Professor Laurie Adkin to the Hon. Alison Redford (10 January 2012)

                                                                        7308—105A Street

                                                                                  Edmonton, Alberta

                                                                                  T6E 4T8

                                                                                  January 10, 2012

 

Hon. Alison Redford, Premier

Government of Alberta

Office of the Premier

Room 307, Legislature Building

10800-97 Avenue

Edmonton, Alberta T5K 2B7

Dear Premier,

I am writing to you with regard to the ongoing budgetary crisis at the University of Alberta. I don’t know if you have been made aware of what is happening, and since I think you can help, here is my note in a bottle.

I teach in the Faculty of Arts, which has about 350 faculty members and 6,000 undergraduate students. My Faculty has had to make budget cuts for three years in a row; we are now in the midst of our fourth, and a further cut has been announced for this spring.[1] In the current round, the Faculty has to find $1.5 million dollars to cut somewhere. For most large institutions, this would be a petty amount—something to be rolled over into the next budget. Indeed, there are grants in the science and engineering faculties that are much larger than this. However, as we are not permitted to run a deficit, and since the university’s provincial grant has not kept up to increasing costs, we are told that we must find this $1.5 million somewhere, and then another 2 per cent of our budget (to eliminate) in April.

We have already been through academic and support staff reductions through non-replacement of retirees and non-renewal of short-term contracts.  In my department, 98 per cent of our budget goes to salaries, so there is simply nothing left to cut in terms of equipment or supplies. Instructors pay for their long-distance calls, faxes, mail, photocopying, computers, and office supplies—right down to paperclips and the light bulbs in our offices. Last year the U of A faculty agreed to take six “furlough” (no-pay) days, to help cover the university’s budgetary deficit.  My department gave up a half-time secretarial position—an excellent person who helped with applications for research grants. At present (and for some years now), professors have almost no secretarial support; our office staff are committed to administrative tasks. Class sizes have doubled in my department in the last ten years, and in some subfields we are struggling to offer our required core courses because of lack of teaching staff.

Notwithstanding these “pared to the bone” operating conditions, our Dean has informed us that she will be firing fifteen non-academic staff members in February.  Various functions will probably be centralized, with one person administering, for example, graduate programs, for more than one department. Essentially, this will mean a huge increase in workload for the remaining staff, and a reduced quality of service to our students.

I guess you can imagine, Premier Redford, that our non-academic staff are extremely anxious (and have been since the summer, when the review of their positions was initiated), and that we are all (students and faculty) very upset about this state of affairs. Most of the non-academic staff are women, many with young families, and they are the lowest-paid workforce on the university payroll. Fifteen persons add up to 15-20 per cent of the support staff in the Faculty of Arts. The loss of these women is going to make it even harder for everyone else to do their jobs—including teaching. We are finding it very hard to accept that a $1.5 million budget shortfall for 2010-2011 is going to cost our Faculty fifteen jobs.  It’s demoralizing and will be destructive of productivity. We are going to lose a lot of administrative and institutional knowledge and experience if these positions are eliminated.

One might ask, of course, what the Arts Faculty is doing to increase revenue. There are two staff members in the Dean’s office who are dedicated to procuring private donations to the Faculty, but ultimately—apart from the occasional philanthropist—it is much harder for the fine arts, humanities, and social sciences to attract “external” funding than it is for the Faculties of Engineering, Medicine and Dentistry, Science, Business, and Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences (ALES). The buildings that have gone up all over campus in the last ten years have not been for social sciences and humanities; we go on making do with our 1970s Tory Building and the Humanities Centre–despite a shortage of classrooms and office space.  Which corporation is going to put its name (and its money) on a new “public policy” or “environmental studies” or “humanities” building?  More importantly, would that be appropriate? The Arts, by their nature, do not produce patents or commodifiable technologies, but the research and teaching we do are just as essential to the public good.  We are, truly, a public service, committed to enhancing citizenship, advancing sound public policy, enriching culture, and so much more. The Arts will always be critical to the creation of an educated citizenry and a good society, and it is for this reason that these disciplines must be publicly funded—not beholden to any private interests.

When it comes to funding for research and graduate students, it is important to remember that – of the major federal granting agencies – the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) is the least well endowed. Arts faculty across the country compete for funding from the smallest pool of money, and the average size of grants is much smaller than the grant amounts in medicine, sciences, and engineering. In those faculties, a substantial portion of the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are funded from such grants, but this is not the case in the Arts. Also, as I’m sure you know, Premier, researchers in medicine, engineering, science, forestry, and agriculture receive considerable funding from private corporations (and governments invest heavily in targeted programs in these areas, as well – in addition to their capital funding for these schools). In Arts, we do not receive funding from corporations. (I suspect that very few of my colleagues would think this a good idea–even if we were suddenly to attract such interest from private companies.) This means that we must fund our graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from our share of the university’s revenue and from the scholarships and awards for which they are eligible, as well as from our SSHRC research grants.

For these reasons, our options on the “revenue side” are limited. We really do rely on the provincial government – in Arts more than in any other sector of the university – for the revenue that keeps our programmes going, allows us to offer a high quality undergraduate experience, to train graduate students, and carry out our research. Our support staff are essential to our ability to do this core work of the university. Can your government not find a bit more from its revenue to fund the universities to a level that allows us to keep up with growing expenses? And could we not be funded on at least a three-year cycle so that we could plan our budgets more rationally?

Does it make any sense for us to go through a six-month process to eliminate fifteen jobs, reorganize the entire administrative structure, increase everyone’s work-loads, and then still find ourselves looking for ways to cut the same amount again in a few months? (After this will come the elimination of programmes, as a means to lay off academic staff.)  And, Premier Redford, if you are thinking of increasing the provincial grant for the universities in the next provincial budget, would you please let our President and Provost and Dean of Arts (Lesley Cormack) know as soon as possible, so that we have a chance to avert the impending firing of fifteen of our non-academic staff in February?

I know this has been a long letter. I don’t know whether you will ever see it. But I feel the need to write it, to let you know what the situation is in the Arts Faculty at the University of Alberta, and to ask you to consider increasing the provincial grant for universities in the next budget (in such a way as to allow us to recover the ground we have lost in recent years to costs that have outpaced revenues).  I know, Premier Redford, that you appreciate the value of education, and that you understand that there is no area of policy that does not call for the kinds of analyses that the humanities and social sciences provide.

As the matter about which I write is urgent, I shall await your reply anxiously and hopefully.

Yours sincerely,

Laurie Adkin, Ph.D., Associate Professor

Department of Political Science

10—16, H. M. Tory Building

University of Alberta

Edmonton, Alberta, T6G 2H4

ladkin@ualberta.ca

tel. 780 492 0958


[1] According to our Dean: “In 2009-10 the Faculty of Arts took a 2% cut. In 2010-11 the Faculty took a 5% cut and lost a substantial portion of the Enrolment Planning Envelope (EPE) monies from the Province of Alberta. In 2011-12 the Faculty took an additional 2.1% cut. We anticipate a cut of approximately 2% for the 2012-13 year as well. All available soft money was cut in the 2010-11 cycle, leaving us with no flexibility this year. We must find $1.5million in savings from our hard budget this academic year – i.e., by 31 March 2012. (88% of the Faculty’s budget is allocated to continuing salaries” (http://www.uofaweb.ualberta.ca/artsintranet/announcements.cfm?id=103544#october).

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