Acting Like the House is on Fire (Guest Post by Laurie Adkin)

In his speech to the university community May 3, 2022, President Bill Flanagan observed that “the global challenge of climate change is increasingly urgent.” It is good that the climate crisis has made it into his address to the university (although apparently the president is not yet permitted to use the term “crisis” in lieu of “challenge” in regard to climate change). The suggestion that the UAlberta is a “worldwide leader” in “addressing” the climate “challenge” is, however, dubious.

President Flanagan also stated that “food and water security is a critical issue,” and again, I am delighted that this is on his radar. Sadly, the UAlberta has not prioritized these areas of teaching and research in the past any more than it has action on the climate crisis. For this to change, the university’s administrators would have to “address” the reality that progress on food and water security, global warming, and other socio-ecological crises is dependent on the rapid phasing-out of fossil fuel extraction—something that the University of Alberta remains heavily invested in, in multiple ways.

So I ask: What does President Flanagan understand by “addressing” climate change, and what comparators does he use for “worldwide leadership”?  Yes, I know about the SDG and sustainability rankings, and I know that the Sustainability Office was recruited to help gather data to push the university up in the rankings. I also know that a lot of greenwashing goes on in the institutional and corporate worlds. Everything depends on the criteria and indicators. An institution’s energy footprint and reduction of wastes are typically key measurements used in sustainability ranking systems. Such actions reduce the institution’s costs and make budgetary sense—independent of the climate crisis. Stronger tests of commitment to rein in global warming—ones that might entail conflict with government or private sector funders—lie elsewhere.

Here are some questions for President Flanagan, the VPs, and Deans about other indicators of their leadership in responding to the climate crisis.

In 2020-21, the UAlberta’s leadership declined to sign on to the Global Letter to the UN Secretary General from higher education institutions, declaring the existence of a climate emergency and committing the signatory institutions to a three-point action plan. This commitment included investment in education and research addressing the climate crisis. Twenty-one other PSEIs in Canada signed this letter, including the universities of Toronto, Montréal, UBC, Western, and Memorial. But not the UAlberta. Not even after the Climate Action Coalition at the UAlberta obtained more than 3,500 signatures (690 from the UAlberta) in 2021 on a petition to get the laggards to sign. Why is that, Mr. Flanagan?

Nor has the leadership of the UAlberta signed on to the successor to the Global Letter, the “Race to Zero” campaign. Why is that, Mr. Flanagan?

Could the president explain how the university plans to implement its commitment to “dismantle racism” without acknowledging the profoundly racist nature of extractive capitalism and “sacrifice zones” like the oil sands? Or the environmental racism imbedded in global warming? Will the VP Research tell the university community how much money the university receives from the fossil fuel industry for research performed by university-employed academics?

Will the VP Research provide a breakdown of the expenditure of the $75 million Future Energy Systems CFREF by project so that the university’s involvement in different areas of energy and climate research can be analyzed?  

Will the Provost report to the university community on the scholarship, internship, summer school, and other student-oriented programs that are funded by corporations or industry associations in the fossil fuels sector? And on the amounts of these programs and the quid pro quos (e.g., training of employees for the fossil fuel corporations)? On how these numbers compare to the programs offered to students to take alternative career paths?

Will the Provost explain why he and his Signature Areas Selection Panel twice rejected proposals to create interdisciplinary signature areas in critical ecological studies (in 2017 and 2018)? These were opportunities to demonstrate the university’s commitment to “addressing” climate change. In 2022, the UAlberta still has no major research initiative (comparable to Energy Systems) focused on post-carbon transition strategies.

Will the Provost report on how the university plans to support interdisciplinary programs related to the climate crisis and related ecological crises, such as the interdisciplinary BA in Environmental Studies that has never received support for faculty positions?

Will the Dean of every faculty provide an annual report on the faculty’s investments in, and contributions to education, research, community collaborations, and physical footprint related to the climate emergency? Will the Deans explain how they incentivize faculty and support students to engage in this work? What, for example, is the Faculty of ALES doing to support regenerative agricultural practices that eliminate reliance on fossil fuel inputs and protect biodiversity? To shift food consumption away from animals “processed” in intensive livestock operations that are a significant source of methane emissions and other pollutants? How would a decision to prioritize research on low carbon, plant-based diets affect ALES’ relationships with industry funders?

Will the Board of Governors of the University of Alberta commit to divesting the institution’s endowment funds and pension plans from fossil fuel sector corporations and from financial institutions that finance these corporations? Will the board provide short- and medium-term schedules for completing this divestment?

The IPCC has reported that, in 2018, 89 per cent of global CO2 emissions came from fossil fuels and industry. Emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels must be cut by half by 2030 if we are to have any chance at all of not exceeding a 1.5C increase in global average temperature. Recent reports say that rich countries like Canada must phase out fossil fuel production completely by 2034. We are already seeing the feedback loops kicking in, accelerating global heating. Is this a climate emergency, or isn’t it, Mr. Flanagan? Mr. Dew? Mr. Gilchrist? Ms. Robinson Fayek? Deans? Ms. Chisholm? What, do you believe, is our responsibility as a major research university to respond to this emergency?

In 2014, the Chair of the UAlberta’s Board of Governors, Doug Goss, proudly declared that “the oilsands industry would not exist without this university.” That was 22 years after the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The University of Alberta has a long road to tread to undo this legacy and replace it with one that takes the climate crisis and social justice seriously.

Laurie Adkin, Professor Emerita, Political Science, author of Knowledge for an Ecologically Sustainable Future? Innovation Policy and Alberta Universities (2020) and “Petro-Universities” (2021)



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“Evolving” to what? The Plans for the Humanities Centre and the Future of the University of Alberta

Last Friday morning (Good Friday), CBC Edmonton published a story confirming that the University of Alberta “is looking” to lease out the Humanities Centre or possibly demolish it. The schedule for this decision is uncertain. But the University claims that it is likely to choose one or the other of these courses of action, which will “remove” the building from the University’s “inventory,” as part of an “asset management strategy” that “aligns with” the “evolving research, teaching and learning needs of our community.” 

That is quite a statement. The implication is that the University is “evolving” away from its commitment to research, teaching, and learning in the Humanities.

The Humanities Centre, built between 1971 and 1973, houses 31 classrooms (including seminar rooms), along with the Arts Undergraduate Student Services office, the Parkland Institute, and the Department of English and Film Studies.

For English and Film Studies, the University’s intention to “evolve” away from its commitment to the Humanities has been clear for almost a decade. After Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservative government cut Alberta postsecondary education by $147M in its spring 2013 budget, eight faculty members in EFS chose to take the voluntary severance buy-out offered by Indira Samarasekera’s administration. With these departures, the department lost what are known as “lines” — budgetary commitments to a professorial salary for a faculty member’s career. These “lines” have never been recovered, and each year since the department has lost at least one more faculty member. The department is now a shadow of its former self. This last year, the senior administration refused to permit the department to hire a medievalist. This means we have no one who does research and teaches in a period that crosses several centuries of English literature and world culture.

Every department in Arts can tell a similar story. EFS’s story is, however, distinctive, for in 2014, with the effects of the Redford cuts still waiting to be felt, the department ranked #22 in the world in the QS rankings. With the senior administration’s refusal to reinvest in the department, the department is now lumped in the 100–150 range in the latest QS rankings. The University as a whole has now slipped out of the top 100 worldwide, and is no longer ranked in the top 5 universities in Canada.*

Our “evolution” away from being a top 100 institution worldwide has been greatly accelerated by the program of vicious cuts to which the Kenney government has been subjecting the University. Totaling hundreds of millions of dollars across multiple years, these cuts have not only put the Redford government’s cuts in the shade, they have precipitated an existential crisis for the university. The Flanagan administration denies this. In Orwellian language President Flanagan has persistently characterized the cuts as an “opportunity.” The only people who believe this (or pretend to) are the members of the senior administration and the board of governors.

The Flanagan cuts-as-opportunity “vision” involves imposing exceptional tuition increases on students. It also depends on the idea that the University will generate increased revenues by admitting 10,000 students more a year by 2025.

The question everyone should be asking, is, how, exactly, does the scheme of “removing” the Humanities Centre from the University’s “inventory” fit into this “vision”?

How can it possibly make sense to dump overboard the very kind of infrastructure that the University needs to offer instruction to its current student body of over 30,000 undergraduates plus an additional 10,000 students a year by 2025?

The willingness to treat as disposable the distinctive classrooms in the Humanities Centre — exactly the kind of classroom required for instruction in the Humanities — is, I suggest, its own answer. Screen Shot 2022-04-19 at 12.25.03 PM

The senior administration is treating a certain kind of instruction as disposable, and possibly certain disciplines and/or departments, as the Facebook post to the right (by a colleague elsewhere in Arts) suggests.

If the University is really going to lease out or demolish the Humanities Centre sometime in the near future, does the board intend to construct a new building for the teaching of humanities courses by 2025?

Does the board intend to hire faculty members to correct for the faculty attrition that is devastating not just English and Film Studies but other departments? 

Does the board understand the importance of the humanities to a world-class research university?

The University is “evolving” to what, exactly, in terms of its curriculum and its learning environment?

The humanities are not a luxury. They are an essential driver of any research university’s achievement of the academic mission. A world-class research university is not simply a cluster of professional schools, and the University of Alberta must not simply be a place for the development of “tech talent.” This generation of Albertans deserves much, much better than the current government and board of governors are doling out.

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* Times Higher Education rankings, 2022:

THE top 5 in Canada 2022

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Just How Broken is Collegial Governance at the University of Alberta? Part III: Step One in Restoring GFC’s Authority

This is part three in a series. Part I is here, and Part II is here.

The general MO of the current senior administration is to marginalize GFC by bringing as little as they can to GFC for its approval, and to discourage any sense amongst GFC members that they have the authority to move proposals of their own. There is not likely to be any improvement in the state of academic governance at the University of Alberta until the elected representatives on GFC understand they have a statutory and a university policy right to true “inclusion” and “participation” in collegial decision-making.

I always remain hopeful that positive change to any institution is possible. That’s why I am bringing forward a proposal for a really important change at GFC’s meeting on Monday. There will be no genuine collegial governance at the University of Alberta until members of GFC can bring forward proposals for decision-making by GFC. But there is no question that even where members have the wherewithal to bring forward proposals, where these proposals don’t have the senior administration’s approval the deck is stacked against any such proposal succeeding.

Partly this is a problem of structure. It appears that the General Faculties Council at the University of Alberta may have the lowest percentage of faculty members relative to other members amongst academic senates in Canada’s U15.

Screen Shot 2021-11-28 at 1.16.58 PMBut it is just as much a problem of culture. The Flanagan administration has been largely successful at transforming GFC into a “Town Hall.” As the groundbreaking Duff-Berdahl report on university governance in Canada noted in 1966, the senior academic governance body of a university must not be treated as if it is “a mass meeting” or a “public relations committee.” Duff-Berdahl asserted that as the university is a “community founded on reason,” the President must be able to persuade the Senate (or in our case, the General Faculties Council) of “the rightness of their proposals” according to whatever time-table is necessary for that. But as we saw last Fall, the General Faculties Council had to fight for the necessary meeting time to consider the Provost’s restructuring proposals, and the President succeeded in turning even “Town Halls” into forums where members of the University community could not get to any mic, even a virtual mic, to ask questions or comments on the administration’s proposals. For important public criticism of last Fall’s “consultations,” see David Kahane and Lynette Shultz’s Op-Ed for the Edmonton Journal.

The technique of turning GFC meetings into town halls starts with the administration making sure that GFC’s agendas are so jam-packed with items that there can be no meaningful discussion of anything within the limits of the scheduled meeting-time (“normally,” two hours). As it stands, the best members of GFC can hope for is that a few people may get to speak to an issue before the President, as Chair of GFC, begins to say things like “keep your remarks brief” or “we have just 5 minutes, and still two items left on the agenda”—all of this said with apparent unawareness that it is the responsibility of a good chair to manage meetings so the participants can fulfill their obligations to discuss and debate matters properly before taking a decision. Good chairing involves setting agendas that allow for an appropriate amount of time for discussion of all items, and facilitating discussion and debate, not short-circuiting it. And it is the members of GFC, not the chair, who should decide when sufficient time has been allotted to a discussion.

With Zoom meetings, matters have been made worse by the GFC Secretary using the Zoom mute function unilaterally to silence GFC members. The GFC Secretary also regularly argues that GFC members do not have the right to move amendments to agenda items. All of this is a flagrant refusal of the well-established rules for parliamentary procedure under which GFC is supposed to operate. I hope no other GFC or academic senate in Canada is being subjected to this kind of thing. As a 2004 independent governance report for the Canadian Association of University Teachers noted, the secretary should do their work independently of the senior administration:

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Techniques for silencing members of GFC include the President, as chair, permitting certain members of GFC to breach the rules for parliamentary procedure by impugning the intentions of speakers who are criticizing proposals supported by the senior administration or seeking to move ones that the senior administration does not support. In addition to being a serious procedural abuse as well as an abuse of academic freedom principles, this technique turns GFC into a place of coercive decision-making. If even a tenured faculty member can be silenced through the President’s acceptance of breaches of parliamentary procedure, how confident can any student member of GFC be in their right to speak up against governance proposals or initiate proposals of their own that they believe to be in the institution’s best interests?

At the University of Alberta, this culture of coercion is not limited to the General Faculties Council. As the Gateway reported last month, at the October 15th meeting of the Board of Governors, Board Chair Kate Chisholm accused student representative David Konrad of speaking in “inflammatory and accusatory” ways, and purportedly suggesting that the Provost was “lying,” when Mr. Konrad asked a question about the extraordinary tuition increases that are being inflicted upon students in the wake of the Kenney government’s savage cuts to the University’s budget—a degree of cutting, playing out across three years, that no leading research university in the world has ever experienced.

The extraordinary tuition increases are just one of the means by which the senior administration and Board are making students pay the price for their choice to kowtow to the government and not defend the University against these savage cuts. And now students aren’t to be permitted to question the measures being imposed upon them?

This is one of the reasons that the General Faculties Council needs to give very serious consideration to the composition of both GFC and all of its standing committees. It is past time for serious reform to the structure and practices of the General Faculties Council and its standing committees.

The final report of the ad hoc governance committee of 2017 (struck in relation to a governance review that began with my letter to former president, David Turpin, and the GFC Executive), not only noted that there needed to be “continuous improvement in administrative, governance, planning, and stewardship systems, procedures, and policies that enable students, faculty, staff, and the institution as a whole to achieve shared strategic goals” (my emphasis), it also noted that the issue of GFC’s composition still needed to be addressed. How is it, for example, that the VP Facilities and Operations has not just voice but vote on GFC when GFC has very serious underrepresentation of faculty? Questions like this need to be raised and discussed in relation to a review of the composition—a review that is now years overdue. Unfortunately, this is typical. The senior administration rushes ahead with matters on which they wish action, and puts us much drag as possible on others, especially those others that might lead to a democratization of the structure and practices of GFC. And then if GFC still manages to assert its authority as it did last Fall by rejecting the proposition that the University create new expensive senior administrators in the form of “College Deans,” the President appears before the Board of Governors to disavow the recommendation.

But the stacking of matters against GFC’s proper exercise of its statutory authority involves a much simpler management technique: that of drafting agendas for the meetings of GFC and (in contradiction of Robert’s Rules) requiring proposals for amending the agenda at GFC to have a 2/3rds vote in favour or a “super majority.”

As I noted in Part I of this series, at Monday’s meeting of GFC, GFC is being given a mere half an hour to hear from the Provost about the “Final Report of the Academic Leaders Task Group” and discuss it. This is outrageous given that report supposedly sums up his task group’s thinking on what is in effect the second round of restructuring at the University. In this round of restructuring, the Provost wants academic units to cut 1 in 4 of the positions that support the student experience and the work of their Faculties in roles such as associate chair, undergraduate programs, and associate chair, graduate studies. This report merits very serious, in-depth discussion. But collegial governance is so weak at the University of Alberta that instead of exercising their collective judgment to put forward a draft three-hour agenda—members of the GFC Executive ask the GFC Secretary if they are “allowed” to do things and then let themselves be discouraged from doing so—they transformed other “discussion” items into “information” items.

On other occasions, however, GFC Executive lets itself be too quickly persuaded to do things not consistent with good governance principles. That’s why I am bringing forward a proposal at tomorrow’s meeting of GFC (29 November 2021), that asks GFC to correct an error that GFC Executive made at its meeting in September when it created, at the request of the President, a subcommittee of Executive for “Governance and Procedural Oversight.” GFC Executive created this committee in haste and without any consultation with GFC, despite the fact that GFC’s document “Principles for General Faculties Council Delegated Authority” expressly states the following:

ArtsSquared Principles of Delegated Authority 3

No healthy democratic system would put matters of governance and procedural oversight of a major institutional body at two removes from that body. The governance of GFC belongs in the hands of GFC itself. So I am asking GFC to create a Standing Committee of Governance and Procedural Oversight for which it establishes the composition and the “Terms of Reference,” with this committee reporting directly to it. (See the proposal document at page 22 here.) This will have the effect of GFC taking back control of GFC governance mistakenly delegated to GFC Executive in 2017.

Tomorrow’s meeting may show us what techniques the senior administration feels are necessary to defeat that proposal. But I hope everyone, including the President and Provost, will keep in mind during tomorrow’s meeting what GFC heard from Florence Glanfield, Professor, Secondary Education, Vice-Provost (Indigenous Programming and Research), at GFC’s October meeting.

Professor Glanfield was speaking about the various strategic initiatives that are being developed to indigenize the University of Alberta. She noted that in an institution attempting to decolonize, every institutional practice and every institutional policy should be questioned and opened up to change in order to shape an institution that is truly open and inclusive. She also called upon members of GFC to remember that as the university’s representatives on its statutory senior academic governance body they are the leaders who can play a vital role in bringing about positive change.

At tomorrow’s meeting, GFC members will have the opportunity to take two steps forward: by voting for the proposal that GFC create a standing committee on governance and procedural oversight rather than allowing these matters to be in the hands of a subcommittee of Executive; and by insisting on genuine, sustained discussion of the Provost’s report, with academic staff exercising their academic freedom rights in analyzing and critiquing that report’s contents and supporting students in robustly expressing their views. In the interests of both good governance and the decolonizing of the University of Alberta all of this must proceed without anything that resembles the slightest bit of coercion.

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Just How Broken is Collegial Governance at the University of Alberta? Part II: The University Secretary and “GCUS”

On 2 July 2020, Bill Flanagan’s first day, proper, on the job as the University’s new President, members of the University community received an email entitled “Announcement Regarding University Secretary.” This email informed us that “[t]o streamline functions and achieve cost-savings, the role of University Secretary and General Counsel will be merged into one.” The President’s email also declared that “With this change, the current role of University Secretary has been eliminated, and with regret, I announce that Marion Haggarty-France is no longer with the U of A.”

The proposition that the role of University Secretary was one that could simply be eliminated or merged with another (contradictory claims, no?) was the first public evidence that the Flanagan administration’s approach to the Kenney government’s savage cuts to the University of Alberta’s budget would not just be utterly ruthless, but also not rational. How does one eliminate the unique and uniquely important role of University Secretary? How does one “streamline” functions that are a full-time job in their own right? And what does it mean to achieve the so-called “streamlining” by “merging” the role of “University Secretary” with that of “General Counsel”? Surely these are roles that ought to be kept strictly separate.

The role of the University of Alberta General Counsel is set out here. The role of University Secretary, or the university’s senior governance officer, is that of safeguarding university governance processes so that the university community can have confidence that all governance decisions are being taken according to a scrupulously fair process, in accordance with all existing rules and policies.

The decision to “merge” the two roles became all the more ironic as Fall 2020 unfolded, and the university community heard repeatedly that the University had to create three new senior administrative roles in the form of “Executive” or “College” Deans because no Faculty Dean could be expected to manage the needs of a College “off the side of their desk.”

The university community rejected this argument, but as we saw that proved irrelevant: when the General Faculties Council did not make the recommendation that the President wanted in this regard, he simply went to the Board of Governors and disavowed that recommendation. I suggest that this could not have happened if the role of University Secretary had been preserved with its previous occupant fulfilling her responsibilities.

Now something entirely predictable has happened, but with a twist. At the October meeting of the General Faculties Council Executive the President announced that the workload of the combined roles of “General Counsel” and “University Secretary” was too great, and the person filling these roles (GCUS?!) would now have a “volunteer” Governance Advisor to assist him. This “volunteer” would be the previous Chancellor, Doug Stollery.

Right: because the role of University Secretary is so unimportant the vacuum can now be addressed with the assistance of a “volunteer.”

Squeeze out the woman who safeguarded governance processes at the University. Replace her with a man. Then bring in another man to help that man do the work that should always have remained with the woman who was laid off.

Three cheers for the stalwart upholding of EDI principles!

There is an additional difficulty.

GCUS has been given authority that I do not believe the University Secretary was ever previously given. If I’m wrong on this, I’m happy to be corrected. But even if the kind of authority in question is properly that of the University Secretary I suggest it does not properly reside with anyone occupying the merged status of GCUS.

We saw one ramification of this problem after the General Faculties Council passed a set of recommendations in the course of a “Committee of the Whole” discussion at its special meeting of 8 February 2021. Those recommendations were intended to bring about significant reflection, deliberation, and decision-making in relation to what had gone wrong with academic governance at the University of Alberta in the Fall of 2020, especially when the President claimed a conflict of interest to recuse himself from speaking at the Board to the GFC recommendation that would have prevented the creation of “College Deans.”

The full set of recommendations is here. The general point of the recommendations was to ensure that there could never again by the kind of railroading of the General Faculties Council witnessed in the Fall of 2020, and that academic governance would proceed in such a way that every future President of the University would always represent and defend GFC’s recommendations to the Board.

The most important of the “Committee of the Whole” recommendations to improve the governance situation was #4:

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This work has not yet been done.

Not hard to guess why not.

Instead, the person currently in the role of GCUS was swiftly made “co-chair” of an ad hoc governance committee charged with conducting the overdue triennial review of three of GFC’s “Guiding Documents,” including the “Meeting Procedural Rules.” As I noted in Part I, the rules had very seriously stood in the way of democratic governance at GFC across Fall 2020.

A faculty member not on GFC was made the other “co-chair.” Members of this committee were then hand-picked. This committee then decided that the undemocratic rules that had caused so many difficulties in the Fall of 2020 were in fact rules that “have been serving us well” and that it would be proposing very few amendments to them. No new rule was proposed, for starters, to permit members of GFC to call a special meeting by an established procedure. That’s a standard democratic measure for a body such as GFC.

The lack of proposed amendments to the Rules involves a whole host of issues—more on them later. For now, let us remember that academic governance, properly conceived, is collegial governance: shared governance, that is, of the University by the faculty. It is not governance of the University by one or more lawyers.

It is hard to imagine a situation where a staff member is every properly the chair or co-chair of an academic governance committee or assigned decision-making responsibility for any academic governance matter. Staff are an important resource for that decision-making, but it is not right for them to be at the helm. And it was wrong, deeply wrong, for the most important of those governance staff roles, that of University Secretary, simply to be eliminated. The University of Alberta needs an impartial guardian of all of its rules for university governance.

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Just How Broken is Collegial Governance at the University of Alberta? Part I: Cutting of “Academic Leaders”

Last year, members of the University of Alberta’s community were repeatedly stunned by the attempted railroading of the University community and the University’s senior academic governance body, the General Faculties Council (GFC), that occurred as the new president, Bill Flanagan, pursued the first stage of his restructuring of the University in the face of the Kenney government’s savage cuts to the University’s budget—cuts Flanagan has consistently characterized as an “opportunity.” Across the Fall of 2020, there was much consternation at GFC about the undemocratic, and in some cases, anti-democratic, nature of the rules according to which the statutory body of GFC is currently governed. The problem of these rules was obvious as attempts were made to secure something that resembled sufficient time for GFC members to do their due diligence in regard to the restructuring proposals. The recklessly truncated process of deliberations at GFC concluded at GFC’s meeting of 7 December 2020, at which GFC, while it agreed to bundle some Faculties into Colleges, refused to create new senior administrators in the form of “Executive Deans” or “College Deans.” That refusal resulted in an unusual counter-proposition, passed by GFC, that reflected the will of the University community. (Full details here.)

Just four days later, members of GFC and the University community were stunned again when the president appeared before the Board of Governors claiming a conflict of interest in order to recuse himself from the Board’s meeting of 11 December 2020. Though he had not told GFC this, Flanagan told the Board that he could not support GFC’s recommend that the new “Colleges” be run by a “collegial Council of Deans.”

In Winter 2021, GFC attempted to respond to the various collegial governance difficulties of the Fall and the problem of the President’s choice before the Board, by passing a set of recommendations that were intended to help set academic governance at the University on a sounder path, one in which confidence in the president might be restored. There has been delayed and insufficient action on those recommendations. As a result, matters are just as bad as they were last year, if not worse. This blog post is the first in a series raising concerns about the continued undermining of collegial governance at the University of Alberta.

Part I: Provost’s “Final Report of Academic Leadership Task Group”

The draft agenda for GFC’s meeting next Monday (29 November 2021) was released earlier this evening. On that draft agenda GFC is being allotted a mere half-an-hour to discuss the almost 50-page report from the Provost setting out options for the next stage of restructuring, in which one-quarter of the positions characterized as that of “Academic Leaders” are intended to be cut. Over the last year and a half, the University has cut well over a thousand non-academic staff positions. In this case, it’s not jobs that are being cut. The proposition, instead, is to cut 25% of the positions through which faculty participate in the collegial governance of the university in ways that support academic excellence.

The report offers various sets of numbers (“data”!) according to which it attempts to justify the removal of positions through which faculty support the undergraduate and graduate programs of their departments along with faculty research. (The full report is here.)

The “Governance Executive Summary” does not even make clear how the propositions in the report might result in decisions that will lead to the “streamlining” of “academic leader” positions that it calls for. The crucial section is blank:

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At the outset the “Governance Executive Summary” claims that the report simply aims to “share information.”

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Hmmm. Picture quizzical emoticon here.

So information is simply being shared with the University’s senior academic governance body? Who exactly is going to be taking these decisions? And how?

But it gets worse! The “group” that developed the sort-of recommendations for decisions to be taken somewhere, by someone, who-knows-who? Take a look at its composition.

Screen Shot 2021-11-22 at 6.19.17 PMCollegial governance is governance of the University by the faculty. The report aims to achieve the so-called “redeployment” of “one of the university’s most critical resources,” “our professors,” by removing professors from some “academic leader” positions. If that is at all a viable proposition, or viable on any of the terms that the group has been discussing, there should have been at least six rank-and-file faculty members at the table to discuss the propositions and determine their viability.

How many were there?

Not one.

Perhaps the composition has been wrongly reported?

If it has not, it appears that the Provost convened a working group to discuss possible changes to the structure of the University which will have a direct impact on the role that faculty currently play in the running of the University without thinking it necessary to have rank-and-file faculty members participating in the conversation. And now it appears that the members of the University’s senior academic governance body—which does include faculty members, though in considerably lower numbers relative to administration than at other universities in Canada—is to be given a mere half-an-hour to discuss the group’s final report.

Does that sound right to you?

And if I’m reading the report correctly, the proposed cutting of “academic leader” positions is not to involve the cutting of the positions of any Dean or Vice Provost or similar. It is simply to involve, it seems, the cutting of the “academic leader” positions where the work tends most to focus in one way or another on supporting our students—for the very modest cost of course release rather than the serious expense of hefty senior administration salaries.


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Selling the Ring Houses, A Faustian Bargain (Guest Post by Laurie Adkin, Political Science)

The battle over the future of the historic early 20th century houses (the Ring Houses) located on the north campus of the University of Alberta is a microcosm of the larger struggle for the soul of the university. Using the pretext of the UCP-inflicted budget cuts, the university’s senior administrators have chosen to get rid of the remaining historic houses located on the northwest corner of the campus. (The other six were torn down to build a parkade, in another example of soulless and short-sighted conceptions of “progress”’.) While senior administrators claim to have no plans, at present, for the space that will be opened up by removal of the Ring Houses, it is likely that there is, in fact, a plan to lease this land to commercial developers—in keeping with the drive to raise revenue from the university’s properties. Some development of this kind may make sense, depending on how and where it takes place, and to what ends. But razing structures or “developing’ lands that have historic, community, educational, and ecological importance cannot be justified on revenue-raising grounds alone, and certainly not if the promised revenue is to come from projects that contribute more to developers’ pocketbooks than to our communities’ needs.

The beauty of the proposals put forward by the University of Alberta Ring Houses Coalition is that they are rooted in the recognition that history shapes identity and is attached to place, and in a deep appreciation of how this place could constitute a crossroads for interconnected communities. The Coalition plan for the site responds to our needs for intergenerational, multi-use living and working space. It incorporates a childcare centre (something faculty, staff, and students have demanded for decades but has never been included in the university’s enormous capital spending on new buildings), housing for seniors, boutique hotel accommodation for visiting professors, researchers, and conference attendees, public and student study space, work and performance spaces for artists, and a brew pub, among other ideas—all thoughtfully integrated with existing university buildings and services. There are, in addition, opportunities for modelling green design, such as roof gardens and high-energy efficiency buildings. Preparation for new building could begin with careful archaeological excavation of the site to uncover its former uses by Indigenous inhabitants, and the new knowledge generated in this way could be incorporated into the design of buildings and exterior spaces.

This is the kind of plan for the area, incorporating the Ring Houses, that generates real passion and excitement about how this space could be enjoyed by students, staff, faculty, and visitors, and could serve as a hub connecting us to surrounding communities. The coalition put considerable thought into how the options they propose could be funded, and how they could produce revenue for the university.

But it seems that university administrators were uninterested in these proposals, choosing instead to sell the Ring Houses for a dollar each to a developer who will dismantle them and move them to another location (ironically, with some of the same uses in mind). Presumably, these administrators have received advice that some other use of this land would generate more revenue for the university. A tower with office, residential, and commercial space? Who knows? Because they aren’t telling us. Evidently, faculty, staff, students, and surrounding communities don’t get a vote on what happens to our campus. We haven’t been given the option to choose the convivial, imaginative proposals of the Coalition over other options. As a result, the university will lose a wonderful opportunity to model the values and knowledge that we profess through our teaching and research, for example, about the importance of early childhood education, intergenerational living, public space, environmental sustainability, and respect for the history of the land on which we live and work. We will miss the opportunity to strengthen our positive attachments to the university as a space of conviviality and community. We will lose an opportunity to show Edmontonians and Indigenous peoples that the university is their space, too.

The decision about the Ring Houses is an example of the larger struggle for the soul of the university in another way, too. A university worth its name should engage in a meaningful way with its surrounding communities. A university that has been subjected to savage budget cuts by a hostile government should be working hard to build support from the public. That is not happening here. How did senior administrators respond to citizens who had worked hard, over a period of eight months, to develop the proposals that were presented to President Flanagan and VP External Relations, Elan MacDonald, in July 2021? With a pat on the head. There was no follow-up engagement. Instead, the coalition received an email from President Flanagan on October 1st informing them that the Ring Houses had been sold to a local developer. No explanation was offered as to why the administration had rejected the coalition’s proposal.

One of the Coalition’s co-chairs, David Ridley, who is the Executive Director of the Edmonton Heritage Council, says “the community approach on this (petitions, proposal, commentary, letters, call for moratorium and improved transparency and accountability in managing historic responsibility) [was] completely dismissed. At least, had no impact in the outcome, which simply proceeded as the University indicated earlier this year with the call for proposals for removal.” Another member of the Coalition says that the university did not respond “as would be expected of a public institution [that] valued relationships with its many communities. In this case, communities included students, alumni, and neighbours as well as professionals with pertinent heritage, architectural, policy, and research expertise.” The community “invested hundreds of hours of pro bono and volunteer time over eight months into efforts to assist and help the university.” More than 2,500 Edmontonians signed a petition asking the university to hold off on demolition of the houses and to consider ways to repurpose them. Most damningly, this coalition member concludes from the experience to date: “The voices of the community were simply not heard in a meaningful way, and much was dismissed as ‘passion’ rather than recognized as empirically-informed rational expertise, professional standards, and community expectation for baseline performance and ethics at a public institution.”

As a faculty member at the University of Alberta, I feel ashamed that our community was treated in this way by senior administrators. This is not how we build connections with the people of Alberta—with people who cared enough about our university to volunteer their precious time and expertise to help us find an attractive alternative to razing the campus’s heritage. And what did they receive in response? “Stonewalling” and “dismissal.”

What does this decision to sell and dismantle the Ring Houses say about what matters most to this university administration? What does its failure to engage seriously and respectfully with our community, or to give internal constituencies a voice in the decision say about its style of governance?

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Wear Black Friday (Guest post by Cole Rockarts, NASA)

This Friday, October 8, will mark an inauspicious day at the University of Alberta, as all remaining in-house custodial services will cease to be provided by university staff and will be outsourced to private contractor Bee-Clean. 

Back in July, thousands of campus community members signed a petition calling on the U of A to stop the outsourcing of building services staff. Like many of you, we have received no direct response from PEC regarding how this decision was made and why they failed to follow their own procedures for making decisions regarding outsourcing.

We remain incredibly frustrated that university leadership has chosen to address the university’s fiscal crisis by sacrificing some of its lowest-paid and most vulnerable workers and turning this important work over to contracted workers being paid far less for the same work. We are saddened by the loss of these critical workers from NASA and the entire university community, especially given that a number of these custodial workers have been with the university since the late 1980s or early 1990s.

We know that many of you have formed strong relationships with the workers who have kept our campus clean and safe for years, and we encourage you to offer your thanks to them over the course of their final week at the university. 

Finally, we ask that you wear black on Friday, October 8 to visibly mark this unfortunate day at the university, and send a message to President Flanagan at or on twitter at @BFlanaganUofA and share your feelings regarding the disrespectful decision by university leadership to not respond to the concerns regarding outsourcing raised by campus workers, alumni and community members. 

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It’s Time to Show Moral Leadership and Save Lives (Guest post by John Church, Political Science)

Last Tuesday I wrote to the Dean of Arts to express my concerns about the impending full reopening of the university. I indicated to the Dean that the proposed approach to reopening was not based on the best available scientific evidence and therefore posed a significant risk to the safety of everyone in the university community (students, staff and faculty) as well as the general public. I also indicated that my own research demonstrates that when these sorts of decisions are made at the political and organizational level, decisions that place the financial bottom line ahead of public safety, inevitably innocent individuals suffer either injury or death. I ended by requesting that the Deans issue a statement opposing the current plans for reopening and proposing a scientifically-based and safe way to re-open the university.

It has now been a week since I made this request and so far the response from the university appears to be status quo, although I realize that there are many grassroots activities that are currently underway. I know that like me many of you are deeply concerned and are doing whatever you can to encourage senior decision-makers to do the right thing. For me, there are two fundamental reasons that the university must develop a comprehensive plan for a safe reopening and one that is based on science.

1) The science of how the virus behaves and what we can do to contain its spread is clear: it involves social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands and getting vaccinated. Most of this is well established in public health as a way to deal with the spread of any virus. However, it is especially important when a virus can cause long term, chronic illness, and death. We have seen these tragic outcomes throughout the pandemic. We have also seen how effective following these public health measures can be in preventing injury and death.

The planned full reopening of all levels of the education system without these protective measures in place will expose two population groups, children and young adults, to great risk. Statistically, these two groups are the least likely to have been vaccinated. About 50% of university students are estimated to be vaccinated and young children are completely unvaccinated. We know that during the pandemic, public schools were forced to shut down repeatedly because of outbreaks.

We also know that the current delta variant of the virus is a thousand times more virulent than the previous version. Without the mandatory protections in place that have allowed us to manage the pandemic, we have all the ingredients for a superspreader event at the university. It is only a matter of time.

So, if we do nothing about this, we are basically throwing young children and young adults under the bus in the same way that we did with seniors. And why is this being done? It is being done because we collectively are saying that making money is more important than protecting lives.

2) Post-secondary institutions are the major generators and protectors of science. Given this, it is ironic that in the current context university leaders are choosing to ignore science. While they claim that they have no legal foundation for ignoring government policy, I would say that is something to be tested in the courts and if push comes to shove, it should be.

Having said this, a longer-term issue for all of us is how will science be viewed by the public if the purveyors of science (universities) are willing to ignore it and put the lives of the public at risk? In short, if we don’t believe in science why should anyone else? And, you may have noticed, there is a growing political movement to discredit science as the basis of sound decision making.

What has been lacking in the current moment is moral leadership, that is leadership that places the protection of the public above other political or financial considerations when the evidence clearly tells us that there is a significant collective threat. So far, this leadership has not come from the government and it has not come from university administration. Thus, it is up to us to show the moral leadership necessary in this moment to protect all members of the university community and the public. I urge all of you to show this moral leadership and do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of the students, staff and faculty at the university and by extension the safety of the public.


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The Clock is Ticking Down, Decisive Action Needed to Ensure Health and Safety of University of Alberta Community this Fall

Members of the academic staff at the University of Alberta have finally had a response from the Association of Academic Staff’s President in regard to the University’s preparations for the return to classes in four weeks’ time. In the face of the University’s failure to make plans that will ensure the health and well-being of the University community this Fall, the Association’s response is very disappointing.

As of August 16th, the Chief Medical Officer of Health will stop providing Albertans with basic public health protection measures for the evolving situation of COVID-19. The Association is failing to call for the single most important measure that expert analysis, some of it from our own faculty members, indicates as essential to the objective of protecting the health of faculty, students, staff, and all other members of the University of Alberta community as of September 7th: mandatory vaccination.

The Association is not even calling for mandatory vaccination of students in residence.

It is also failing to remind members of their statutory rights.

Under Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, employees of the University of Alberta have a statutory right to refuse unsafe work. This right is further enshrined in the collective agreement between the University and the Association under clause 13.03 which reads as follows:

Screen Shot 2021-08-09 at 11.30.16 AM

Instead of reminding members of this right, the AASUA President indicates that members who feel that the situation they face in the Fall is “unsafe” are to get in touch with a Labour Relations Officer about arranging a special accommodation for them.

Members don’t have to seek an “accommodation” to ensure a safe and healthy workplace. They have a statutory and collective agreement right to one that the employer is obligated to meet. And they have the right to refuse to work if they have a reasonable ground to believe the work would be unsafe for them or others. 

An academic staff association, like all unions, is supposed to act on the part of all its members as a collective force accomplishing what no individual can achieve on their own.

Instead, Association members have already been thrown back on their own resources, with Professor Jillian Buriak drafting over a week and a half ago a letter to the University sent to the President and others on 4 August 2021 with over a thousand signatures. The Association has joined the University in ignoring the first and most important of the requests in that letter:

Screen Shot 2021-08-09 at 11.34.45 AM

In the absence of action from the Association, some of our members have stood up to protect the interests not just of the academic staff but all members of the University community. The Association should now at least be standing behind these demands rather than undermining them with a much weaker position.

The Association should be calling for mandatory vaccinations.

The Association should also be reminding members of their collective agreement right. That right is a statutory right fought hard for a generation ago. The academic staff, like every other employee of the University, have the right to refuse unsafe work—period. While we all have this individual right to protect our health and safety, it is important that the Association also assert our collective right to a safe and healthy workplace, not only for us but for our students.

* * * * * * *

You may be able to read Professor Buriak’s letter here.


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Alberta 2030: A Yoke for the University (Guest post by Marc Schroeder, Mount Royal/University of Calgary)

What do you believe a public university should be for? To whom or to what are its most fundamental responsibilities? What conditions help it to carry out its functions and to uphold these responsibilities?

On April 29th Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government formally unveiled its plan to thoroughly transform the system of public post-secondary education that Albertans have, for over 110 years, been working together to build. Entitled Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs and identified by the government as one of itskey initiatives”, the plan is presented as a ten-year strategy for building a new PSE system out of the old: one in which the overarching, single-minded goal will be the realignment of institutional priorities according to the interests of employers and industry.

Within the AB 2030 plan, the interests of students and prospective students are cast as those of future competitors in the labour market. Upon graduation students are to have been turned into carriers of the skills deemed valuable by employers. Programs are to be the pipelines that produce such graduates. Research is to be that which produces intellectual property, and the production of property deemed valuable and amenable to commercialization by industry is to be prioritized. The general wellbeing of Albertans, we are tacitly expected to believe, is ultimately derived from the success of private enterprise operating within Alberta and competing within a global capitalist economy. A university’s responsibility is reframed as supporting private sector success, to be evidenced by the demonstration of a (greater) financial return on the investment from both (decreasingly) public and (increasingly) private funding. The government’s role is to affirm this overall direction and to impose the conditions that will transform PSE to that end—that is, to design and fit upon the university a domesticating yoke and to set the institution about its appointed labours in the service of capital.

It is not my intention to provide a detailed breakdown of the April 29th report here (even if I had the time and copious space). For now, I will note that it contains a number of troubling elements, including but not limited to the following:

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The Metric That Matters Most: Faculty Complement and the University of Alberta’s Department of English & Film Studies

Albertans are watching a debacle play out in regard to the K-6 curriculum for Alberta education, with the latest event in this saga involving the Alberta Teachers Association passing, last Friday, a vote of non-confidence in the Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange. The Kenney government’s proposed curriculum changes for elementary education in Alberta would make world-renowned educational programming into a laughing-stock. With 95% of school divisions declaring that they refuse to pilot the new curriculum, Alberta’s teachers may be able to hold the line against this. But it’s not clear that anything can prevent the debacle that is unfolding for Alberta postsecondary education in the face of the Kenney government’s hubris.

In regard to postsecondary education, the Kenney government would have Albertans believe two untruths: that the sector was somehow broken, and that it knows how to fix it. Its “fixes” include taking a hacksaw to the University of Alberta’s budget under the excuse that the University currently spends a little more per student than comparator universities across Canada. This makes no sense whatsoever, given that no university in Canada currently spends enough on its students. The government’s argument makes sense only as a part of a let’s-cheap-out, race-to-the-bottom mentality. Given the amount of money that the University of Alberta pumps into the Alberta economy the Kenney government’s savage budgets cuts are also downright irrational. What’s needed right now, at a moment in Alberta’s history in which Alberta must diversify its economy and do everything it can to help decarbonize the planet, is radical investment in Alberta’s postsecondary sector, and the province’s flagship university in particular. Good futures for Albertans depend upon us.

So let’s talk about the metric that really matters—one you won’t hear the Kenney government or even the University administration so much as mention: faculty complement. (They also don’t want us talking about the faculty-student ratio but that’s a topic for another time.)

The Kenney government’s cuts, greater than any ever experienced by any major research university on the planet, have put the University into a tailspin—not that you’ll hear the senior administration admit it. The last president, David Turpin, decided simply to end his second term early; current president Bill Flanagan would have Albertans believe that the cuts are an “opportunity.” Flanagan’s fantasy, under his UofA for Tomorrow plan, is that if students can be made to pay significantly higher tuition and he can get 10,000 more students a year through the door, the University will be just fine. That is nothing short of a ruse, for the University is currently busy bleeding the very people that it needs to keep the University afloat: its faculty.

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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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