2 December 2014

Health/Mental Health Building

The board approved $45 million of financing for a new health building to house Carleton’s departments of health science and neuroscience, the latter of which runs degree programs in mental health. These two departments plan on enrolments of 550 and 500 undergraduate students, respectively. An external board member asked about the business plan for this new building. To paraphrase, they asked whether projected enrolments would be sufficient to recoup the cost of the new building, especially because Carleton will pay for at least half and possibly all of the $45 million tab. The answer from the administration was a resounding “no”. Instead the university president said that Carleton is hoping that this new building and the programs housed therein will improve Carleton’s reputation and help attract students to these and other new boutique programs. While neuroscience/mental health is clearly a strength at Carleton, our nascent health science program is still one of our weakest programs, so this seems like a huge gamble to me. The same external board member followed up with a question about where the competition exists amongst other universities for our expected health science students. The university president answered – seemingly naively or disingenuously – that there is no competition for most of the specialized streams and concentrations we are offering in health science, such as in aging and in Aboriginal health. Given how poorly Carleton often treats our Indigenous students and neighbours (see the previous posting and see below in this posting), I am not sure that our Aboriginal health stream will be such a rousing success. The provost then concurred that our health science program should have very little competition for students, justifying this assertion by explicitly stating that our health program is not clinical. Despite me personally being a theorist, I cannot see much of a demand for non-clinical health science.

Pensions

Carleton is setting aside monies for special payments to our pension plan based on our best-case scenario. While this does not seem fiscally conservative – that instead would entail planning based on the worst-case scenario – our strategy might nonetheless be reasonable. The best-case scenario involves setting aside $19 million per year for special payments in 2017-2024 and a one-time reserve fiscal funding payment of $114 million. Our total solvency deficit currently stands at $159 million. An external board member said that we need to be more specific about setting aside reserve funds in the budget, especially for pensions. Currently reserve funds are at best opaquely labeled in the budget.

I asked about the tentative planning for a Jointly Sponsored Pension Plan, which would aggregate the pension plans of several or all twenty-one of Ontario’s public universities. Our vice president finance was skeptical that this joint plan would ever go forward, thinking that it is mostly a planning exercise to enrich consultants and actuaries. But, as mentioned in the attachments to the agenda for this open session, this joint pension plan might provide solvency relief, obviating the annual special payments and the one-time payment – i.e. a $159 million savings – which seems like a pretty good carrot to push such a joint pension plan forward.

Carleton’s manager of the pension plan, Betsy Springer, mentioned that the asset mix of our pension plan was last changed in 2008 and that our plan has an expected rate of return of 6.3% per year.

Deferred Maintenance

Carleton’s vice president finance reported that deferred maintenance is a major problem at all Canadian universities. But this was probably meant to soften the blow of what he said next, that Carleton is below the median in terms of ranking amongst Canadian universities and that we are rated as “poor” with $95 million in deferred maintenance. This comes as no surprise to the many of us in crumbling buildings, something I have documented repeatedly in this blog. Contrast this with our current trend of debt-financing new academic buildings, something we used to never do. Until this past year, we let the province pay fully for all new academic buildings. Also note that starting next year, Carleton will start paying the annual mortgage of roughly $1.5 million for the new parking garage that we did not, do not, and will not need. A full report on deferred maintenance will supposedly be presented to a joint meeting of the board’s building and finance committees in February 2015. Given that deferred maintenance drastically affects all staff, faculty, and students at Carleton, I hope this report is made public.

Incestuous budgeting

The vice president finance made a long and reasonable presentation to the board of iniversity finances. He then proffered the following motion: “The Administration be directed to develop a balanced 2015-2016 operating budget that will permit progress towards institutional priorities as outlined in the Strategic Integrated Plan.” My main problem with this motion is that the administration made a motion directing themselves to do something. This makes the motion self-referential, self-serving, or downright incestuous. While the motion next obtained a formal mover and seconder from external board members, this process exemplifies regulatory capture. The board should be embarrassed, but instead seemed oblivious, even if these are probably somehow considered “best practices”.

Union Officers on the Board?

In open session, chairs of board committees were asked to report on committee activity since the previous board meeting. The chair of the governance committee said that the governance committee meeting on 8 October 2014 was productive, but that there was really nothing to report. The committee vice chair echoed that assessment. Given that the full board on 2 October 2014 referred to the governance committee a motion prohibiting officers of unions from serving on the Board of Governors, this was fascinating silence. In fact, nothing was said at the open session of the board on 2 December 2014 about this matter.

Recognizing that Carleton is on unceded Algonquin lands

As presaged in this blog on 29 November 2014, at the 2 December open session I objected to Carleton including the following boilerplate statement on the board’s agenda: “The Board of Governors acknowledges and respects the Algonquin First Nation, on whose traditional territory the Carleton University campus is located.” My primary problem is that nobody on the board nor administration verbally states this recognition at meetings, even though Algonquin traditions and ceremonies are oral. It is also noteworthy that the boilerplate statement no longer includes mention that Carleton is on unceded Algonquin territory. At university Senate the previous week (28 Nov 2014), the university president stated that I could propose a motion that mandates this language be read aloud by the chair verbatim at each meeting. She told me the exact same thing at the 2 December 2014 meeting of the board of governors. She thus twice totally missed the point of genuine recognition and respect. Her proposed motion, if passed, would also trounce academic freedom, where people at universities should never be compelled to say incantations. I had hoped for more (some?) respect for our Algonquin neighbours, colleagues, and students. While the university president seemed clueless about my objection, the good news is that chair of the board seemed to completely understand. While he may not agree with me, he was decent enough to provide verbal recognition at the open session that Carleton is on Algonquin lands, for which I thanked him.

Concluding remarks

The above posting contains my thoughts from the open session of the Board of Governors. Nothing reported herein was deemed confidential. In fact, I am impressed at how much material is deemed appropriate for an open session. Kudos. This blog posting also reflects my own personal views of the meeting. For an official perspective, please see the minutes of the meeting once they are publicly posted.

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