flood control. And imagine the legal and/or public relations fallout if anybody has a ceiling collapse on them, slips and falls on flooded floors, or has a grievance filed against them for emptying buckets of flood waters, especially when the problems have been reported for years but have gone unfixed.

As a member of the Board of Governors building committee, I am appalled at how much discussion there is in open sessions of the board on new buildings and almost no discussion of existing buildings. I understand that there is no glory nor fame in dealing with infrastructure maintenance, especially if it can be deferred until decision-makers retire from the university or the board. But shouldn’t we have a longer vision, especially if we care about Carleton’s long-term reputation?

Part 2. OPEN FORUM of 30 January 2014 (6:30 – 8:15 pm) [see the separate post for the Open SESSION earlier that day]

Introduction

Attendance by members of the Carleton University Board of Governors at the Open Forum was extremely limited: three community members, two faculty members, one staff member, one graduate student member, and the university president.

But nonetheless this was a great event, one that should be held twice per year: once per year during the evening (as we just did) and once per year during the regular workday (maybe at 2 pm, before a regular Board meeting) so that different constituency can attend and present. There is apparently no need for a quorum of Board members, so scheduling can be flexible.

We heard seven bona fide presentations plus three infomercials. However, all ten presentations were done professionally and passionately.

Infomercials

First I will discuss the three infomercials, which should never have occurred at this Open Forum. These three individuals described Carleton University’s (1) Community Service Learning program, (2) Co-op and Career Service, and (3) the Learning Log. All three of these programs are under the auspices of the associate vice-president of students and enrolment. The first two of these were presented by passionate students working in their respective offices. The co-op student, who is in his third-year as an undergraduate in engineering, told the Board of Governors how helpful he and is colleagues can be at helping us compose our résumés and cover letters. Most people on the Board are sufficiently successful in their careers that they really don’t need that help. The third presenter freely announced that she is a paid employee of Carleton University’s associate vice president for students and enrolment. None of these three infomercial presenters asked the Board to consider anything or to take any actions. Given that the associate vice president for students and enrolment can have her staff present such dog-and-pony-shows at regular board meetings, this seemed to be a waste of time at an Open Forum, although this should not be construed as an indictment of the presenters, who each did a fine job.

Confucius Institute

Those attending the Open Forum did, however, hear important information about another infomercial, namely the Confucius Institute at Carleton University. This presenter was almost choked up as she spoke of well-known problems with the Confucius Institute, such as Jim Turk’s words accompanying the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) censure. Carleton management probably should have expected this critique after debacles with Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) and Preston Manning’s polarizing and highly partisan influence over the Clayton Riddell graduate program in political management at Carleton. We also heard that the Confucius Institute teaches fourth-year classes exclusively in English in our School of Linguistics and Language Studies (SLALS), courses that cover Chinese culture and business, but ironically not language or linguistics.

But I wish to raise a different concern about the Confucius Institute classes at Carleton University. We heard that these for-credit classes about Chinese business and culture are run by volunteers. Doesn’t this contravene collective agreements, not paying people for their work teaching, even if that work is to disseminate propaganda? Isn’t lack of pay a human rights violation?

Tripping over a capstone

On a very different, but still frightening note, we heard about a capstone experience in mechanical and aerospace engineering from one of its fourth-year students. This annual project is to build a racing car, which is a ‘sport’ for only the wealthiest people, where participants and even spectators occasionally meet fiery deaths. The annual budget for this capstone project is $45,000-$50,000. For that amount, the fourth-year engineering students could instead do something socially responsible. Not being an engineer, I do not have great specific alternatives, but some might include building better pumps for drinking water or 3-D printers for educational centers. Building racing cars seems to be the antithesis of the university’s goals of promoting health, sustainability, and the environment. Auto racing also has a sexist stigma.

Graduate Students

We heard a convoluted but interesting plea from a graduate student, who was representing himself, trying to get better dissemination of information to graduate students. I may have some details wrong, but the scenario that he described seemed to be as follows. All graduate students at Carleton are forced to pay dues to the Graduate Student Association (GSA) and to have Supplementary Health Coverage (SHC). A delay arose with the GSA’s insurance broker processing information regarding SHC plan members’ dependents, and GSA had no way of informing all its members of this problem [NB: I modified this sentence on 5 February 2014 based on updated details about the nature of the GSA problem with supplemental health coverage]. Therefore, this student was asking for ways to fix this information gap. This seems like a fixable problem, one that seemed very appropriate to be aired in this Open Forum.

Carleton University’s Graduate Student Association (GSA) presented information on many events and activities that they host, but said virtually nothing about what they want the Board to do, albeit with two important exceptions. First, they asked for GSA to be given e-mail addresses for all graduate students. This would obviate the problems enumerated in the previous paragraph, but would probably violate the Freedom of Information and Personal Privacy Act (FIPPA). GSA also emphasized how students who are all-but-dissertation (ABD) should be entitled to reduced tuition. Carleton’s Graduate Association of Social Work made the same point, but more emphatically, saying that they should also be entitled to reduced tuition during their community placement. Variants on these arguments go back to before I was a graduate student, with the quintessential solution being graduate student tuition waivers. Reducing graduate tuition is a big problem, one that may require creative solutions and something that is certainly worthy of discussion by the full Board of Governors at a regular session.

But here I want to discuss how the above complaints about graduate student tuition seem to be at loggerheads with Carleton University’s plans for the next residence building. Carleton is hoping to build a fancier residence, aimed at upper-year and graduate students, with “apartment-style” units. The problem is that these units will have 12-month leases. The hope is that graduate students will build a year-round sense of community in this new residence. This is utterly misguided insofar as most graduate students flee Carleton in summer because of our regressive summer tuition policies. Graduate students are currently required to pay the same tuition in summer as they do in fall and winter. However, our graduate students on teaching assistantships only get paid during fall and winter terms. They therefore are in abject poverty during summers, so usually justifiably flee to work forty hours or more per week elsewhere (off-campus) each summer. Students with wealthy parents might be willing to pay for 12-month residence leases, but that just adds inequities to our system. I feel that Carleton needs to keep residence leases at 8-months or eliminate summer tuition for graduate students, possibly by waiving all graduate student tuition. Length of residence leases is completely in control of the university; tuition is largely a provincial matter.

What should a university be and how should it be governed?

Campus United, an umbrella group representing all unions on campus, described their mission and activities. Their representative at the forum did an extraordinary job at being inclusive – in fact, better than I have ever heard – representing all of their constituencies. But two things were even more striking in this presentation: emphasis on Carleton University being a public university and on shared governance.

Too often we forget that our university is a public good meant to help the community. That was the reason for Carleton’s founding in 1942 and still continues to be our mission. As the last speaker of the evening (an MA student) also emphasized, Carleton University is NOT a for-profit business, but we often act as one. Board meetings are dominated by discussion of finance, new buildings (unfortunately, not maintenance of existing buildings), fund raising, and public relations. While all these are important, we seem to forget that what matters most is education. [Many thanks to another board member for pointing this out]. Maybe I am being utopian, but public higher education should be a right, not a privilege. Therefore Carleton University’s business model should be as a public good (much as Maude Barlow argues that clean water should be a universal right) or as a social business (as Muhammad Yunus advocates for with many institutions).

When the representative from Campus United spoke about shared governance, she seemed to be referring to students, unions, and management. This is in sharp contrast to what transpires at the other meetings across campus, where shared governance refers to the Board of Governors and University Senate. As this evening’s Open Forum nicely highlighted, even the three infomercials, there is much more to Carleton University than the Board of Governors and University Senate (and university president’s office). We are a community and really should be judged by the least fortunate and least privileged members of our community.

Concluding Remarks

Thank you very much to everybody who took the time to present and listen at this Open Forum, which was very thought-provoking. You provided many ideas worthy of discussion at regular Board meetings. I am proud to be part of a university that encourages such open dialogue. If I have misstated any factual matters, please contact me so that I can correct those details in this blog. And, as always, I truly welcome any of your feedback.

Please continue reading for information on the open session of the Board that occurred earlier the same evening.

Part 1. OPEN SESSION of 30 January 2014 (4:00 – 5:00 pm) [see the separate post for the Open FORUM later that day]

This blog reflects my personal views and reflections from OPEN sessions of the Carleton University Board of Governors. This blog is not meant to replace the official record that will eventually be promulgated in the minutes compiled by the secretary of the board and approved by the chair of the board.

The Board meeting started late because we had to wait for one more person in order to have a quorum. Those in attendance were their usual enthusiastic, thoughtful and concerned selves. But it bodes poorly when on the first warm evening in weeks, it is difficult getting even half the board members to show up, especially when there was free food and board members have the option of appearing via phone. Also of note was that all of the external “community” members (i.e. not students, staff nor faculty) of the Board that were physically present at the meeting were male. At least the one external board member on the phone was female, but that is still a pretty severe gender bias.

Budgets

Carleton University’s vice president of finance takes enrolment numbers each 15th of March to put together the university’s budget for the April Board of Governors meeting. Currently, an enrolment mis-estimate of 100 students translates into about $1.5 million for Carleton. The associate vice president of students and enrolment provided the latest application numbers. Thus far, it looks like our BA (an amalgamation of arts & social sciences and public affairs) projected enrolments are down by 7%, while science is up by 20%. Engineering and business projected enrolments are in between, with engineering up 7% and business up 2%. One board member suggested simply cultivating the growing programs, something that the associate vice president of students and enrolment said we would do. But I asked whether lab capacities render that impossible, at least in the sciences. The associate vice president of students and enrolment said labs would not impede enrolment growth because the largest nascent growth in science enrolment was in computer science and health science. She may be correct about computer science not being limited by capacity of teaching labs, although the historic volatility of computer science enrolments means we cannot hang our hat on that. But she cannot be right about health science, where second-year biology labs alone should limit enrolment. However, to give her credit, the following day at Senate, the associate vice president of students and enrolment mentioned possible restrictions on enlarging science enrolments because of limited lab space.

I wonder whether units throughout the university will yet again be asked to absorb a 5% budget decrease this year, as we have for the past several years, while maintaining all programs at current levels and qualities. This is especially worrisome given the seemingly good financial position that Carleton University seems to be in, as we hear at open sessions of the board. Furthermore, pension plan valuations seem vastly improved this year – see for example Air Canada’s pension – because of greatly improved long-term bond rates. Therefore Carleton should not be able to justify budget cuts again on extraordinary solvency payments.

Strategic Mandate Agreements

The university president said that some universities had their strategic mandate agreement submissions rejected. By contrast, she said that Carleton University’s strategic mandate agreement was accepted without modification by the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities (MTCU). All we were asked to do was supply up to three metrics of our choosing, plus some narratives for an additional appendix. The provost is heading up development of these boutique (“institutional”) metrics, about which he was vague. It remains to be seen how or whether these metrics will be used in the province calculating payments to individual universities. Please see my Senate blog for 31 January 2014 in which the provost gave many more details about this matter.

Other items

The university president reported that a committee has just been struck between Carleton University and the University of Ottawa to see whether there are ways the two universities can collaborate or cooperate on programs in order to save money. No details were given about what sorts of programs were being considered and no board members asked for details. The Board of Governors should probably be supplied with details at their next open session.

The university president said that she asked the “Aboriginal Vision Council” whether they wanted to present at the Board’s Open Forum. Supposedly they declined due to being busy, especially with the Aboriginal Human Library this week, but said they would like to present next year. I had never heard of the “Aboriginal Vision Council,” and a cursory internet search shows no mention of this group, making me wonder who was actually contacted.

For the proposed new residence building, there were 19 proposals, 3 short-listed, and one already selected, i.e. the selected design team has been awarded a contract. But this is just for the tentative design phase; the Board has not yet approved the whole enchilada. All this happened very quickly once the university decided in December 2013 to move from a public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement to a traditional design and build.

Concluding remarks

As always, I welcome your questions and comments regarding my personal views herein. I especially encourage other board members to publicly share their insights, especially if they disagree with me. Our disagreements seem healthy, constructive, and collegial. While the Board does not operate by consensus (the Board votes on motions and follows Robert’s Rules of Order), all Board members seem to have the best interests of Carleton University in mind.

“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”       – Louis Brandeis (1913: 10)