The open session of the Board of Governors was epic on 30 September 2014. What is usually a 1.5-hour open session, extended to beyond 3 hours. It was a productive and congenial session, albeit a meeting that had several low points due to lack of due process.
Provincial funding framework
The university president said that she was more concerned than ever before about provincial funding vis-à-vis a possibly highly unsatisfactory new provincial funding formula. She is worried that the Ontario government may try to partially solve their structural deficit problems by making cuts to higher education (and other programs). I am not sure whether her concerns were well-founded, but partly because I have unjustified confidence that government policy-makers might realize that it is acceptable for governments to be in debt, partly to help smooth through rough economic times. Unfortunately governments have failed to rebound from their austerity measures (needlessly?) imposed during the 2008 recession. Even though the economy has improved, government funds have not returned to social programs, such as education, after being cut in 2008. Certainly our university leaders must see something of an economic recovery in progress given the large quantities of money that Carleton proposes taking out in the form of long-term debt (mortgages) for the new parking garage and proposed new residence building, new health building, new business building, and maybe even a new concert hall. So there seems to be a disconnect between the university president’s words concerning provincial funding and her rush to spend our own monies to erect new buildings in the face of a demographic downturn of fewer university-aged students in the province (see the 3 December 2013 posting on this blog and Carleton’s official reporting of the demographic data here).
The vice chair of the board mentioned that the premier has provided mandates to her ministers that are publicly available on-line. He suggested that we all look at these to help read the tea-leaves.
The agenda for this meeting included discussion of a proposed letter to the province regarding lower tuition and a possible new post-secondary education funding framework. The problem was that graduate students, who had originally pushed for this letter to be drafted, had not been consulted on the current draft that the university was putting forwards to the board for approval.
Pensions and reserve funds
The board’s vice chair asked the vice president finance how soon it will be until pension solvency payments deplete our pension reserve funds and thereby force us to dip into operating funds. The vice president finance declined to answer the question! To me, that is appalling. He should at least have hazarded a guess. The vice president finance then said that the next valuation of our pension fund will be in April 2016, with the province calculating new rates of repayment starting April 2017. But that was just a way to evade the vice chair’s question.
There was also a short discussion in open session about other reserve funds, with footnote 14 of the open session briefing documents cryptically discussing things like “internally restricted net assets”. I believe that the entire board, not just its finance and audit committees, should get an in-depth presentation about all of Carleton’s reserve funds, their amounts and uses, and this should be during open session if all possible.
New Residence building
The board was shown the design plans for the new 500 bed, 14-storey tall residence building. There was lots of discussion about its massive footprint. One board member wisely noted that despite all the schematics and design drawings, there were none showing this disproportionally large building in relationship to the remainder of buildings on campus. Personally, I find Dunton Tower to be a huge eye sore…and now we may have another such huge blemish of a buildings.
After the fairly long conversation about the large physical footprint of the new residence building, a board member asked the brilliant question about what the environmental footprint of this residence building would be, including whether adequate parking would be available for bicycles. Nobody answered his query, other than to say that there will be recycling bins and maybe bins for compostable items. This minimal response tells us that the new residence building will not be a green building. There will no geothermal nor solar heating. There may not even be adequate bicycle parking. This looks like another instance in which sustainability is little more than a public relations veneer for Carleton; all talk and no action (also scroll down to my blog posting herein from 18 August 2014).
New Health building
Carleton’s vice president finance has announced at open sessions of the board how proud he is of lack of cost over-runs in construction projects. The recent parking garage over the O-Train that came in at more that 50% over-budget was supposedly the rare exception. Having now sat on the board for a year, I see how Carleton magically avoids costs over-runs. On 29 April 2014 the board approved an annual budget that included $22.6 million for a new health building. The cost of that new building was quickly increased to $25 million. In Carleton’s 27 June 2014 “Notice of Intent for a Major Capital Expansion Project” to the province, which Carleton’s administration never provided to the board, the administration raised the cost to $35 million. On 30 September 2014, when asked to approve bidding on the design phase for the new health building, the board was told the cost would now be $45 million. In five months, the cost has doubled! But this somehow does not count as a cost over-run because the board keeps approving higher amounts. Instead I would call this a blatant ‘bait-and-switch’. The board approves baby budgets and once the board is hooked, the administration keeps ratcheting up the ante, cajoling that the board cannot backtrack because they have already approved so much and the university has committed itself to the province. What makes this even more remarkable and insidious is that, in the notice of capital expansion, Carleton’s administration asked the province to pay for half of this new health building, possibly without telling the province that the price keeps increasing.
During the open session I explicitly asked how many square feet of the new health building would be devoted to student teaching laboratories. In attendance at the open session were the university president, all three vice presidents, and several associate vice presidents, such as Darryl Boyce, Bruce Winer, and Tim Sullivan. But none of them had any idea of the answer to my question. This is indicative of the answer being zero square feet for teaching laboratories. For a long time, Carleton bought advertising on the sides of buses that said, “Students come first”, yet we seem to have forgotten this slogan in designing an expensive new building. This is a seemingly chronic problem with the board of governors: forgetting that education is really what matters.
I asked the question about teaching laboratory space in the new health building because the university needs such infrastructure. As mentioned before in these blog postings, health science does not offer ANY of its own laboratory-based courses. Instead they rely on other departments to provide this service (mental health is similar, except that they teach some of their own upper-year laboratories). The basic first-year biology laboratory-based course (BIOL 1003 or 1103) is one such example. Students who are required to take one of these two courses not only come from biology, biochemistry, and biotechnology programs, but also from health science, neuroscience and mental health, environmental science, earth science, chemistry, food science, psychology, several engineering programs, and several other programs such as biology & law and biology & humanities. In total, students in 31 programs (and 43 concentrations), 13 departments, and 4 different faculties are required to take at least one of these first-year biology laboratory courses. In fact, approximately 13% of all incoming Carleton students take one of these first-year laboratory-based biology courses (800 out of 6100 students take either BIOL 1003 or 1103), a percentage that has been steadily rising for the past decade.
This first-year biology course has become so over-subscribed that two actions had to recently be implemented. First, the associate dean of science had to ask the registrar this summer to stop admissions to any programs requiring this first-year biology course. The university lost enrolment because we did not have sufficient biology teaching laboratory space. Second, a few years ago, because of lack of teaching laboratory space, the first-year biology course had to go from offering laboratories every week to offering them only every second week, switching to workshops in alternate weeks. The next step may well be to eliminate teaching labs in these first-year courses altogether. This would make us like the big provincial universities, where first-year biology laboratories have been severely curtailed or cut entirely. This would be a travesty when our claim to fame and essential recruiting tool has been offering experiential learning through laboratory training in the sciences. Therefore, I strongly advocate devoting 5,000 square feet in the new health building to first-year biology teaching laboratories (plus prep rooms), in which we could teach all of our first-year students.
The new health building also needs to have an additional 1,000 square feet for a teaching laboratory for animal physiology. This is a course that almost every health, mental health and biology student wants to (or needs to) take. But the enrolment is severely limited because of refrigerator space in which to store dead cats that the students dissect. If you cannot have human cadavers, dead cats are the next best thing. For space reasons, this course severely limits our enrolments. Unfortunately, even if biology could find the space for more refrigerators, they could not squeeze in more students to the already overstuffed animal physiology teaching laboratory. The lab spaces are also not designed properly for anatomy – they are deficient in floor space between benches, air handling/ventilation, sinks, and work benches (not stand-up design). Space must be devoted in the new health building to the teaching of animal physiology.
Creating new teaching laboratory space in the health building would free up existing space for biology second-year laboratories in the Tory Building. Space-limited second-year courses include introductory biochemistry, introductory genetics, and animal form and function. They are also severely over-subscribed and required by biology students, as well as required by our new and highly vaunted health and mental health programs.
At the open session of the board, my plea for this 6,000 square feet of teaching laboratory space in the new health building for first-year biology and third-year animal physiology was met with virtual silence or worse. Actually, the associate vice president academic for students and enrolment seemed to understand the gravity of this situation. If more space is not made available very soon, admissions in all of the aforementioned programs will cease to grow because we will not be able to offer the required labs. Unfortunately, following Suzanne Blanchard’s perceptive comments, the president and provost stated that this was not an issue and that these biology teaching laboratories could be retrofitted into the old Life Science Building once the neuroscience faculty members move out (someone also mentioned retrofitting these into Dunton Tower once the business school gets its own building, but that would be an utter disaster). It is bad enough that our enrolments will be limited by teaching laboratory space until an expensive new health building is constructed, which may open by fall 2017. It would be even more draconian to wait another two years, until at least fall 2019, to retrofit old space after others completely move out of the Life Science building for their fancy new digs. In an era when a majority of our revenues come from tuition, it seems foolhardy to invest in a new building that does nothing to help increase student enrolments or improve the undergraduate learning experience. While academic research is important, students comes first, and science students and students who take science courses genuinely benefit from teaching laboratories.
Yes, we pay homage to our health program. However, if proper space is not immediately allocated to the first-year biology labs and the third-year animal physiology labs, all students will be clamouring for very limited space in these popular and required courses. Almost every second- and third-year biology course requires successful completion of the core first-year biology course (BIOL 1003 or 1103). Furthermore, students hoping to go into medicine, veterinary medicine, nursing, or dentistry school want hands-on experience in an animal physiology laboratory. In upcoming years, many of these students may be denied access to these courses, as well as biochemistry and genetics, because of severe space constraints. These students therefore run the risk of being delayed by a year or more in completing their degrees. This should rightfully result in some fascinating litigation. Students should come first, and that should translate into the aforementioned space for core biology laboratories in the new health building, if it is ever built, especially since no expense seems too great for this proposed new building.
Due Process 1: Basic Board Procedures
The chair of the board said that we may not replace the vacancy created by the death of Arnie Vered, but this matter may be open for discussion at the next meeting of the board’s nominating committee, which is not scheduled until 20 January 2015.
As is typical for virtually all Board of Governors and Senate meetings, nobody verbally recognized that Carleton is on unceded Algonquin territory. I therefore wish to recognize that important matter in this blog post and also suggest that the board nominate an Anishinaabe leader to the board to fill its current or next vacancy. The board has nobody that represents Algonquin nor other First Nations, Métis, or Inuit voices. I therefore hereby nominate Anita Tenasco, the director of education of Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg First Nation, for the open seat on the board.
The new board chair only asks for votes in favour of motions, at least for motions that originate with the administration. If it seems to the board chair that over half those in attendance raised their hands in favour of a motion, then he does not ask for votes in opposition or abstentions. That alone is appalling, but things were worse than that at the open session on 30 September 2014.
The vice president finance proposed a new “Operating Budget” subcommittee of the board’s finance committee (the vice president finance’s document describing the mandate and composition of this proposed subcommittee did not have a name listed for the new subcommittee). One of the graduate student representatives on the board then made a motion to amend, asking for a gradate student representative on that subcommittee. The amendment passed, as did the motion to create the new subcommittee. The board chair explicitly asked for votes both in favour and opposed both because the vote was close and apparently because the motion originated from outside the university administration. To me that was all fine. But, more than thirty minutes later, the board chair apologized for not asking the five external at-large board members who were participating in the board meeting via teleconference for their votes. I suspect that an e-mail or text message from one of those five teleconferencing individuals triggered this action. All of the people on the phone then voted “no” to the amendment. The board chair then asked for a show of hands of those physically in attendance in favour of the amendment. Before the chair could ask for a show of hands of those physically in attendance that opposed the amendment, I objected. I noted that the final vote had been taken over a half-hour earlier and that it was against all parliamentary procedures to re-vote this late, especially since no objections had been punctually raised on the floor or phone. The board chair then stated that he prefers to run things in a less formal manner, without any parliamentary formalities. The chair’s new ad hoc informal policy needs to be recorded in the official minutes of the meeting. This is a huge change. It is also too vague of a policy change. For instance, can any member of the board ask for a re-vote? When can the chair or any other board member ask for a re-vote? A half-hour later? During the next meeting of the board? A year later?
Running a meeting by consensus is fine with me. But that is not what occurred. Consensus means that every individual is actively given turns to speak, not just the chance to jump into a scrum. Consensus means that votes need not be taken, either in favour or in opposition. Even more telling, board members were recently given a new paper copy of the board binder, the first page of which was a short synopsis of important aspects of Robert’s Rules of Order! If the board chair continues with this way of asking for votes by only asking for votes in favour, then, per section 11.2(e) of the board bylaws, I will ask for a poll to be taken following every vote.
Due Process 2: Excluding university union officers from the Board of Governors
The board discussed a motion to change its bylaws to exclude officers of university unions from the Board of Governors. Members of the board who were faculty, staff, and graduate students expressed extreme concerns with this proposed bylaw change. First and foremost, these board members all agreed that the existing conflict of interest policy was sufficient. It certainly was sufficient to get one new external at-large board member, an architect, to recuse and excuse herself from discussions of the new health building. One person mentioned that on German boards of directors, on average, one-third of the seats are held by union members and that this apparently does not cause any problems. There were concerns about what the following words from the proposed bylaw change meant: “adjudicate disputes regarding the constituency group.” My suspicion is that this was meant to keep people handling grievances off the board of governors. The biggest problems, however, seem to be legislative and constitutional. One board member believes that this proposed bylaw change may violate the Ontario Labour Relations Act. See especially sections 70 and 72(c) therein. The Carleton University Academic Staff Association (CUASA; here and here) and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT; here) believe that this proposed bylaw change violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, especially section 2(d). Also see the Supreme Court of Canada’s application of section 2(d) to collective bargaining in Health Services and Support – Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn. v. British Columbia,  2 S.C.R. 391, 2007 SCC 27 (link here). I am not sure why the board’s governance and executive committees think it is so important to open up Carleton to such ridicule and legal action.
By contrast, a couple of external at-large members of the board argued in support of the proposed bylaw change. The chair of the board commented that all of the faculty, staff, and student board members that argued against the proposed bylaw change had a vested interest and therefore should not be debating the matter. On that point, the chair was utterly wrong. Most of those arguing against the proposal were not officers of their respective unions. Furthermore, given that the proposed bylaw change as written would remove some members of the board, those members still have a right to speak and vote to maintain their membership on the board per article 4.4(b) of the board’s bylaws. Supposedly, current board members would be grand-parented in, but the proposed bylaws did not state this. And frankly, grand-parenting in current board members who are union officers is only a feeble attempt to sway a few votes.
The current chair of the governance committee – who in his day job is Deputy Clerk of the Privy Council and thus should know better despite serving a pro-business/anti-labour government – stated that the proposed bylaw change was needed to preclude union officers from voting on their own salary increases vis-à-vis voting on collective agreements that they helped negotiate. There are two huge problems with his argument. First, the chair of the governance committee needlessly and egregiously conflated the board’s executive committee with the entire board. The board’s executive committee has exclusive power to ratify or reject collective agreements, while university faculty, staff or students are prohibited from sitting on the board’s executive committee at Carleton. The entire board never sees, let alone discusses or votes on, collective agreements. Second, if conflict of interest in negotiating salaries is genuinely a concern, then the board of governors needs to remove the university president as a member of the board. The part of the proposed bylaw change regarding adjudicating disputes should also preclude the university president from membership on the board of governors.
At this juncture in the discussions of this contentious motion, I noted a due process problem. The proposed bylaw change had been approved by the governance committee on 13 February 2014, but was never brought to the full board at the three subsequent meetings of the full board on 27 March 2014, 29 April 2014, and 25 June 2014. On 1 July 2014, the composition of the board changed dramatically, as it does at this time every year, thus the governance committee’s recommendation effectively withered on the vine and should not have finally been brought to the full board on 30 September 2014. During summer 2014, there was turnover of five of the 18 external at-large members of the board (plus one death), turnover of three of the four students on the board, turnover of one of the two staff members on the board, and turnover of one of the two faculty senate appointees on the board. That adds up to ten of the 32 seats on the board changing hands this summer, not to mention turnover on the board’s governance committee. I therefore moved to refer the motion back to the newly constituted governance committee for de novo review. Rather than entertain my motion or the original motion, the chair of the board immediately asked the person who moved the original bylaw change (the chair of the governance committee) to withdraw their motion to change the bylaws. And that is how things ended, with no further discussion of bylaw changes during the 30 September 2014 board meeting, with the presumption that the governance committee will take up the matter again at their 7 October 2014 meeting.
Other than the aforementioned due process issues, which really are important, the new chair of the board did a great job of running the open session. He provided very helpful background information, asked probing questions, made sure that people had opportunities to speak (but maybe not vote), and kept the tempo and collegiality of the meeting at a fantastic level. I was pleasantly surprised, although probably should not be surprised given that the board is comprised of smart people who really seem to care about Carleton.
The above paragraphs comprise my reporting and analysis of what transpired at the 30 September 2014 OPEN SESSION 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. I also welcome your feedback, either formally or informally, on-line or off-line.