A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words? Or, Analysis Anyone?

Here’s one brief statement, by way of summary analysis, from Maclean’s magazine, in an article published last year:

“Administration costs at the University of Alberta have doubled since 2000-01 and have quadrupled since 1994-95.

With university budgets as stretched as they are, money spent on administration is money not spent in the classroom. In 1987-88 the top 25 universities spent 65 per cent of general operating funds on instruction and non-sponsored research; now only 58 per cent is spent on teaching, meaning some $30 million has been deflected from the classroom.”

(For the full article by Erin Millar, go to http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2010/04/01/the-high-cost-of-status/.)

It is time for us to ask, urgently, how it is that we can be spending so much on the Administration of the University? And how is that the members of our Administration cannot, in this time of crisis for the Faculty of Arts, find in the 42% of the University budget going to Administration and “governance” (about $316 million total) the $1.5 million necessary to save support staff positions in the Faculty of Arts? Can we not also expect our Administration to find in the “pie” for next year another $1.5 million from the projected expenditures for Administration and “governance” to save faculty positions in Arts, and keep any of our programs or departments from suffering attrition or being closed? Surely at this time of budgetary crisis, it is expenditures on “Administration” that are the luxury, and not expenditures on those who are doing the core work of the University by teaching our students, or supporting students and faculty in those activities in the daily running of departments.

The University of Alberta’s Operating Budget for 2010-2011 can be found at:


A similar document for 2011-2012 will presumably be available sometime in the late Spring.

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3 Responses to A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words? Or, Analysis Anyone?

  1. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    Not to be glib, but in some ways this analyzes itself. 42% (and rising) with so little accountability.

    Faculty are evaluated from three directions: “below” (student evaluations) (multiple times per year for most faculty); “laterally” (peer review on article, book, and grant submissions) (multiple times per year, for active researchers); and “from above” (FEC, mediated by department chairs) (annually). Criteria for success are clear: IDQs, grants and publications, the first two + service ranked on a numerical scale at FEC.

    Central admin wields a lot of power and gets a lot of money, but is subjected to very little scrutiny.

  2. Carolyn Sale says:

    Well, this is a public university, and everything is subject to public scrutiny. So what we would want to ask — and might want to encourage Albertans more generally to ask — is, in what ways and when has the growth of the Administration been subject to scrutiny? Who has asked questions about its growth? And what answers have been furnished in response? A concerned parent of a student paying ever-increasing tuition fees might very well want to ask, For every $10 my son or daughter pays in tuition, $4 goes to the Administration of the University — and it didn’t use to be this way. The $4 that goes to Administration may be going to all kinds of things vital to the University. But could you explain to me what those are? So that as my son or daughter takes on student debt to a degree that a student at the University of Alberta twenty years ago would not have had to do both I and my child will understand what we are paying for? We would then all be in a better situation to participate in the conversation about how and to what extent funds currently going to the Administration might or should be directed back towards the direct running of Faculties.

    Let us hope we do not have an “Angry lobster” scenario here, in which the heat has been slowly rising so that the lobster does not know it is being boiled to death — or, in this case, how to answer the question! At the very least, on one occasion or another, the Board of Governors as the entity appointed to govern the University under the Post-Secondary Learning Act, must have approved structural changes that have allowed for the whopping growth in Administration that the Maclean’s article so neatly summarizes. Could we draw upon the memory of our community here? Can anyone recall if there were key moments over the last 18 years in which structural changes were authorized to allow for this growth? Where would we find a record of these? Or where would we find a record of the moments in which, when authorizing budgets, the Board of Governors authorized increases in the percentage of the budget to go to Administration?

    The minutes for the Finance and Property Committee available publicly on the Board of Governors’ website go back to only 2007, so even if we wanted to attempt to start addressing the question by tracking through them we could get only some of the data. The minutes for the Board’s public sessions are, however, available back to 1999. Does anyone have sufficient memory of developments in the University’s growth over the last 18 years to point us back towards specific years’ minutes that we should be reviewing with care? Or should we simply be asking the current Board for an explanation? It is possible, after all, that the decisions were taken in the confidential meetings of the Board, for which there are no minutes.

    These questions are worth asking at the very least to get to one of your central concerns, Kathleen: if we are to make the case that the Faculty of Arts’ current situation is tied to a problem in the funding priorities of the University as a whole, we need more information about how, when, and why the University (or the Board of Governors on behalf of the University) has taken the decisions that have allowed for such growth. If (for example) the growth has been permitted to justify objective x or target-goal y, we would then be in a position to ask the Board to reconsider its overall priorities — to ask whether it can currently afford objective x or target-goal y — so that more money can be put back towards the direct running of Faculties. Or, to put the matter another way, we would be in a position to ask specific questions that might result in more money being put back towards the core activities of the University to alleviate the crisis that more than one Faculty is currently in.

  3. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    Many kinds of not-for-profits have internal rules for how much of their funding can go to admin vs. core activities, and there are also external entities that evaluate and rank not-for-profits based on how well they keep admin costs low and to what degree they devote most of the money they receive to their core activity (helping orphans, saving whales, whatever).

    Does anyone know if any such rules exist for the University of Alberta in particular or any North American universities in general? Because the trend at the U of A is not specific to it — the administrative capture of the university mission is a very general phenomenon.

    This might offer an opportunity for the U of A and the province of Alberta to set an admirable precedent. What if we began advocating a policy shift establishing that some percentage of the total university budget *had* to be dedicated to core activities (teaching and research)?

    As many people have noted here and at Whither the U of A, it’s quite disturbing the degree to which while paying unfunded homage to “teaching and research” as vital “core activities”, in fact the go-to solution in times of crisis seems to be to cut faculty numbers (and lament the “problem” created by faculty salaries). This relates to the proposed cuts to close-to-the-ground non-academic staff; their roles support very directly and obviously core teaching and research activities as many people have eloquently pointed out here.

    Much of what we hear about the budget (and we don’t have access to all the right numbers, as Carolyn points out) is confusing — the University has lots of money for buildings and new central admin positions, but can’t find 1.5 million dollars for running FacArts — but perhaps there are some straightforward solutions to consider. Just as one of the most basic ways to guarantee the effectiveness of an entity devoted to saving whales or providing potable water is to ensure they devote most of their funding to those activities, a basic way to guarantee a university mostly is about teaching and research is to build that mission into its fiscal structure.

    Does this happen now? Here or elsewhere? I genuinely don’t know — the available evidence suggests not, but surely some readers of this site know more about it.

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