Notes From and For the Frontlines of Academic Restructuring (Guest Post by Heather Young-Leslie, Senior Advisor, Research Development; Adjunct Professor, Anthropology)

This was not intended to be an essay, not even a blog post. This began as a set of briefing notes collated for colleagues at the University of Alberta, prior to the now historic General Faculties Council meeting of 7 December 2020. That was the meeting where the university’s statutory and PSLA-mandated body was to consider the Provost’s proposal for academic restructuring, a proposal that included bundling faculties into “Colleges” and the creation of a new academic administrator position, that of “Executive Deans” who would lead the Colleges. In the days prior to the GFC meeting, the idea that the university might create Executive Deans was highly controversial. The role of an Executive Dean, as proposed by the Provost, would be to drive cost savings, and manage the shared administrative and fiscal aspects of the Colleges, while each faculty’s Academic Dean would manage their Faculty’s research and teaching affairs. Many members of the UAlberta community, academics, administrators and support staff, had reservations about the proposal for Executive Deans, but did not seem to understand what was driving this particular model for the restructure and cost-savings. These notes were my attempt to understand where the Provost’s idea of Executive Deans was coming from, and how the restructuring model was understood by those promoting it. They were also my attempt to draw on feedback from colleagues elsewhere who have experienced similar restructurings, similar governmental agendas for restructuring (austerity, reduction of public sector services), and similar, if not exactly the same, consultancy firms (i.e., the NOUS Group and McKinsey & Company). As an anthropologist, where the research goal prioritizes understanding “the other,” my approach was to begin by looking the horse in the mouth, so to speak. I read NOUS and McKinsey & Co.’s advisory and promotional materials, especially those referring to universities. That led me to read about McKinsey & Co. in greater detail. 

Executive Deans: Understanding the “transformation” and “organizational effectiveness” backdrop 

Much of the rhetoric that we have been hearing at the University of Alberta is that the university needs urgent “fundamental systemic reform,” in order to achieve the “organizational effectiveness” necessary to drive dramatic cost savings, while also “setting a bold new direction for the university of tomorrow” (see “U of A for Tomorrow”). Fundamental organizational transformation is a dramatic agenda, and UAlberta’s administration has contracted the NOUS Group to guide and manage the transformation process. The NOUS Group have a close relationship to global management consulting giant, McKinsey & Company. NOUS Group founder Tim Orton was a consultant with McKinsey & Co, and several others of the NOUS Group’s leadership came there from McKinsey & Co. (for example, directors Karen Lenane and Nikita Weickhardt, principal Gregg Joffe, and consultant Jack Marozzi appear in an easy Google search). Much of what we at UAlberta see and hear about restructuring can be traced to advice from McKinsey & Co.

McKinsey & Co. recognize that large scale organizational transformation fails about seventy percent of the time. They advise that universities often fail to transform because university leaders fail to hold the course. In their view, while university leaders may be “gifted educators, researchers, fundraisers, and academics,” they

have little experience leading the transformation of a large, complex enterprise. Complicating matters, stakeholders often cling to deep sentiments about their institutions and their school traditions, which impedes change. And the shared governance structures at most universities makes it even more difficult to act quickly and decisively. When leaders encounter inevitable resistance, it’s not surprising that they often relent, and the project stalls, is abandoned, or becomes mired in a long implementation with poor results. (See McKinsey, “Transformation 101.”)

In this perspective, Executive Deans are considered efficient because they evince—on paper—the “clear chain of command” that any general would appreciate. They make an organizational chart look neat and tidy. Business people speak of this “chain of command” as a way of assuring accountability. McKinsey & Co. have recommendations for “managerial spans of control” (number of direct reports) based on archetypes of managerial roles and work complexity—by time, standardization, variety, and skills needed. At the University of Alberta we are familiar with this type of task accounting in the form of the Hay points currently used to determine the ranks and salaries of administrative staff. More recently, we have been hearing about benchmarking data being provided to a company called Uniform, which UAlberta has contracted to help drive administrative restructuring and ‘savings of scale’ by reducing duplication of tasks across multiple units.

According to McKinsey & Co. the typical number of direct reports for a corporate Vice-President is three to five, and for the role beneath the V-P, six to seven. So when the Provost speaks of a scenario with a linear chain of command consisting of three Executive Deans and three Faculty Deans as his direct reports, it seems he is revealing the influence of McKinsey’s organizational thinking on his idea of the ‘right number’ of Faculties.  

McKinsey & Co. claim that “rightsizing”—i.e., changing the type of manager or spans of control—“can eliminate subsize teams, help to break down silos, increase information flow, and reduce duplication of work …. [It will also] decrease the amount of micromanagement in the organization, [and create] more autonomy, faster decision making, and more professional development for team members.”

The promise is that for UAlberta, “rightsizing” will, in addition to cost savings, offer a pathway to “nimbleness” and “interdisciplinarity,” and may be good for career growth and job satisfaction. However, is rightsizing the right process for UAlberta? And at what cost?

Executive Deans: Understanding the structural pushes and challenges

The same McKinsey article that recognizes that large scale transformation tends to fail most of the time and that university leaders have a tendency to resist such transformation out of preference for things like collegial governance, also advises that “[a] key finding of our work is that while a reasonable degree of cost management is usually necessary, it’s more important to focus on improving student outcomes and identifying new ways to diversify and grow revenues” (emphasis added). We, in the opening salvos of restructuring at UAlberta have heard little about ways to diversify or grow revenues. Frankly, in the Canadian public universities system, “growing revenues” has limited options. Our post-secondary education system was designed to benefit the public, not generate profits within the universities themselves. The profits are accrued to society, with a better educated populace who, in knowhing how to think critically and analytically, are better at self-governing, bring intelligence and reflection to their roles, earn better salaries, pay more taxes, and engage more civilly. The appeal of a company like McKinsey & Co. to a government seeking to reduce spending on universities lies in its provision of “strategies . . . that can help universities reduce their dependence on the typical two largest sources of revenue —tuition and government grants.”

Ironically, while McKinsey & Co. advocate a fairly shallow organizational hierarchy with a decreased distance from senior leaders to the front line, the organizational structure they promote actually creates a bimodal hierarchy that separates the senior leadership from those who actually produce value (the professoriate), by eliminating the middle managers (Associate Deans, for example). This leaves the highest echelon free to dictate decisions (or “be nimble”) and, coincidentally, to amass the bulk of an organization’s remuneration. This form of bimodal hierarchy, and McKinsey & Co.’s position in promoting it, has recently been blamed for destroying the middle class of North America (Markovits, 2020).

The Executive Dean model involves a structural hierarchy where authority derives from the top. Loyalty is therefore necessarily aligned with the Provost, President and Board of Governors, not, expressly, with the professoriate, nor even the students of the Colleges the Executive Deans would lead. This hierarchy is expressly anti-collegial in its governance model. Anyone who has studied chiefly social systems knows that good chiefs are those who recognize their dependence on their people, and who actively redistribute wealth. But with too much hierarchy, distance from the base, limited numbers of people with direct access to the “chief” and few with similar rank or authority (i.e., with no “middle”) comes more autocratic control. In UAlberta’s case, that greater autocratic control will come from the Provost’s office. Leadership will become more top-down, even less democratic, less a cohort of peers. In other words, corporatized.  

When coupled with performance-based funding and key performance indicators (“KPIs”), we end up with no investment on the part of the senior leadership to resist the corporatized direction, and leaders who prefer to think of themselves not as academics but as CEOs. With Executive Deans we would see an expansion of the senior administrative leadership, one that examples from other locales demonstrate actually gainsays the goals of cost-saving and organizational effectiveness UAlberta is purportedly seeking.

I am quoting here from a recent research report on British and Australian senior leadership salaries:

The shift in the UK and Australian universities from collegial to more corporate forms of operating has engendered a corresponding shift in governance from stewardship to the agency. Professional management functions have come to the fore in the pursuit of business objectives and VCs [Vice Chancellors or the equivalent of university Presidents in Canada] both see themselves and are seen by others, including governments and government agencies, as chief executive officers. A significant uptick in V-Cs’ remuneration has occurred relative to other academic salaries. Market-based salary setting mechanisms, such as benchmarking, appear to drive these increases. (Boden and Rowlands, 2020)

See a synopsis of Boden and Rowlands’ argument in The Conversation, Australia.

The Australian and United Kingdom Experience

According to one Aussie colleague, “In Australia, the executive academics (Heads of department and up) do not teach and have no research expectations. They are contracted on a bonus based system. There is zero transparency about remuneration: nobody knows what anybody’s agreement is and there are many backdoor deals done” (Name withheld for confidentiality). My Aussie colleague describes this as another way of undermining any collegiality.

With Executive Deans, in fact all of the senior leadership, unless the executives’ performance indicators and budget structures are carefully wrought, there is little in the way of structural mechanisms to keep Executive Deans from becoming more like Provosts, less like colleagues, not even Deputy Provosts or Associate VPs. Boden and Rowlands (2020) recommend “maximum fixed ratios between vice-chancellors’ remuneration and average academic salaries.” But who in the UAlberta structure would or could make that happen? The Provost? Not the Executive Deans. It is doubtful that even this Board of Governors, concerned as they are with austerity, would adopt that remuneration model.  

Following from the McKinsey & Co. material on Chief Transformation Officers, and the experience of academic restructuring in Australia and the UK, Executive Dean positions will be filled by executives who have ceased to be primus inter pares (first among equals) and have become, rather like university presidents in Canada are now, former academics who behave like corporate CEOs. With that, there is great risk that Executive Deans will became more and more expensive. 

The expense of Executive Deans will not necessarily be because they are great managers for their institution, colleagues, and students. Research from the UK has demonstrated that managerial efficiency fails as a determinant of Vice-Chancellors’ remuneration. Factors like student participation and research grants success don’t explain the remuneration increases either. See Bachan and Reilly, 2015. Surprise, surprise, age, size, and reputation of the institution are more reliable predictors of V-C pay. See Virmani, 2020.

With performance measures that focus on annual rankings and corporate fund-raising rather than faculty, staff and student satisfaction, you end up with a cohort of executives whose career path is not based on growing within a university community to which they are dedicated. Instead, these senior academic administrators flit from one university to another, increasing their remuneration as they move up the ladder in terms of institution reputation and size. (That’s one way to understand the imperative to “be nimble.”)

The Outlook for University of Alberta for Tomorrow

Whence will come the cost savings UAlberta needs? They’ll come from draconian measures, such as vertical cuts, but beginning with cuts of Academic Teaching Staff positions, and downward pressure on the professoriate via managerial mechanisms such as the Faculty Evaluation Committees, algorithms that determine academic performance, and Key Performance Indicators. A colleague shared a real prof’s workload evaluation spreadsheet, from a major Australian university. I’ve redacted the name.

My colleague sent the Australian prof’s workload summary with this note:

Hi Heather,
This was provided by a colleague. Read and weep.
Note in the research tab how different research publications are weighted as “points”. A minimum number of points must be achieved each year or the algorithm under the teaching calculation is changed to ensure additional teaching hours are performed. So for an ordinary senior lecturer (not a prof) to keep your research allocation at 40% (a typical 40-40-20 workload distribution) you would need to produce 7 research points a year – that is 7 book chapters, or 1 book and 2 chapters, and so on. A prof would be expected to achieve 11 points – so two books and a book chapter. Obviously none of this is sustainable if even possible. So the effect is that everybody does a LOT of teaching (70-10-20)…
This is what is really meant by “performance-based” universities.
[name withheld]

It is unfortunate that two wonderful concepts—nimbleness and interdisciplinary— have been captured by the Provostial rhetoric and transformed into buzzwords.

“Nimbleness” is code for the freedom to expand the precariate and make vertical cuts.

“Interdisciplinarity” is code for merging departments.  

Recently, those of us observing the UAlberta’s Board of Governors’ meeting on 11 December 2020 were offered another buzzword to consider: “Laser focus.” This is less difficult to interpret. Laser focus is code for relentless inflexibility, autocracy, and hatchet-wielding, all in the name of KPIs. Actions associated with laser focus include denying collegial governance, breaking collective agreements, pitting departments and colleagues against each other, creating chilly workplaces, and hailing the hatchet-wielding executives with titles such as “Chief Transformation Officer.” 

Look soon to see McKinsey-inspired expansion of the mandates for the Board of Governors.

For more background on McKinsey & Co. I recommend Duff McDonald’s The Firm (2014), and investigative journalism in The New York Times and The Independent

After learning all this, I have one or two questions more. Why is it that management consulting firms only offer universities one model for organizational effectiveness, leadership, and transformation, a model based on a capitalist corporation? Instead of accepting a huge failure rate in transformations, why not offer universities an organizational structure more similar to what a university is? Yes, our university has to change. But does it need to be corporatized? Why aren’t our current leaders demanding —of themselves—expertise, higher degrees, MBAs even, in co-operative management? Why are they not demanding of the consultants they hire—NOUS, McKinsey—something that respects the collegial governance system and its longue durée of successful production and sharing of innovation, creativity, critical thinking, and knowledge?

The answer to these questions may lie far from the Alberta prairies, at Harvard’s Business School.

Finally, for more on McKinsey & Co, listen here:

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The Single Worst Thing That Happened at the University of Alberta Board of Governors Meeting on Friday (11Dec2020)

Copy of post to the Members’ Forum of the Association of Academic Staff (AASUA) on 12 December 2020

Dear Colleagues,

You already know the upshot of yesterday’s meeting of the Board of Governors. With the Invisible College model defeated at the special meeting of the General Faculties Council on Monday, the recommendation before the Board was for a “leadership structure” for the “colleges” that involved both a service manager and a “Deans’ Council.” Yesterday the Board passed a motion from which it struck the service manager and in which it arranged for the colleges to have Executive Deans in the form of “Seconded” Deans. This means that the Board failed to respect the recommendation that came forward to it from the General Faculties Council, and rejected what it has heard overwhelmingly from the University community — that it does not support the creation of an additional level of senior administration no matter what the “Executive Deans” are called.

To achieve its objectives yesterday, the Board had to ride roughshod over collegial governance. In so doing, it confirmed what much of the University community has feared from the outset of this process: that this entire process involved a mere sham of consultation and democratic decision-making when the Board knew full well what it intended to do and would make sure that nothing stood in the way of its primary objectives.

I’m not sure, though, that everyone realizes the worst thing that happened yesterday.

Continue reading

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What’s at stake at the University of Alberta General Faculties Council on Monday (7 December 2020)

Copy of post to the Members’ Forum for the Association of Academic Staff (AASUA)

Text of the first document referred to as “attached” is copied in below.

Dear Colleagues,

Monday’s meeting of the General Faculties Council may very well be the most consequential in the University’s history. I write to offer you some key information about what will be before GFC as well as my view of what is at stake.

At its November 23rd meeting, GFC discussed the three final scenarios of the Academic Restructuring Working Group (ARWG) as well as the “Invisible College (Shared Services)” model prepared by faculty members who were following the consultation process about the original scenarios with great care, and seeking a model that would address the very strong messages that the University community was sending about what it found to be wrong about the ARWG’s proposals. At its meeting of November 25th the Academic Planning Committee, which was charged with making a recommendation to GFC on what model for academic restructuring it should recommend to the Board of Governors, decided simply to endorse “the concept of a college model” and leave GFC to decide between the two college models.

In these two models there are entirely different visions of the University at stake. Continue reading

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RePublicU to host student panels about University restructuring

U of A Student Panels RESTRUCTURING

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UAlberta Faculty of Arts & Science

In the face of the Kenney government’s four-year program of savage cuts to the University’s budget the University of Alberta is considering restructuring its Faculties. If the Faculty of Arts is to be amalgamated or bundled with any other Faculty, following the model of the world’s best universities and Canada’s leading universities, that Faculty should be the Faculty of Science. 

Nota Bene: What the world’s best universities do

Oxford. “Humanities” is its own “Division”

Stanford. Faculty of Humanities & Science

Harvard. Faculty of Arts & Sciences

Princeton. The Humanities stand alone.

Yale. Faculty of Arts & Sciences.

Toronto. Faculty of Arts & Science is “the heart of Canada’s leading university.”

UBC. The Faculty of Arts stands alone.

McGill. The Faculty of Arts stands alone.

McMaster. Arts & Science.

Université de Montréal. Arts & Science.

Johns Hopkins. Arts & Sciences.

University of Pennsylvania. Arts & Sciences.

UCLA. Letters & Science.

University College London. Arts & Humanities | Science & Technology

Columbia. Arts & Sciences.

Cornell. Arts & Sciences.

Duke. Arts & Sciences.

Michigan. Literature, Science, and the Arts.



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Accounting Questions (Guest post by Laurie Adkin, Political Science)

I have observed, over the years, that institutions lack memory. They respond to pressures, but without identifying causes or analyzing the outcomes of past reforms. They repeat the same moves without awareness of past experience.

Two departments are merged to reduce administrative costs. Fifteen years later the department splits to form two departments because of conflicts among faculty over disciplinary or methodological orientations. Twenty years later the two departments are merged to reduce administrative costs . . . . Does anyone do an analysis of the money saved by the first merger? The increased administrative workload for academics and the loss in research productivity? The costs of increased employee medical leaves? The costs in terms of faculty departures? Time lost to the formation of internal, specialized committees and their administration by faculty?

A university does a major restructuring of units, merging them into new divisions, but without understanding the differences that led to the boundaries among the units in the first place. Within the new divisions, the units continue to try to govern themselves according to their own disciplinary traditions. Students find multiple obstacles to the fulfillment of interdisciplinary degrees, finding supervisors, and meeting the requirements of graduate programs. What was supposed to be interdisciplinarity turns out to be a Byzantine system that no one can navigate. Do administrators ask what was necessary to make interdisciplinarity function? Was there money to hire new faculty with interdisciplinary backgrounds? Was there a reduction of workload somewhere to permit faculty to devote more time to interdisciplinary research and teaching? Were new interdisciplinary programs created? Was there funding for these?

What is accounted for, in accounting?

And then there are lost opportunities because of lack of vision.

A small interdisciplinary group of scholars sees the need for the development of new programs—perhaps a research institute. The institution says “there’s no external money for that, we’re not interested.” Another university takes the lead, and within ten years has an international reputation in the new area of research, attracting students from around the world. Do administrators ask how they could better respond to the knowledge of researchers in future? What, for that matter, is the process by which such decisions are taken?

This lack of memory and analysis of past reforms is what makes academics (at least, the older ones) jaded and unenthusiastic about change. They’ve seen it all before. It probably means more work. (Are reduction of workload and improved work conditions ever goals of administrative reform?) Will mergers and cuts to administrative staff address the underfunding of graduate programs, or result in more faculty positions? Or is everyone just expected to do more with less until they are used up and take early retirement, search for another job, or fall ill?

When is there a process in which we are all asked to consider:

  • What is the university’s mission?
  • Given our resources, what should we prioritize?
  • What kind of community do we want to create?
  • How do we want to govern ourselves?
  • How do we need to organize work to make self-governance something that everyone can participate in?
  • How can we communicate our goals directly to citizens?

In other words, when is there a process in which we have a real conversation with one another (rather than a “base to leadership and leadership to base” dialogue) about what is most important to us as a community of scholars and educators? When the outcomes are open-ended and not pre-selected by administrators? Instead of working toward inclusive and deliberative institutional norms, universities have gone in the opposite direction—one of hierarchical, executive-style governance.

The flip side of this model is a professoriate disciplined into passivity, apathy, and hopelessness by their workloads. So, when leadership issues a call to members to attend town halls to “be heard,” the turnout is generally poor. Hands are wrung about how hard it is to motivate engagement. Yet, we don’t need to rely on collective action theory to understand why it is not rational to expect individuals who are working 45-60 hours a week—never mind their family responsibilities and desires for personal lives—to be involved on an ongoing basis in university citizenship, too.

Class sizes have doubled since I was hired, and some faculties at the U of A are in the process of again increasing teaching loads in the form of the number of courses taught as well as class sizes. Is anyone interested to know why the normal course load [in Arts] was reduced from five courses to four in the late 1990s and how that change affected research funding and productivity? Or do we just reverse gears, close our eyes, and count on a miracle of human labour-power to keep the machine working faster and producing more?

Workload is not a problem attributable only to personal failures to manage time. The institution cultivates a workaholic culture, while HR sends out advice on healthy lifestyles and mental health, individualizing responsibility for the predictable consequences of over-work and stress. And work hours and stress are not equally distributed; care-givers and members of minority groups, for example, are called on to do more in a day than other members of faculty. Universities have conducted work-life studies but have never taken them seriously. Self-care and citizenship require time—time that is structured into our lives and given the same importance as work.

Adaptation to online teaching has greatly increased the workloads of instructors and technical support staff, and this pandemic could go on for a long time. Previous rounds of budget cuts have pared administrative, teaching, and technical support for faculty to the bone. Yes, the budget cuts were imposed by governments (that also engage in cyclical destruction), but this isn’t just about external circumstances; it’s also about how we, as a community, and our leaders respond to what governments throw at us. It’s also about how we distribute burdens and budgets internally—how we decide, and who decides, the priorities. I was here through the Klein government years; this is not the first time the universities have faced brutal budget cuts. What have we learned from how we responded to those?

In so many ways, universities operate not on the basis of what they preach, that is, research and knowledge, but on the basis of what is expedient in the short term for governments and those who implement governmental directions. Where is there a model university that has a truly deliberative and inclusive process of self-government? Where is there a university that applies the abundant evidence from mental health and social well-being research to its own employment and education practices? Where is the university that applies the research on the benefits of interdisciplinary research and teaching to its program design and organizational structure? Where is the university that acts on the knowledge of global and local ecological and social crises when making its investment decisions and prioritizing research and teaching areas? 

So, around and around we go, reliving the same cyclical crises and calls to get involved, and restructurings and destructurings—always within the same flawed frameworks of governance and work norms. No one is inspired or given hope by these. We are not practising what we preach, that is, learning from research, experience, reflection, history, and meaningful dialogue. There is a difference between change and transformation.

It will require real leadership to stir the hope of transformation and build consensus about its goals when fatigue and cynicism have become so entrenched. But no one knows what is possible, until one tries.

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Some Thoughts on the Australian Restructuring Experience (Guest Post by Fiona Nicoll, Political Science)

Some points to consider as we approach the restructure from someone who has worked in three of the top-ranked Australian universities.

I earned my PhD from the University of Melbourne and taught at several other universities including the University of Sydney. Major institutional restructures were simply part of the rhythm of my professional life before I arrived at the University of Alberta in 2016 from the University of Queensland where I held a tenured position from 2004 and enjoyed many years of teaching and research with excellent colleagues from all over the world. Although many of the same challenges — including dependence on international student fees, shrinking labor union membership and casualisation of teaching — exist in Canada it has been a delight over the past four years of my employment at the University of Alberta to work within a relatively stable system of collegial governance in which academic staff are much more empowered to take decisions about the conditions under which we work and are evaluated.   

As UAlberta enters this period of rapid restructuring, based in part on the model provided by Australian universities, I want to list some of the pitfalls that I hope can be avoided.  These include:

  • Promoting professionalism

  • Avoiding scapegoating and nepotism

  • Scrutinizing automated and gamified evaluation processes

  • Foregrounding EDI and Indigenous knowledges and rights

Promoting Professionalism

As we begin a process of restructuring to create efficiencies through the amalgamation of departments and faculties, professionalism is essential. Those who are chosen or who volunteer to lead large units may not always be the best suited to exercise new and far reaching powers. They will almost certainly lack experience and skills for the task and may have ulterior motives that later manifest in nepotism, bullying or sheer incompetence. It is neither fair to these new leaders nor to those who will be under their supervision to expect them to be able to deal with demands that nothing in their previous academic life has prepared them for. They will need to be thoroughly trained in ethical standards of behaviour as well as understanding and being able to promote EDI and Indigenous rights across their portfolio of responsibilities. Potential candidates should be:

(1) screened to ensure the highest standards of academic and personal integrity and

(2) trained thoroughly in interpersonal and technical skills required to support them throughout their time in office.  

Avoiding Scapegoating and Nepotism

I have witnessed and been subjected to invasive institutional reforms put in place to protect the reputation of senior managers who were ‘too important to fail’. I have seen a university’s ‘institutional culture’ blamed for cases of nepotism, incompetence and flagrant abuses of power by those at the very top of the most prestigious institutions. While the perpetrators quickly retired or moved on, everyone else was left to ‘clean up’ the cultural and reputational damage. Allowing staff to be scapegoated for the sins of their departed leaders demoralises staff and misleads students, staff and other stakeholders in the community. Mistakes will invariably happen as part of processes of restructure and there may well be abuses of power as it is concentrated in fewer hands. Our governors need to be aware of this potential and to be thinking now about how to prevent it and how to respond if or when leaders misbehave or get it wrong. The University of Alberta currently has a powerful brand in its commitment to ‘the public good’; if personal and private interests are allowed to interfere with the integrity of its core research and education functions, it will be less attractive as an employer and guarantor of respected qualifications.    

Scrutinizing Automated and Gamified Evaluation Processes

In these desperate economic times there is a powerful dream abroad that artificial intelligence and algorithms might spare universities the labor of peer review and pedagogical innovation. Gamification is a value that is often mobilised to engage faculty and students in learning and research. We should bear in mind that original research and learning are not processes that can be cultivated in the manner of a duolingo app. And we should remember that cheating is occurring, often undetected, at the very highest levels of academic life. Witness the Lancet’s retraction of research on COVID-19 treatments based on a suspect collection of ‘big data’ from patients in hospitals around the world. 

I experienced the convergence of automation and gamification in academic evaluation in one of the Australian universities where I worked.  Like players of a video game, we were all provided with a ‘dashboard’ that purported to represent an objective evaluation of our achievements each year across metrics of teaching, research and service. We were given a number which was then compared with the average numbers of others in our department, faculty and university and we were asked to explain any discrepancies in our annual evaluation reports. No explanation was provided about the epistemological assumptions and methods ‘under the hood’ of the dashboard.  Particularly concerning was its comparisons between the proverbial apples and pears. So, a colleague with a heavy service load whose peer-reviewed publication rates fell because they were spending up to 30 hours a week on a major evaluation and report for the university would be told to lift their game.  And popularity became the only game in town for those wishing to ‘pimp’ their teaching evaluations. Controversial and uncomfortable topics were avoided, while entertainment and easy assessment tasks inflated students’ results. 

Similarly, under conditions of automated and gamified surveillance, the best optimal research strategy was to submit manuscripts to established journals and contribute in a small (non-threatening) way to pre-existing debates/discussions and to avoid creating new journals or approaching existing debates in ways that could be dismissed as eccentric or overly ambitious. This kind of evaluation platform very quickly produces the product it is established to judge and the role of humans is reduced to deciding how to judge requests for exceptions. 

It goes without saying that the processes of measuring productivity described above most often assume that the field in which employees are being compared and in which they compete is not only race and gender blind but also deterritorialized. The Australian Research Council discovered this after a long and expensive process of creating a tiered journal list. It was almost impossible for any journal – no matter how well regarded – to achieve a top rating if it was dedicated to publishing research on Australia. A similar effect was produced for scholars whose expertise was European philosophy and who published in non-English language journals. I have been told that several Australian universities created and maintain their own tiered journal list. When I have asked research administrators for access to these tiered journal lists, their existence has neither been confirmed nor denied. We can do better than this at the University of Alberta!  Transparency about the processes by which peer-reviewed research and teaching are evaluated and service commitments measured is essential if our claims to embody academic freedom and integrity are to be taken as credible.                   

Foregrounding EDI and Indigenous Knowledges and Rights 

Our university has a new strategic plan for EDI, grounded in rigorous, published, comparative research on equity-seeking groups such as women, members of visible minority groups, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and LGBTQ2S+ people.  We are located on Treaty Six territories and our Province encompasses Treaties Seven and Eight. The Faculty of Native Studies is a flagship organization that is unique in North America.  Indigenous knowledges and opportunities for land- based learning in research and teaching are powerfully reshaping the way that we know and understand our relationships, our economies and our political institutions. Partly in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, there have been several appointments of leading Indigenous faculty as well as recent appointments of brilliant scholars who are racialised and/or working in disability studies.  Women and GLBTI2S occupy leadership positions in our organisation. Any restructuring must keep our university’s ongoing work to be egalitarian, diverse, inclusive and cognisant of Indigenous knowledges and rights at the centre of its future vision.

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Can the University of Alberta avoid the fate of Australian universities? (A blog post in 55 tweets)


#ualberta is being asked to “transform” itself according to advice given by the NOUS group, which has “restructured” many Australian universities.


Important discussion/vote tomorrow at #ualberta GFC [General Faculties Council]. The University community should be paying attention to what has been happening in OZ as a result of the radical government defunding that has driven the “restructuring” of Australian universities.


This thread offers perspective from a few Australian commentators starting with philosopher Patrick Stokes, in the Australian New Daily.


As Stokes reminds us, public universities are supposed to be “engines of cultural, economic and moral progress” contributing to democracy. That’s why the #ualberta slogan is “uplifting the whole people.”


Universities include professional schools but are not to be reduced to vocational schools in which students are made “job-ready.” That would keep them from fulfilling their obligations to democracy.


But as Simon Cooper, Federation University, writes, universities have made the mistake of defining themselves in relation to “market-derived markers of value” rather than their social and educative roles.


Where this happens, Cooper writes, universities become defined as “largely another R&D division” for government, With universities run according to “audit culture” rather than “participatory democracy.”


Postsecondary systems of this kind treat knowledge as a commodity for which they charge, and (Cooper writes) “exploit students as customers, trash staff collegiality and morale, and show little independence from state or corporate power.”


Then, when universities hit a financial crisis, they are compelled to “shed programs, courses and staff that insufficiently mesh with the corporate world view—those deemed ‘inefficient’ or lacking capacity to generate significant income.” (That’s Cooper again.)


“Many of these cuts,” Cooper notes, “will likely come from humanities, and social and pure sciences.” Management consultants will also pressure universities “to move online” without any consideration for how this “fundamentally alters teaching, scholarship and research.”


Where universities make these mistakes, they will help produce new social inequities, especially around the “mode” of course “delivery.” There will, for example, be “online teaching for the less privileged, face-to-face for the elites.”


There will also be a rise in the number of university instructors who are precariously employed. The National Tertiary Education Union (AUS equivalent of @CAUT_ACPPU) claims “just over one third of people at universities have secure, ongoing work.”


One third! That’s disastrous. Faculty are a university’s lifeblood.


Canada is already on its way to such a dire situation. Right now, as a result of systemic, decades-long government underfunding, about 40% to 50% of the instruction at any given Canadian university is taught by instructors on temporary contracts.


That’s unfair to everyone — not just to the people in those precarious positions, who aren’t properly compensated and aren’t supported as researchers, but to everyone who needs the university, starting with students.


Australian universities are at a crisis point because radical government defunding has made them depend on international students — and now with #covid19, those students are not coming.


In yesterday’s news from @guardian

Universities Australia: “21,000 full-time equivalent jobs poised to be cut from the university sector.” The NTEU (the Australian equivalent of @CAUT) says the reality will be around “30,000 academic, managerial and support staff.”


Think of all the staff we’ve *already* lost at #ualberta in the last year due to government budget cuts — As well as the staff, including faculty, who will not now be hired.


Now start imagining all the unfortunate developments to come if we follow Australian universities in the choices they have made to deal with government budget cuts.


Just one example — hot off the presses: The Australian government will permit universities to jack up tuition for Arts degrees.


As Stokes notes, this “does not, in fact, signal that humanities are a bad investment — they aren’t.” Instead, Arts degrees will return to being what they once were:

Degrees that only the social elite could afford —

Degrees that positioned only them for career success.


That will turn back clock on what “modern” university was supposed to achieve: As the great “democratic educator” (Raymond Williams) it was supposed to play key role in driving social *equality.*


Jacking up tuition on Arts degrees is also senseless (as Peter Van Onselen notes)

as Arts degrees cost universities relatively little


And Arts degrees tend to subsidize STEM degrees

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How does any university system get to the point where they’ll charge more for Arts degrees? Bonnell suggests Universities Australia (equivalent of Universities Canada) “effectively lobbied” for decreasing government funding —


as long as they could charge students higher fees (tuition).


This is the long tail of governments agreeing to charge tuition, period — a decision that itself already ceded serious ground in relation to the idea of the university as a public good.


This should matter to us in Canada because in Australia we’re seeing a preview of where such surrenders lead. How do we keep the kind of thing that the Australians have allowed to happen from happening here too?


What universities need, Cooper notes, is “more robust articulations of why universities matter.” We need to be talking about universities in terms of their “academic value,” rather than in terms of the values of the marketplace.


But what has happened instead? According to Bonnell (Queensland), Australia witnessed the “spectacular failure of nearly all Australian vice-chancellors to defend public higher education in face of . . . stringent public funding cuts, in 2014-15.”


See his article “Democratisation or management and corporate capture? Theses on the governance crisis of Australia’s semi-privatised public universities” (AUR 58 02)


Bonnell: “failure to defend public higher education against radical marketisation and deregulation [resulted] in astronomical debt…for students.” Universities that go down this path abandon “public good commitments…for revenue maximisation at expense of students.”


It is a tragic irony: Even as university administrators have accepted increasingly rich compensation packages they’ve become weaker and weaker at defending our public universities as public goods.


There are exceptions. On Australian National Radio in May, Margaret Gardner, Vice-Chancellor of Monash University, frankly declared (twice) “government has been cutting us for years,” noting that this has made universities dependent on international students,


But such declarations are rare, and even in that interview it was the radio host, @geraldinedoogue, not @gardmarm who asked, isn’t a university education a public good, not a commodity?


As university leaders have retreated from defending universities and the education they offer students as public goods, they’ve set us up for a strange paradox, Bonnell suggests. One government cuts a university’s budget, w/ university leadership failing to fight back.


This compels universities to “semi-privatize.” By 2025, President-Elect Flanagan wants the government portion of our funding to drop to 40%, with the university more reliant on private donors and “revenue generation”:


In agreeing to do this universities make it far more difficult to defend universities as public goods. They also make it difficult for future governments to do so. Instead universities become “competitive actors in a capitalist higher education market.”


That is an expensive project—one that leads to “gratuitous waste” as “universities compete … for funding, both public and private,” with “million-dollar marketing and promotion budgets.”

cf. #ualberta Advancement budgets under Samarasekera


In 2017, for example, the [Australian] higher education sector spent $622 million on “marketing and promotion” chasing international student markets and private donor funds — and in so doing they threatened research independence and academic freedom.


Bonnell (U Queensland) ties these developments to rise of “managerial elites in universities” which “have essentially ceased to be accountable to internal constituencies of staff and students, as indicated by … weakening of … internal governance.”


Universities are supposed to be run by the faculty. But as Bonnell (U Queensland) notes faculty governance has been so eroded that university leaders believe they can withhold information from university’s governing bodies — including Boards.


It appears that @BFlanaganUofAs “UofA Tomorrow” plan may shrink #ualberta “managerial caste.” As Benjamin Ginsberg (Johns Hopkins) showed years ago in The Fall of the Faculty (2011), this caste tends to grow its own numbers at huge cost to universities.


But getting rid of “deanlets” and “deanlings” will not in and of itself change managerial *culture* — and w/o that change we’ll have continuation of what NOUS survey for University of Queensland identified as problem: managerial culture that remains “feudal.”


Money spent on management consultants to “restructure” #ualberta won’t fix that —

Not without commitment to true collegial governance in which faculty are treated as a university’s brain trust.


The fact that management consultants are seen as the “fix” is itself a sign of the problem — the erosion of university culture in which universities were run by the same people who were actually doing the teaching and research.


Once you have universities run by professional administrators no longer connected to teaching and research, we can witness the kind of thing we see in a document prepared by #ualberta leadership for the meeting of the General Faculties Council on Monday —


That document presents faculty as a “risk” in relation to Fall 2020 “online” instruction — see screenshot.

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I wonder where Canadian university administrators get such Thoughts.

How are faculty to trust a university leadership that characterizes faculty in that way?


It sure doesn’t help when university leadership spends the university’s money hiring management consultants who reflect a negative view of faculty back at them.


As for the money, how much money will be spent on management consultants to bring about this “transformation”?


We know the Kenney government intends to spend a whopping $3 million on advice from McKinsey & Co.


But how much does #ualberta intend to spend on NOUS or Alex Usher or any other management consultant to achieve “UofA for Tomorrow”?


The Australian reports that in 2013, in the state of Victoria alone, consultancies including NOUS were paid a whopping $17 million “as universities struggle[d] to absorb massive . . . government funding cuts.”


Unless Canadian universities do better than Australian universities in defending universities as public goods, only one party will win for sure in what is about to unfold in Alberta: management consultants.

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Uplift the Whole People? Or Cut Them Down to Size? (Guest Post by Kathleen Lowrey, Anthropology)

As I write this, students and instructors alike still do not know fully what the grading system for this Winter term at the University of Alberta is to be. The credit / no credit policy implemented in great haste and by executive fiat on March 19th entailed a mysterious “template” for letters to be written by instructors that would allow for more nuanced descriptions of student performance. The template has been promised for three weeks now, but as yet has not been shared with instructors. Students keep asking instructors for news of “the template letter”.

In a devastating analysis of the governance procedures that surrounded the decision by the University’s central leadership to shift to credit / no credit grading this term, English & Film Studies professor Carolyn Sale says “My concern in this blogpost is not with the vexed question of whether the decision taken by GFC Executive under delegated authority was the right one”. Here I take up that “vexed question”. Both the form (considered already by Professor Sale) and the substance (which I consider in what follows) of this momentous decision on the part of the University of Alberta’s leadership merit our attention. Professor Sale has urged that we consider how our university is governed. I urge that we consider what our university is for.

It is usual to assert — I’ve done it myself — that the university is for “research and teaching”. This is obviously true, but the university is not uniquely for research and teaching. Considerable excellent research happens outside of universities, carried out by private industry, think tanks, activist organizations, amateur enthusiasts, and many other entities and individuals. Teaching, too, happens under many auspices: university professors are never university students’ only teachers, nor should they be. What is truly unique to universities is the discipline-specific academic (not professional) evaluation of post-secondary students. As judged by the engineering faculty, how is this student at engineering? As judged by the anthropology faculty, how is this student at anthropology? The generation and accumulation of these evaluations are not the only things the university is for, but they are things the university is uniquely for.

Perhaps this sounds small and grim, the ethos of a cheerless Gradgrind or a pitiless meritocrat. But I ask anyone reading this to consider their own higher educational trajectories. What cherished memories occupy the little birdhouse in your soul? I’m going to guess these are not of brilliant lectures, when you paid sustained attention to a professor, but are instead of moments when a professor paid sustained attention you. Not the moments when a professor was centre stage — but the moments when you were. The gratifying comments on an essay, the impressed response to a problem set, that time you noticed the wider implications of a new research finding and a professor noticed you noticing.

To its credit, the university administration has been quick and assiduous in its efforts to support the shift to “remote learning”, by which is mostly meant the on-line delivery of lectures. Some faculty have worried that this is setting us up for the future MOOCification of higher ed. As I have written about at some length before, I believe this worry to be misplaced. The broadcast aspects of teaching have long had multiple rivals: the printing press, the radio, the television set. If I find somebody on YouTube giving a better lecture than I can, I don’t try to keep my students from finding out about it out of concern for my job security: I assign it. Putting knowledge out there can be done wholesale. That’s been true for hundreds of years. Evaluating how well students have assimilated that knowledge is best done retail. This generation of students, like prior generations who did not throw over the university for the wireless, understand this very well. Learning is important to them, but learning how well they have learned is *really* important to them, as any professor who has even been late in returning marks knows well. Why would the university administration choose to completely deprioritize this precious aspect of student experience in a time of crisis?

Administrators insist that they took the decision for the students’ own good. Many students do not agree and more than 13,000 of them have signed a petition saying so. No matter; administrators answer to a higher power: that of social justice. In their own accounting of their decision-making processes, administrator after administrator who spoke at GFC on March 30th seemed to have missed their callings in social work and to have ended up accidentally in positions paying mid to high six-figure salaries. They offered a series of sketches of the sorts of students who would be unable to do their best work under current conditions: LGBTQ students back home with homophobic families, Indigenous students back in remote communities with unreliable internet access, international students gone back home or bereft and isolated here, students suddenly saddled with extra carework responsibilities for children out of school and daycare or for vulnerable relatives unable to do their own grocery shopping, students suddenly thrown out of work and scrambling to make ends meet. Students who are themselves sick.

These visions are incontestably powerful. In fact the administrators who participated (along with the Presidents of the Undergraduate Student Union and Graduate Student Association) in taking the decision to make Credit / No Credit universal rather than optional reported to us that their decision was unanimous. Their account of their own deliberative processes suggests that there was little to no debate amongst them as to their chosen course. They made this decision because they all agreed it was not just right but also Right.

All that remained at GFC was for them to clarify the relative moral shabbiness of the world and its (non-GFC Executive) denizens, for, ultimately, it was this ubiquitous moral shabbiness that impelled them to act as they did. President David Turpin, Dean of Students André Costopoulos, Registrar Melissa Padfield, Dean of Arts Lesley Cormack, Dean of Native Studies Chris Andersen, Students’ Union President Akanksha Bhatnagar, Graduate Student Association President Fahed Elian, and the Dean of Campus Saint-Jean Pierre-Yves Mocquais held the floor during the first hour of GFC to explain to us that:

  • If Credit / No Credit were not universal, it would “look bad” on the transcripts of students who chose it.

In other words, GFC Executive opined that in future years, when employers and admissions committees for graduate and professional programs look at transcripts from Winter 2020, they won’t be mindful of the fact that there was a global pandemic going on at the time. GFC Executive anticipated that others, unlike themselves, would be unprepared to judge the records of this period with kindness and good sense. This is a remarkably uncharitable judgement by GFC Executive of, well, pretty much everybody.

  • If Credit / No Credit were not universal, rigid and inflexible instructors would hold all students to now-impossible standards.

In other words, GFC Executive assumed most professors wouldn’t react compassionately to the fact that there is a global pandemic going on and so would refuse to make sensible modifications to their marking schemas unless forced to do so by dramatic administrative intervention from above. This conjures up a picture of widespread heartless turpitude among the professoriate, and specifically as compared to the pious virtue of GFC Executive.

  • If Credit / No Credit were not universal, this might be to the advantage of some students, who — without specifying anything else about them or displaying any interest in struggles such students may have faced — GFC Executive categorized in blanket fashion as “privileged”.

In other words, GFC Executive figured: why mess about uplifting the whole people when you can just cut them all down to size? What was most striking in this was the contempt with which GFC Executive dismissed the anguish of students who had built particular hopes around their marks this term. Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” perfectly captures the punitive bureaucratic ethos of standardization animating decisions like this one.

If you are someone who has read a good number of jeremiads about administrative overreach in higher education, you probably think you can guess where this is going. But surprise! It is a crowded and competitive field over which GFC Executive at the University of Alberta has managed to ride roughshod. Across Canada, almost none of our peer institutions have been as cack-handed in the face of the pandemic:

  1. The University of British Columbia has implemented a choice system in its Arts and Business faculties (possibly others), wherein you may choose between your letter grade, a withdrawal, and a “Credit/D/Fail” grade at the end of the semester.
  2. McGill University has implemented a pass/fail option—you can choose to receive a letter grade.
  3. The University of Ottawa has left it up to individual programs and professors to determine the CR/NCR policy or lack thereof applied to classes.
  4. The University of Toronto has implemented a pass/fail option—you can choose to receive a letter grade.
  5. McMaster University offering students the option of either a conventional grade OR pass/no credit for a final year mark.
  6. The University of Waterloo has implemented a pass/fail option—you can choose to receive a letter grade.
  7. Dalhousie University has implemented a pass/fail option—you can choose to receive a letter grade.
  8. Queen’s University students will be able to request Pass/Fail grades for Winter Term 2020 and the Winter half of Fall-Winter 2019-20 classes.
  9. Simon Fraser University has implemented a pass/fail option —you can choose to receive a letter grade.
  10. The University of Manitoba has implemented a pass/fail option—you can choose to receive a letter grade.
  11. The University of Victoria has not implemented a pass/fail option or program—you receive a letter grade.
  12. York University has always had a pass/fail option system in place, and is continuing with this approach- you can choose to receive a letter grade.
  13. Carleton University instructors have been asked to take a flexible and compassionate approach to managing academic accommodation for the remainder of the Winter Term. In addition to this approach, Carleton has now adopted an additional grading mode for the Winter 2020 Term. 
  14. The University of Guelph has left the administration of course grading up to the individual professors and faculty members.
  15. The University of Saskatchewan instructors have been authorized to alter their grading formulas for Winter 2020 courses.

(Thanks to Christian Wigger, U of A undergraduate, for the original version of this compilation, which I have updated with the latest available information I could find.)*

This brings me back to those mysterious “template letters”, as yet still in the offing.  GFC Executive is now bringing them before GFC before they are officially disseminated. This means that a full explanation of the grading policies for Winter Term 2020 will go out to students and instructors alike long after the teaching term has ended, and toward the end of the exam period, because the next GFC will not be held until April 20th. This has multiple consequences for students and instructors alike, all of them bad, and none worse than the consequences for our many contract instructors who are likely going to be asked to generate these letters well after the term ends — which is also well after their pay ends.

It is difficult to imagine what GFC can contribute to the template letters (which, reportedly, have already “been through legal” so are probably not easily revised) at this extremely late juncture. GFC was not given any opportunity to deliberate about the overarching decision to which the template letters are tied. In the month that has gone by since that decision, the template letters have only been knowable via rumours, and the materials submitted to GFC members on April 14 still do not include an exemplar of them. I suspect that GFC Executive have belatedly realized the complexities of the evaluative dimension of the university’s mission and so don’t want to go it alone anymore. Whatever inevitable fallout is coming, they want it to hit GFC too. It didn’t have to be this way.  

In coordinating the workings of a large and complex entity like a modern university, it makes sense to have a fairly powerful GFC Executive that can prioritize items for collegial deliberation. I would not suggest GFC Executive has “too much power”. The problem is that the Executive misuses the power that does, in principle, belong to it legitimately. Considerable time at GFC is taken up with relative trivialities, while an enormous and consequential decision like this one is only brought to it for post-hoc propagandizing. This is not a new problem: the Leadership College fiasco, for example, was a slow-moving governance disaster. This credit / no credit marking scheme has been a fast-moving one.

Perhaps you are reading this as a disappointed student. Consider engaging with SU elections by running or at least voting in them. The SU president who supported this decision holds her position by virtue of winning slightly more than 50% of the votes of the 20% of the student body that votes in SU elections. That’s not her fault, but the present situation is an illustration of how consequential SU elections actually are.  Perhaps you are reading this as a frustrated instructor or faculty member. No doubt you are muddling through for the sake of students, but there will be time to mull this over in the months to come, to reflect on it and what it indicates about collegial governance at the University of Alberta. 

I hope the incoming President will hold an inquest into how this unfolded, will report the results publicly, and will implement reforms early in his term. This decision unmoored the university from a process central to its mission:  the evaluation of students by professors. A small coterie of central administrative personnel very heavy-handedly pushed themselves into that process, with insufficient deliberative consultation, and in the immediate aftermath were toweringly self-righteous about it. Of course they are only human, and as stressed and worried as the rest of us under these unprecedented circumstances. But the badness of this decision by the Executive — in its form and in its substance — is not at all unprecedented at GFC. As we go forward, I hope we do not allow the present unusual circumstances to distract us from that plain fact.   

* Christian Wigger in correspondence to the members of the General Faculties Council, 26 March 2020

Posted in evaluation of students, ualberta general faculties council | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Clearing Our Campuses: “Remote” Instruction and the Kenney Government’s Savage Cuts to the University of Alberta

Finally, David Turpin has given Albertans some information about the devastating effects the Kenney government’s two rounds of huge cuts to the University of Alberta’s budget will have on our flagship university. Regrettably, Turpin released the information on a Friday afternoon, when politicians release information they hope will be buried.

Turpin’s news is that, in the face of Kenney’s cuts, the University will have no choice but to lay off up to 1,000 staff members. This number gives the pubic some sense of the magnitude of the shock to the postsecondary education system that the government is delivering, but a vague reference to loss of academic programs won’t produce sufficient public understanding of what the loss of this many staff members will really mean. How do you imagine an organization of the University’s size and stature is going to operate with the loss of almost 1 in 10 staff members?

It’s not as if the University has excess staff! With the cuts it has already faced over the last several years, the University already has fewer staff than it really needs. In 2013, along with the rest of the postsecondary education system in Alberta, the University experienced cuts of a magnitude unseen since the Depression. Those were delivered by the so-called “Progressive” Conservatives, and they helped to get the Conservatives voted out of government later that Spring. But less than a year into his term as Premier, Jason Kenney thinks he is free to savagely cut postsecondary education in the province, with special savagery reserved for the University of Alberta, on the expectation that Albertans will forget what he has done by the time the next election rolls round. After his grotesque fiscal miscalculation last Spring, with his massive corporate give-away to oil and gas corporations, Kenney is now in effect saying that Alberta can no longer afford its world-class university.

On top of all of this, in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, effective next Tuesday, faculty and other instructors are being forced to suspend in-person classes and move to “online” or “remote” instruction, with a mere one day’s preparation on Monday. The University’s messaging around this has been limited and nowhere acknowledges that this is a fundamental and problematic alteration of the nature of university instruction that will shortchange students.

In theory, this is nothing more than a temporary measure, in relation to the kind of pandemic that scientists have long been predicting was likely to occur. But the idea that postsecondary instruction might be “delivered” by “online” means has been a fantasy of university administrators for almost a decade now, with the hope that massive online courses (MOOCs) or other forms of “remote” instruction will be a significant boon to the financial bottom-line of institutional budgets. The University won’t have to maintain the same kind of physical infrastructure, for example. (Don’t forget that that the government is refusing to fund the University’s deferred maintenance budget, forcing the University to close and pull down buildings.) In many disciplines and programs, there is no good way for university instruction to go “online” or become virtual, but the government is busy ensuring that we will lack the physical infrastructure and staff to continue with postsecondary instruction in the usual form.

The university classroom is one of our most precious social forums, and it is facing a strange conjunction of crises — first, with government disdain for what we do, and the Kenney government’s refusal to properly fund the University, and now with a virus requiring the University’s buildings to become ghost towns for the near future. If all goes as it should, the virus will be contained, and we will return to our offices and classrooms. But there is nothing temporary about the consequences of Kenney’s cuts. They will permanently clear our campuses of people crucially needed to do the University’s work.

It is with particular sadness that I note, as a former President of the Association of Academic Staff (AASUA), that our Association has simply not being doing enough in the face of this combination of crises. It has in fact been largely silent — with no communication to members in the face of Turpin’s Friday announcements.

In regard to the latter announcement, about the move to “online” or “remote” instruction, the University has very serious equity issues that it needs to address. As a result of the systemic underfunding of postsecondary education in Canada over the last few decades, about 40% of the instruction at the University of Alberta is offered by staff in inadequately paid “contract” or temporary appointments. This is something that university administrations don’t like to draw attention to, but it’s a simple fact that puts the lie to any claim that postsecondary educations in Alberta have somehow been too generously funded. If the University of Alberta were properly funded, the percentage of academic staff employed in “contract” or “temporary” positions would never be higher than 20% — the overwhelming majority of the teaching would be done, as it should be, by academic staff employed (and appropriately compensated) in permanent faculty positions. Right now, the expectation that “contract” staff will, along with faculty, find instantaneous ways to move to “online” or “remote” “delivery” of courses by Tuesday involves the expectation that “contract” or temporary instructors will do additional work for which they are not paid. Faculty, meantime, will have no choice but to offer instruction in a seriously attenuated form, in many cases in ways that cannot begin to replicate the quality of instruction that usually occurs in our classrooms.

It is the role of our academic staff association to protect academic staff from such eventualities. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) advises:

Academic staff associations should ensure, preferably through a written agreement with the administration, that all measures taken in response to the pandemic are temporary and solely in response to an extraordinary situation. The association, through its representatives on the Joint Health and Safety Committee, should be involved in assessing the health and safety of the workplace, and determining when classes should resume as normal.

The return to “normal” may happen easily enough elsewhere. But how do we return to “normal” here when we are dealing not just with the consequences of instructional change due to COVID-19 but also the government’s massive budget cuts?

We can recover from the coronavirus, but not from Kenney’s cuts. The University cannot lose 1,000 staff members and maintain its excellence as a research and teaching institution. The government needs to be told this in no uncertain terms, or we will be left with an institution that is permanently handicapped at doing its immensely important work for Alberta and Albertans. That work includes not only the kind of research that helps us fight, and ideally prevent, pandemics, but also all the forms of research and teaching that help us work towards a better future, one in which we are more knowledgeable, more humane, and better at dealing with life’s challenges, as a result of all the learning and interactions that occur in those precious social spaces known as university classrooms.

Posted in alberta budget 2020, alberta funding for post-secondary education, alberta postsecondary education, massive open online courses (MOOCs), online instruction | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Fiscal Destruction: Kenney Government Wages War on Alberta’s Universities and Colleges

With last week’s budget, the Kenney government affirmed its commitment to radically undermining Alberta’s postsecondary education system. The response from the leaders of Alberta’s postsecondary institutions?

The University of Calgary’s President, Ed McAuley, supports the drastic cuts, saying that “This government was elected with a large plurality on an austerity mandate, and the University of Calgary recognizes its responsibility in helping to deliver on that mandate.”

University of Alberta President David Turpin at least takes the position that the Kenney government’s plan to cut the University’s budget by an additional 11% in 2020-21, hard on the heels of a 6.9% “in-year” cut in 2019-20, is “difficult news”. Unfortunately, Turpin’s statement also makes it appear as if the Government is simply requiring the University to make changes already in progress “in a much shorter time frame of three years” and that we will be able to “maintain our responsibility to our students and to Albertans to deliver world-class teaching, research, and innovation” regardless.

All of this gives the public the false sense that everything will be just fine. That’s certainly what a Saturday tweet from the Ministry of Advanced Education’s press secretary Laurie Chandler seems to confirm. When professor Lise Gotell pointed out that it will take “generations” for us to recover from “this mindless assault” on “what we have all built”, Chandler used Turpin’s statement as a retort. The implication is that the Ministry feels that Turpin has given the government the thumbs-up to go ahead and cut the University’s budget without regard for the devastation it is wreaking.

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While McAuley’s and Turpin’s statements are quite different, they are both a very serious problem. Universities should not provide cover for the government’s political agenda when that agenda puts the future and well-being of the province’s universities and colleges at risk. The leaders of all of Alberta’s postsecondary institutions need to come clean with the public about what budget cuts of this magnitude to their budgets are really going to mean, starting with higher tuition for students, fewer course offerings, a worse faculty-student ratio, and the closing of research facilities and programs. Contrary to what McAuley claims, the public did not give the Kenney government a mandate to treat our postsecondary institutions like piggy banks they could smash to fund other aspects of their political agenda.

Minister of Finance Travis Toews claims that all the Kenney government is doing is “freeing up” our postsecondary institutions to be “more entrepreneurial”. But that is not the role of our postsecondary institutions. Their role is to educate students and to advance knowledge. These are public goods that strengthen society and need to be supported with proper public funding. For the Kenney government to cut the University of Alberta’s budget by 11% in 2020-21 after the unprecedented and totally unjust cut of 6.9% mid-budget year cut of 2019-20 is for it to engage in a full-frontal attack on the institution. The cuts to other postsecondary institutions in the province may not be so deep, but the entire system is under attack. Our postsecondary leaders need to give the public honest accounts of the impacts. How many people are going to lose their jobs? How will those job losses affect the ability of the institutions to perform their functions? Where will we see a reduction in our research and teaching capacity? And how will the University of Alberta’s world-class performance and standing be affected by the various ripple effects of these brutal cuts?

Every time you hear someone claim that all of this is to be understood as an exercise of good fiscal management it might help to remember the roots of our modern conception of the “fiscal”.

In ancient Rome, the “fiscal” was the name given to the properties of the state, or rei publicae, public things. For centuries, across the middle ages and into the early modern period, good sovereignty was conceived as a protection of the “fisc”, or the safeguarding of public things, and the distribution of their wealth to the people of a realm. As the “fisc” was regarded as sacred, the most popular medieval and early modern iconography of it shows good sovereigns, modelling themselves on Christ, holding and squeezing a sponge to symbolize their distribution of the fisc’s shared wealth. The implicit idea was of Christ/the sovereign as the “gardener” watering the realm, a concept with which Shakespeare, whose work I teach, often plays as he represents contests over what constitutes good governance, and what is bad.

The Kenney government’s fiscal management is doing the opposite. It is squeezing public goods and public services to diminish the public sphere.

Let’s think about it in relation to what it is doing to the one postsecondary institution in the province that is in the “top 100” worldwide. On the one hand, the Government is decimating the University of Alberta’s budget. On the other hand, it is simultaneously introducing, at breakneck speed, “performance-based funding,” slated to kick in next month. Under a “performance-based funding” scheme, an institution is punished with loss of funds if it fails to meet a set “metric” or “indicator”. The actual metrics are themselves a problem as they mostly involve imprecise and inappropriate measures, such as whether an institution succeeds in getting students jobs in an existing labour market and how much they are paid. These indicators are determined more by the economic climate than anything else. Not one of the Government’s planned “indicators” has any capacity to assess the quality of either research or teaching at any of our postsecondary institutions. The government is introducing them simply so that it will have mechanisms to judge the institutions’ performances with the objective of withholding further funds.

Here’s an example of how these two attempts to “manage” postsecondary are already intersecting at the University of Alberta, to dire effect. The Government has informed us that it will use as one of its “performance indicators” the amount of money that the University brings in from external funding agencies. But because the Government has already cut the University’s funding by 6.9% in the middle of the last budget year and is now cutting it an additional 11%, the VP Research’s office is engaged in a “restructuring” of its “Grant Assist Program” which will impair its ability to support the University’s researchers in the social sciences and humanities in securing such funding. Holy irrationality, Batman! This is like telling farmers you’re going to compensate them according to their crop yields and then tearing bags of crop seeds out of their hands in order to dump them in a nearby oil well. When it designates the total amount of research funding that the University receives as a metric for measuring the University’s success and then cuts the budget that provides professors with support in securing that funding, what is the Government doing but setting up the University to fail?

When you hear the Kenney government claim that it is “restructuring” the University or any other of the province’s postsecondary institutions for their own good hear the truth: the government is casting about for excuses for itself not to meet its fiscal responsibilities to these institutions. When they say they want to shrink the “Government’s share of the economy” what they mean is that they are disinvesting in the very public goods that Albertans need for our individual and collective futures.

Tragically, they are doing so at the very moment in which Alberta should be aggressively anticipating and doing everything it can to contribute to a green future. There is growing global recognition that we must abandon industries that are destroying the climate as quickly as possible. Yet in the face of an existential threat to humanity, the Kenney government would have Alberta double-down on the past. And so it is busy cutting funding to the very institutions that should be helping to drive the Green Revolution so that it may spend our money instead on continuing investments in oil and gas.

They themselves have supplied the metaphor for what they are doing.

The government has invested $30 million in a “war room” to target environmental activists (those who, in Kenney’s view, tell “lies” about “our world-class energy industry”). At the same time it has refused to give the University almost exactly the same amount of money that had been budgeted for the year for “deferred maintenance” issues. What responsible homeowner doesn’t fix a leaking roof or repair an aging furnace and pipes — preferring instead to give away money to people who live elsewhere? This is exactly what the Kenney government is doing. They began their term in office by giving away almost $5 billion of Albertans’ money to foreign-owned oil and gas corporations; have invested tens of millions of dollars in the “war room”; and now want Albertans to pay the price for their lack of judgment with cuts to our services and our institutions, including one of the most prestigious in Canada, the University of Alberta. What is this but “war” upon Alberta’s public postsecondary institutions — war upon our “fiscal” goods?

All of this, as the Parkland Institute report released Friday notes, is part of a high-stakes roulette game in which the Kenny government is betting the current and future well-being of Albertans on “fiscal projections [that] depend on a number of assumptions, perhaps the biggest of which is the hope that three new pipelines (Line 3, Trans Mountain expansion, and Keystone XL) will be built and start operating in the next three years,” despite the fact, as the budget document admits, “all three pipelines still face several regulatory hurdles”.

This isn’t how responsible fiscal managers act. This is the kind of gamble in which reckless children engage.

The essential first line of defence against Kenney’s “war” on Alberta’s postsecondary education system lies with the leaders of Alberta’s postsecondary education institutions. They need to stop kow-towing to the government and act like the adults in the room by calling out the actions of the government for what they are — the creation of havoc with institutions that Albertans have built across generations. These institutions need to be treated for what they are, precious public goods, fiscal goods. Whatever their own political allegiances, Alberta’s postsecondary institution presidents need to put the fiscal well-being of their institutions and the long-term well-being of the people of Alberta ahead of short-sighted political agendas.

Let’s have no more pussyfooting around — no more claims that we have no choice but to concede to the government’s “austerity” agenda, and no more false reassurances that we’ll still somehow be “world class” no matter what blows the Kenney government delivers. Tell the public the truth, please, in plain and unvarnished form, so that Albertans can rally themselves to do what our neighbours to the north, in Alaska, did last year, when they rejected their government’s attempt to cut state funding to their university by 41%. The Governor of Alaska wanted to do that in a single year; the Government of Alberta is attempting to do the same by stealthier means, across four years, with a series of budget cuts complicated and deepened by the introduction of “performance-based funding”. Like the Governor of Alaska, the Kenney government needs to be stopped. It has no right to ransack our public postsecondary education system in order to finance their gamble with our future. It is time for our postsecondary presidents to show why they are so handsomely compensated. With that compensation comes a moral responsibility — the responsibility to tell the truth to the public when a government is waging war against the institutions in their custody. They should all be rising to the responsibility of saying that the attack is not to be tolerated — not on their watch.

Postscript: For clarity, it is the bad sovereign that is featured in the Alciato emblem — the one who wastes the contents of the sponge rather than ensures just distribution of ‘fiscal’ goods.

Posted in alberta budget 2020, alberta funding for post-secondary education, university of alberta | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Letter to Student Union President re Dougal MacDonald

2 December 2019

Akanksha Bhatnagar

President, University of Alberta Students’ Union

Room 2-900
Students’ Union Building
University of Alberta
8900 – 114 Street NW
Edmonton, AB
T6G 2J7

Dear Akanksha,

We are very concerned about the statement issued by the Students’ Union at the University of Alberta in regard to Dr. Dougal MacDonald, who teaches in the Faculty of Education.

Your condemnation of Dr. MacDonald’s remarks on the Holodomor and demand that he take them back or resign are incompatible with the University’s policies and principles on Freedom of Expression. Just this week the General Faculties Council approved the University’s new statement on Freedom of Expression which reads:

The university is a place of free and open inquiry in all matters, and all members of the university community have the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, view, challenge, profess, and learn. Members of the university community have the right to criticize and question other views expressed on our campuses, but may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with others’ freedom of expression. Debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forward are thought by some, or even most, to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or misguided. It is for individuals, not the institution, to make those judgments for themselves and to act not by seeking to suppress expression, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose. The university does not attempt to shield members of the university community from ideas or opinions they disagree with or find offensive.

Dr. MacDonald’s remarks are protected by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as by the academic freedom to extramural expression that is a necessary right of all academic staff at the University. As the statement notes, in the University the proper response to ideas with which we do not agree is rigorous debate with those ideas, not their suppression.

The learning environment is not, as your statement implies, made “safe” when any individual or group attempts to prevent another’s exercise of freedom of expression. It is fundamentally undermined, as the ability to examine, analyze, and critique all ideas is the lifeblood of the University.


Lise Gotell, Professor, Women’s & Gender Studies

Carolyn Sale, Associate Professor, English & Film Studies

James Muir, Associate Dean Research, Faculty of Law

Julie Rak, Professor & HM Tory Chair, English & Film Studies

Danielle Fuller, Professor, English & Film Studies

Ricardo Acuña, Executive Director, Parkland Institute, Faculty of Arts

Ryan Dunch, Professor and Chair, History and Classics

Kathleen Lowrey, Associate Professor, Anthropology Continue reading

Posted in academic freedom, freedom of expression, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 16 Comments