The following are my impressions of the open session of the Carleton University Board of Governors open session of 28 April 2015. These are simply my opinions and reporting, which are not meant to replace the official minutes. All factual details in this posting are public information. Before delving into details, I first wish to say that it is a delight serving on this board, which is comprised of people who truly care about Carleton University, even if we each have very different ways of conveying that altruism.
Open session was not open
In order to physically get to the board meeting, I had to navigate a myriad of campus police and locked doors that could only be opened by a police officer on the other side after a secret knock by the police officer on the side of the door from which I approached. This was done so that only board members and invited guests of the upper administration would be allowed in the boardroom. Furthermore, the blinds over the windows were closed, ostensibly so that potential visitors could not see into the boardroom. This was more security than I had ever seen before at a board meeting. The result was that journalists and the Carleton community at-large could not attend the meeting. Instead, visitors were only allowed to see the open session via live audio-video link in another university room.
An audio-video link is not the same as scanning and seeing people in the room. An audio-video link is akin to a jury not being able to see a witness and thereby being unable to judge the veracity or nuances of what they are saying based on facial expressions and body language. There is a reason that courts disallow this practice and require in-person testimony, as should Carleton University’s Board of Governors. Carleton is a public university, yet the board of governors executive committee and the upper administration stooped to a new low by making it seem that the board has something to hide.
I must admit to being somewhat complicit in this mockery of a supposedly open session of the Board of Governors by waiting until the very end of the open session to formally object to excluding the press and all other visitors from being physically present in the boardroom. I waited until the end of the meeting to voice this objection for tactical reasons. My delay was probably a mistake, for which I apologize, even though an earlier objection would probably not have removed the closed conditions of today’s open session.
The other issue here is, if this open session was broadcast, then why isn’t a link to the video posted on the Board’s website for all to see? This would also be of great archival value. It is bad enough excluding audience members at a supposedly open session. But electronically recording an open meeting and then not releasing that for viewing at a later date exacerbates the lack of openness.
The meeting began with acting chair stating that the task force report on the tuition framework would be re-opened for discussion as the first substantive matter on the agenda and would include a vote on whether or not to approve the task force report. The acting chair next remarked that the consent agenda would no longer be a consent item, but would be discussed later in the meeting, as scheduled in today’s agenda. These were truly welcome and refreshing opening remarks.
The acting chair’s opening remarks concluded with a hand-off to an advisor to the Board, who was more draconian than refreshing. He gave about a one-minute ominous warning to board members about fiduciary duties and confidentiality responsibilities of board members. He re-distributed the “Statement of General Duties, Fiduciary Responsibilities and Conflict of Interest” that all board members receive and are required to sign annually at the first meeting of the year, which is in September or October. He said that board members must act in the best interest of the university, which meant setting aside constituent and personal interests. This was clearly meant to intimidate board members, especially me, who this advisor to the Board stared at during his entire short speech. The irony is that this matter of fiduciary and confidentiality responsibilities was broached during the open session. Open sessions mean that nothing is confidential, not withstanding the caveat that the audience, including journalists, had been prohibited from the room.
This is also a good time to reiterate that this blog only contains public matters from open sessions of the board. I very carefully insure that no confidential or closed session items ever appear in these postings, knowing that if I slip up that someone will either try to shut down this blog or try to throw me off of the board. Carleton should be embarrassed for having tried such naked intimidation of board members, especially after excluding the press and other potential guests from the boardroom. My sympathies go out to the aforementioned advisor to the Board who was given the unenviable task by the board’s executive and by the upper administration to needlessly and ineffectively attempt to silence dissent and attempt to quash the dissemination of open Board of Governors matters to the community at-large.
A final irony here is that the statement of general duties of board members includes the following, “Observe the parliamentary and Board procedures”, something the board chair failed to do at the 30 March 2015 open session and that the board’s executive committee failed equally at in denying a properly called special session (see here for details). That said, other than the exclusion of audience members, the 28 April 2015 open session of the board was a nice display of properly following “parliamentary and Board procedures”, especially given that the vice chair was filling in for the absent chair of the board on 28 April.
Task Force Report on Tuition Framework
The previous full meeting of this board was ‘successfully’ disrupted by protests over the task force report on the tuition framework (formally the “Task Force on the Affordability of the Tuition Fee Framework”). Introducing this matter today, the person chairing the meeting stated, “The task force report was considered by the board under trying circumstances, but was moved, seconded, and the motion passed”, thereby approving the task force report. While I have vociferously disputed that this motion was properly passed on 30 March 2015 (see here), I heartily agree that the circumstances were trying. In fact, the meeting was so trying and the official minutes of that meeting so slanted that seven members of the board voted against approving the minutes, which is unprecedented. During today’s meeting, 20 minutes were allocated for discussion of the task force report on the tuition framework, beginning with student members of the board being invited to present their views. One of the graduate students on the board provided a compelling 5-minute presentation. The undergraduate students on the board did not present anything, which may be surprising. Then there was a lively 15-minute open discussion. This focused on whether surplus revenues are best spent on reduced tuition versus other forms of student aid. For example, tuition freezes or reductions are difficult to rescind, whereas it is simple to not renew scholarships and bursaries in the future if budgets shrink. Tuition increases or decreases are like a flat tax: they apply equally to all students. Instead, many board members advocated increasing scholarships and bursaries because they are more like a progressive tax, in which the most needy students derive the most benefit. Many board members have, have had, or will have children that attend Carleton and, frankly, their children do not need to be the beneficiaries of tuition freezes or reductions. This was a valuable discussion. In the end, the task force report was approved with at least a dozen votes in favour, three opposed, and four abstentions.
Should surpluses be used to fund additional scholarships and bursaries?
A motion was introduced from the floor to take half of net excess operating revenues for the upcoming year and use those monies to fund additional scholarships and bursaries. For the past decade, such surpluses have averaged $10 million per year. These surpluses have simply been diverted to pension solvency extraordinary payments. While solvency payments are important, especially in light of the Nortel failure in 2000, maybe some surplus funds could and should go to needy students.
The university president, provost, and vice president finance were vehemently against this motion, although did an extraordinarily poor job of articulating their reasons other than this motion would take away some of their control over a small portion of university finances. External members of the board were seemingly all over the map on how they viewed this motion. Internal members of the board (students, staff, faculty) generally supported the motion. This motion was rejected by a vote of 7 in favour, 11 opposed, and one abstention.
The vice president finance stated that the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities is forming a task force to recommend a new funding framework. This could drastically affect Carleton’s revenues. He expects the task force to recommend performance-based metrics for funding, such as based on percent of students that graduate and how quickly they graduate. This should come as no surprise given the metrics imposed with the strategic mandate exercise. However, until then we will continue with the same assumptions and framework we have had for years.
As mentioned above, a large portion of our expenses go to the pension for solvency payments. The vice president finance does not see the province changing that situation. Nor does he see the province providing any incentives for universities to join jointly sponsored pension funds.
The vice president finance stated that Carleton will continue with its Enrolment-Linked Budget Allocation (ELBA) scheme, but that he is convening a new committee on 29 April 2015 to consider alternative schemes.
Our operating budget now includes matching funds for endowed chairs, which seems weird to me.
The vice president finance said that our budget reflects a slight decrease in enrolment of incoming undergraduates, from 6,157 this past year to 6,100 next year. He said that our past enrolment growth was largely driven by increases in engineering enrolment, but that engineering is now at or near capacity. I find this strange insofar as engineering just got a large new building, the Canal Building. I will also note that science is at or near capacity for enrolment because of teaching laboratory space, something I will discuss again below with regards to the new health building.
There was discussion of maintenance costs for buildings. There is a prioritized list of buildings in need of deferred maintenance, called something like the “Facility Condition Assessment” (I forgot the exact words) that includes all buildings on campus. Loeb, Mackenzie, and Architecture Buildings are at the top of the priority list. Engineering, health, and business really do seem to be Carleton’s priority areas. [Note to the biology department: Nesbitt Building is so far down on the list that it may be condemned before being effectively repaired.]
The budget also includes the first $3.9 million for a new business school building that is estimated to cost $45 million. That seems like a very large tab for business, which typically does not require expensive infrastructure like engineering or science. But nobody on the board questioned that. Maybe the new business school building will include a luxury hotel, which wouldn’t be a bad idea, at least so long as the water fountains do not dispense champagne.
The budget includes funds for seven new faculty lines: two in global and international studies (what a redundant name for a program), one in accounting, one in Indigenous policy, and three in health science. Yes, we are still putting a ridiculous portion of our eggs in the unproven health basket.
New Health Building
Let me begin by repeating verbatim a block of text from my 30 September 2014 blog posting:
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.
The above trend recurred today, when the board was asked to approve (and it did approve) another $7 million for the new health building, raising the cost to $52 million. I complained about these recurrent increases and asked why they were occurring and when they would stop. The vice president finance promised that this would be the last such increase.
Supposedly the extra $7 million is to increase the size of the building from five to six floors tall. However, the board was shown no plans for what the new floor would contain, and university administration declined to provide the board with any details of what they might get for those additional $7 million. On 30 September 2014 (here), I requested that 6,000 square feet of new space in this building be dedicated to teaching laboratories for first-year biology courses and for the third-year animal physiology course, aka the cat cadaver course. These teaching laboratories are the effective limiting factor to increasing enrolments in all the life sciences and several engineering programs. But at today’s meeting we heard nothing about such needed teaching laboratory space. I have also advocated for a new campus visitor’s centre/campus tour office in the new health building because our current visitor’s centre/campus tour office in Robertson Hall resembles a prison. But there was no mention today of such plans for a new visitor’s centre/campus tour office.
Board member receive a stack of assorted paperwork at each meeting, which sometimes includes things resembling junk mail. At today’s meeting, board members received a copy of the latest issue of the magazine Trusteeship, published by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges containing an article by Leo Lambert, president of Elon University, titled “A grow your own strategy to develop administrative leadership” [March/April 2015; pages 31-34; full article here]. That article described something that sounds exactly like Carleton’s new “Leader 3” program (here, here). On 27 June 2014, one of my colleagues on Carleton’s Senate accused Carleton University’s “Leader 3” program of being a test-bed for new managers and a new shadow level of management, something our provost denied at Carleton University Senate. As best I can discern, the only difference between the Elon University and Carleton University programs are that Leo Lambert was willing to admit that their program was designed to cultivate incipient administrators.
I typically do not identify board members by name in this blog, but make exceptions when it seems appropriate. Plus, with this board meeting being broadcast, there is even less of reason to suppress board members’ identities. I recently criticized one of my colleagues on the board for irreverent comments. Today, I wish to highlight that same individual, Michael Wernick, for making many outstanding and insightful comments. During discussion of the task force report on the tuition framework, he not only thanked the Graduate Student Association president for a lovely presentation criticizing the task force report, but also appropriately blamed the premier of Ontario for being the root of the problem. If the province simply gave each university a set tuition increase, rather that a range of possible tuition increases, we then would blame the appropriate people. During discussion of the motion on how to spend revenue surpluses, Michael Wernick stated that this was an utterly appropriate subject for the full board and a beautiful opportunity for all board members to advise the board’s finance committee. Kudos.
I also want to highlight the lovely job Chris Carruthers did at chairing his first meeting of this board. Occasionally he faltered at procedural details, but quickly back-tracked and graciously corrected those errors as soon as they were pointed out.
Other Fallout from the Disrupted Board Meeting of 30 March 2015
Because of disruptions to the 30 March 2015 meeting of the Board of Governors, the executive committee was assigned the role of rendering decisions on matters that the full board did not get to. This is perfectly legitimate. Most of the open session of 30 March was disrupted and there was no longer quorum before a closed session was convened. I therefore asked that minutes of the executive committee be bifurcated into open and closed parts so that a public record could be established for matters that should have been decided during open session. A decision on my request is pending.
Bylaw Change to Prohibit Union Officers from Serving on the Board of Governors
The minutes of the 30 March 2015 board meeting stated, “The Chair noted that Item 16.1 on the Closed Consent Agenda would be deferred to the April 28th, 2015 full Board meeting as the wrong documents had been distributed in advance.” Item 16.1 was a proposed bylaw change to exclude university union officers from serving as board members. In my blog posting of the 30 March 2015 board meeting, I accused the administration of treating this proposed bylaw change as a yo-yo, which they clearly continue to do. This proposed bylaw change was not on the agenda today. When I inquired about this, the previously mentioned advisor to the Board claimed that it will be on the agenda for the 25 June 2015 meeting of the full board. If that occurs, at least I hope that the board has the decency to vet this proposed bylaw change and accompanying legal opinion with its governance committee at its regularly scheduled meeting of 19 May 2015. The governance committee clearly has cognizance. Its terms of reference state, in part, “Develop, recommend to the Board and monitor the application of statements of Conflict of Commitment and Conflict of Interest for Board members.” Circumventing the governance committee would constitute abrogation of due process, or abrogation of what the “Statement of General Duties, Fiduciary Responsibilities and Conflict of Interest” refers to as the duty to “observe the parliamentary and Board procedures”.
While I may have some problems with some board actions, it is an honour to serve on such an august and thoughtful Board of Governors. Members of this board demonstrate genuine concern for Carleton University, usually including great concern for our students. This blog posting only reflects my opinions and observations from the open session of the board. For a more official story, please see the official minutes of the meeting once they are approved…although please take those with a grain of salt given the numerous dissenting votes regarding approval of the minutes of the previous open session. This posting does not include any material from the closed session nor from any material from confidential sources. As always, I truly welcome your comments.