29 April 2014

This posting reflects my impressions from the Carleton University Board of Governors meeting of 29 April 2014. These notes are exclusively from the open session of that board meeting and are my analysis of matters that are already public. My focus is on due process, but I will also discuss a few substantive matters. This posting is not meant as a summary of the meeting. For that, simply read the official minutes once they are publicly available. Instead, this posting is meant to start a discussion about events that transpired at the open session.

Budget

After several successive years of budget cuts, Carleton finally has a fiscal year with a budget increase, which overall is around a 4% increase since last year (in nominal dollars, not accounting for inflation). This is great news. Here are the percentage increases for the five faculties plus the library:

  • Arts & Social Sciences 5.1%
  • Business 12.7%
  • Engineering 7.0%
  • Public Affairs 2.3%
  • Science 7.4%
  • Library 1.2%

While the school of business is the smallest of our faculties, they really scored.

Even within faculties, budget increases will not be spread equitably, which may be okay. For instance, there will be 19 new hires, but ALL of them will be in new programs (engineering will have three new hires in existing programs, but these are supposedly out of ELBA funds). The budget also includes monies for ten new staff positions, all of which will be in the new programs and in the academic experience office. It is not obvious that there will be any increases for crumbling infrastructure other than a few deferred maintenance projects (detailed below), undergraduate teaching assistantships, etc., all things that took huge hits during the recent years of austerity.

For the record, here are the percentage increases for the president’s suite:

  • President 8.9%
  • VP academic 6.4%
  • VP research 8.8%
  • VP finance 2.8%

I apologise to budget wonks reading this posting about the lack of details, but I still do not understand budget nuance. I need to spend more time learning from Bill Wolfenden, Louise Levonian, and Duncan Watt.

Faculty of Health? – strengths versus weaknesses

Scattered throughout the open session of the board, were several brief discussions of our new health science program. I want to synthesize those conversations, proffer some conjectures, and use this to propose a framework by which the university community should make long-range planning decisions.

A large number of the nineteen new faculty hires in this year’s budget will go to health science, which needs to grow given the expected enrollments and that the department currently only has one faculty member, a botanical biochemist.

At the open session on 28 November 2013, the board was asked to approve a $9 million cost over-run for the new parking garage. The rationale given was that Carleton is financially extremely sound compared with other universities in the province in that we only use operating funds to finance ancillary buildings (parking, gyms, residences) and do not use operating funds to construct academic buildings. Yet, the budget the board approved today contained $22.6M allocated for a new health science building. This is a complete change of tune in a half-year. I asked the vice-president finance why the university had this drastic change of basic fiscal principles. His answer was that we needed the building and the province was not willing to fund it.

There are at least two problems with this rationale. First, while I understand flexibility, the university’s stance to not spend on new academic buildings looks disingenuous or Carleton was disingenuous about the needs for a new parking garage. Second, why would the province approve a new health science program in the strategic mandate agreement if they knew they were not going to fund the necessary infrastructure? Is the province expecting us to fail or make fools of ourselves? There clearly is a lot of detail that has never been made public here given such seemingly shoddy logic.

Complicating matters, the university is planning that the new health science building will cost $35M, but refused to answer my question about where the additional $12.4M will come from. The vice-president finance explicitly told me to ask again at the June 2014 board meeting. Why all the secrecy?

My guess – and this is purely a guess – is that Carleton is trying to create a new Faculty of Health that would include our new health science department, neuroscience department (which is also slated to go in the new building), and maybe a few other units, such as food science and psychology. I also suspect that Carleton is actively vying for a medical school. The board chair in this open session referred to health science as a medical school. This may have been an inadvertent error or may have reflected insider information. The current chair of the board is extraordinarily honest, candid, and tends to never make errors, so I lean towards the latter explanation. Furthermore, roughly four years ago, Carleton’s administration was actively touting creation of a non-research pay-as-you-go medical school at Carleton. While mention of this has silenced in recent years, we never heard why, making me believe that plans are still underway. I reiterate that creation of a new faculty of science and/or creation of a new medical school are speculations on my part, a reading of the tea leaves based on tenuous evidence.

If a new Faculty of Health is formed, then the Faculty of Science can kiss a substantial portion of their operating budget goodbye (ELBA funds). What provisions are being made for this?

I am not saying whether it is good or bad to offer a new health science program and shower them with the sorts of resources that nobody else has ever gotten, like an academic building out of operating funds. I am not saying that another medical school in the city of Ottawa is a bad idea. Instead I suggest that we should better frame the question and hold a public debate on these matters, rather than simply let a handful of high-level administrators render such decisions. At the least, a closed session of senate and/or the board of governors should debate such matters. Remember that the strategic mandate agreement was foisted upon senate and the board of governors without any of their substantive inputs.

Here is my suggested framing for any university planning decisions: Should a university or unit therein allocate greater resources to its strengths or to its weaknesses? Of course, we emphasize both strengths and weaknesses, but not to the same extent. Subtle differences in emphasis matter. If we were to double our journalism program, say by not tossing out half of the cohort at the end of their first year, that would be placing emphasis on one of our strengths. By creating a health science program (or possibly a medical school), we are placing emphasis on one of our weaknesses. The new graduate program in Indigenous policy falls somewhere in between these two extremes. I want Carleton at all levels – board of governors, senate, faculty boards, departments, etc. – to actively engage in broad-level discussions of how they wish to allocate limited resources between strengths and weaknesses. For some units, such as engineering and social work, this decision may largely be dictated by professional licensing. But for most of us, this will require serious decision-making. We should first decide whether we want to focus on strengths or weaknesses before making more specific allocation decisions. For example, the biology department is currently engaging in a discussion about long-range planning of what type of biologist we might most want to hire should the dean ever gives us a new line or ask all departments to propose a new faculty line. I argue that we should first decide on whether to emphasize strengths versus weaknesses, then decide what our strengths and weaknesses are, and only then make more specific decisions about whether we want someone (for example) in plant ecology versus animal physiology versus bacterial genetics.

Does Carleton’s administration understand the G-spot?

The header is not as risque as it may appear. G-spot is the commonly used colloquial name for the Garden Spot, which is a food collective at Carleton that provides low-cost, healthy food to students.

There was discussion at the board’s open session about disbursement of roughly $40,000 in student fees to the Garden Spot. In a previous referendum, students had voted to give about $2 each per year to the Garden Spot; and an agreement between the university and Carleton’s undergraduate student association (CUSA) governs the disbursement of such funds to third party groups. The university collects the money, passes those monies on to CUSA, and CUSA then passes them on to third party groups.

Recently, CUSA and the Garden Spot have been at odds over a few matters, including what kind of financial records the Garden Spot needs to show to CUSA in order to receive the monies. But the agreement that governs the disbursement of these fees to third party groups, such as the Garden Spot, does not provide CUSA with authority to demand the types of financial records it has been asking of the Garden Spot, which is apparently a big reason why CUSA and the Garden Spot are disagreeing.

For the fiscal year just ending, CUSA does not want to pass on the $40,000 which the Garden Spot is owed. So, at this board meeting, the university’s vice-president finance recommended that the university simply give $2 back to each undergraduate student, rather than ask CUSA to give the money to the Garden Spot. (If the university were to insist that CUSA disburse this money to the Garden Spot, as per the agreement between the university and CUSA, it is highly doubtful that CUSA would refuse to do so.)

At the board meeting, Carleton’s vice-president finance was asked if he was aware of whether returning this $40,000 to students might be a violation of the university’s agreement with CUSA. In response, both he and the university’s general counsel acknowledged that they did not know, but both strongly recommended nevertheless that the board accept the motion to return the money to undergraduate students. Clearly the vice-president finance, legal counsel, associate vice-president academic for student affairs, and university president – who were all at this open session of the board – had no idea what was contained in the agreement with CUSA, despite the administration putting forward this motion. Nonetheless, the motion passed, as do virtually all motions put forward by senior management.

I do not know what is more surprising: that senior university officials who are paid to understand these agreements, in fact, did not understand them or that most board members would vote in favour of a motion after hearing that university staff are unaware of the legal repercussions of the decision. I am not publically for or against the motion. I am against the lack of preparedness and lack of questioning that should have resulted in a postponed vote.

NSERC and SSHRC results

The vice-president research provided results of the latest round of NSERC and SSHRC grant applications. Carleton did well with the number of people being awarded NSERC discovery grants, with an overall success rate of 66%. The success rate for people who have been eligible to apply for only the past five years (basically, first-time applicants) was 88%. We did not hear about dollar amounts per NSERC award.

SSHRC results are still being announced, but it looks like Carleton’s success rate will only be 16-18%, which will be slightly less than the national average of around 19%. But the scary thing for me was how inequitable these allocations seem to be. Three people at Carleton received SSHRC grants of over $400,000, one of them at the maximum allowed value of $500,000. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We really do not need that sort of American-style inequity in Canada.

Deferred Maintenance

For those of you sitting in buildings that are crumbling, which is many of you on campus, the good news is that the newly approved budget includes monies for major renovations. The bad news is that this will only be for two buildings: Loeb and Steacie. Steacie is the more problematic major renovation because it sounds as though all occupants may have to move out during renovations. It is impossible doing chemistry research or teaching without functioning labs. This might mean that Steacie renovations await a new health science building, which should have decent lab space for temporarily teaching chemistry. But that means chemists may have to take a year or more off from research. Stay tuned for details.

There are monies allocated for refurbishing washrooms throughout campus. We did not hear (nor did I ask) whether there will be impetus to create gender neutral washrooms throughout campus, which would be the progressive thing to do, making Carleton a more welcoming environment for trans students, staff, faculty, and visitors.

Miscellaneous

Carleton’s strategic mandate agreement was approved by the province on 28 April 2014. Carleton received all the new graduate student allocations that we asked for. At a recent open meeting of Carleton’s senate, we were told by the provost that Carleton asked for more graduate student allocations than expected in our strategic mandate submission, hoping to get a fraction of the slots requested. Getting everything we requested could be problematic. We often have a difficult time meeting our graduate student allocation quotas, quotas promulgated by the dean of graduate studies. So we may have even a harder time meeting graduate student quotas this coming year. But I would much rather be in this position of riches than be limited by provincial constraints.

The upcoming meeting of the Council of Chairs of Ontario Universities (CCOU) will feature presentations and discussions about strategic mandate agreements and about provincial funding and tuition frameworks. This is timely.

According to Carleton’s vice-president finance, in recent years across the province, the student-faculty-ratio has increased from 16-to-1 to 28-to-1, and Carleton is typical in this regard.

According to Carleton’s president, our advertising budget is 40% of that spent by University of Ottawa. What the president did not mention is that uOttawa needs to spend money on both French and English ads, which may explain some of this disparity. Advertising budgets should also be roughly proportional to enrollments.

As always, I highly encourage your feedback. This blog is meant to start conversations, not to be a definitive conclusion or summary. Thank you.

 

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