Open Letter: Chairs in Science Call for “Transparency in Communications and Comprehensive Plan We All Buy Into”

Chairs in Science have released a second open letter about the crisis at the University of Alberta resulting from the Government of Alberta’s March 7th decision to cut Alberta’s postsecondary education system by $147 million dollars, or about 7%, a decision that saw the Government renege on an earlier commitment to deliver a 2% increase in funding to the system. I provide the full text of the letter to open it up to discussion, with a reminder that this virtual Square is open to all Albertans. My only remark at this time: however we may disagree about the letter’s positions or premises, it is wonderful to see several chairs of a Faculty acting in concert, “at the interface between the rarefied policy and vision statements of the central administration, and the teaching and research done by faculty,” in defense of the academic mission of the University of Alberta. With this letter the chairs argue for “transparency in communications and a comprehensive plan that we all buy into.” The chairs appear to be stepping into a role that would have been played in earlier incarnations of North American universities by deans.

20 August, 2013

OPEN LETTER TO THE ACTING PROVOST

Martin Ferguson-Pell
Acting Provost and Vice-President (Academic) 2-36 South Academic Building (SAB) University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB

Dr. Ferguson-Pell,

We write to you to address the critical budget problems that are facing the University of Alberta. As Department Chairs of the Faculty of Science, we are at the interface between the policy and vision of Central Administration and the day-to- day teaching, research and learning done by our faculty, staff and students. We often make decisions that significantly impact our students and stakeholders, ultimately the citizens of Alberta. From this perspective, we see that the University of Alberta faces an immediate problem of a large budget deficit, an ongoing problem of a structural deficit, and a longer-term problem of a mismatch between our institutional goals in Dare to Deliver and the Government of Alberta’s sustained commitment to support that vision. We must find ways to work together to find solutions to these problems.

The reality is that Departments in Science, and likely across campus, can no longer sustain large across the board cuts. We have reached a tipping point, after five years of about 18% in budget reduction, and another 5% this year, where a continuing sequence of 3-7% cuts is simply unworkable. At a meeting with Science Chairs on June 6th you responded to a question about how to make cuts in the future, when there is nothing left to cut, by saying “Use the principles of Dare to Deliver”. Let us make it clear, just as we did on June 6th: Within the Departments in the Faculty of Science, devolving further significant across the board cuts will devastate our graduate and undergraduate teaching programs, and dramatically reduce our ability to meet our research goals. We will simply be “Unable to Deliver” our academic plan. We are in a perilous position; Chairs may be unwilling to implement budget reduction measures that force us to compromise Dare to Deliver, or that run contrary to the mandates they were given.

Five years ago, when we faced a $60M shortfall, the Provost and President’s team presented specific plans for finding $20M from central expenditures, $20M from salary negotiations and $20M from across-the-board cuts. This was not a perfect solution, but it was clear and it allowed academic units to plan accordingly. Without a far more comprehensive plan than the community has seen so far, Central Administration can expect great reluctance on the part of staff to contribute to a plan such as this again. To have productive, critical discussions with the AASUA and

NASA we need to have transparency in communications and a comprehensive plan that we all buy into.

What we now need is to see a plan directed towards budget reduction strategies and longer term fiscal sustainability. Central Administration must engage with the academic community in finding alternate approaches that do not simply rely on the default method of the past five years of across the board cuts. You have stated that salary negotiations were the critically needed element to address our budget problems, and that those are no longer available. Recently we wrote to Dr. Kane, President of the AASUA, and encouraged AASUA to reconsider their decision not to revisit our compensation agreement with Central. In his reply Dr. Kane told us “the door is still open for discussion”. If this is true, please come back to the door, but with a better proposition such as an amendment to our negotiated agreement. Faculty members have expressed concern to us that Central is seeking to obtain the entire deficit from salary reductions. It should be clear from this concern why an overall plan has to be identified to all of the community before efforts to negotiate sacrifices have a chance of being successful. We need to know how much might come from vertical strategies, from cuts to each unit, or from inside Central. We need this transparency to build trust.

The solution to our short-term crisis could come from a variety of sources, including mobilization of one-time reserves, modest vertical and horizontal budget reductions, and a temporary compromise on our compensation that we can all agree to live with. Even this level of compromise and collaboration cannot solve our longer-term structural deficit, but it will buy us some time to work through intelligent solutions to our operating costs and revisions to our compensation model that groups such as the Renaissance Committee may be working on. As we move forward, it is also vital to give Chairs better tools to do our jobs. The decisions and actions that make the goals of Dare to Deliver possible are made at the Department level. We need stable funding and readily available resources to be able to respond to opportunities and adapt to challenges. We need better management tools than hoping for retirements or resignations and reducing staff and programs in response to horizontal cuts. What new tools will you provide us with in order to deliver on our mission? The University of Alberta can survive this crisis and fulfill our role in Campus Alberta, and in doing so we may better align our institutional goals with the Government of Alberta’s fiscal reality, but we need time and tools to make the right decisions.

Sincerely,

J. Bisanz (Psychology), D. Coltman (Biological Sciences), J. Harrison (Chemistry), H. J. Hoover (Computing Science), A. Pianzola (Mathematical and Statistical Sciences), M.Sacchi (Physics), M. Sharp (Earth and Atmospheric Sciences).

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