This week’s meeting of the University of Alberta’s General Faculties Council was a strange affair. When faculty members arrived there were TV reporters in the room, cameras at the ready, wiring taped to the floor. Presumably they were there — though generally prohibited from attending campus Town Halls — because the University community had been promised that the information in the October 15th letters to the Deans specifying the percentage cuts to each Faculty would be released earlier in the day. Finally, everyone thought, we were going to know just how bad the cuts were, and how they had been distributed across units.
No such luck. Jeremy Richards, Professor Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, had already written in to the Acting Provost Martin Ferguson Pell, who was chairing the meeting in the absence of the President, asking whether the letters would be released. Every member of GFC had a meeting package before them with the Acting Provost’s response, stating that they would be furnished with “a table,” “just prior to the meeting,” “that would outline the budgets for the Vice-Presidential portfolios and for each Faculty.” But if that’s why the TV reporters had been invited they must have been sorely disappointed, for no such information was forthcoming. Those present were informed instead the information was not yet ready because the Administration was working on “getting them right.” One can only assume that this was code for controversy behind-the-scenes. But no one asked the obvious, pressing question: What would “getting them right” entail? What was possibly “wrong” abut the letters? What kind of details, exactly, needed to be ironed out? What, in short, was going on?
Only elected members of the General Faculties Council are permitted to ask questions. Here are the five other questions I wish someone who represents us on GFC had asked.
1. Why is it, Mr. Chair, that in your remarks about the budget today you have not said anything to object even in the mildest way to the cuts that have been delivered to the University by the Government of Alberta? (Members had been informed that if any of them “had any strong messages for the Ministry” about Campus Alberta they were to “let us know,” but no views were either invited or offered on the reason why the University of Alberta finds itself in this moment of crisis.)
2. How did the Administration reach the decision that Faculties are to be cut on average by 7% and central administrative and support units by 8%? What is the rationale for this differential? And is the differential of 1% appropriate? Is that commensurate with the ways in which the administrative side of the University has grown over the last decade or so? Over the last few weeks President Samarasekera has noted in different settings that she asked the central administrative units to provide her with scenarios for the possibility of their being cut 8%, 10% and possibly even 12%. How, then, was the figure of 8% arrived at?
3. When the VP Administration and Finance was asked various questions about her terminology in regard to “support units” — which units are support units? could the VP give GFC examples? — the newest VP portfolio, that of Advancement, went unmentioned. Presuming that this Administration’s top priority is to ensure that at this time of crisis as much money as possible from the operating budget goes to teaching, could the Acting Provost speak specifically to how Advancement is currently being funded? Advancement’s chief goal is to drum up sources of funding other than the Government. Advancement is, one might say, the Administration’s way out of the bad dream of a Government that is so loath to support postsecondary education in Alberta as a public good. But with what cost does Advancement come to the University? How many dollars of the operating budget are directed to it? And is directing dollars to Advancement rather than teaching at this moment of crisis truly the way forward for the University? Or, to put the matter another way, if we are tens of millions of dollars short of meeting our budgetary requirements because of the Government’s decision in regard to the funding of postsecondary education as reflected in its budget of 7 March 2013, shouldn’t Government pay for our Advancement office? Directly? Leaving the funds that are currently going to Advancement in the operating budget so that they may fund Faculties?
4. To what extent has the Administration communicated to Government the effects of the decisions it is being forced to take at this moment? The Acting Provost had no word to this effect. He spoke instead, repeatedly, of the wonderful Opportunities for Revenue Generation that lie before each Faculty. He had attended a meeting in Washington the week before, he said, at which he’d heard talk about glorious Opportunities for helping us become “an excellent university through transformative change.” (There was no acknowledgment here that many American universities are private, and that “transformative change” that turns us into something other than a world-class public university may not be what is in the best interests of either the University or the province more generally.)
5. Finally, the elephant in the room: what requests has Administration made of the Board of Governors in regard to innovations in the salaries of central administrators?