“Emancipation From Reliance on Government Funding” or, The Incredible Shrinking University?

Since the beginning of the term, those of us at the University of Alberta who are not part of one or another administrative enclave have been receiving intermittent and partial news about a major development underway, in which the means by which Faculties at the University are funded will be fundamentally altered. The news is that the University will be pursuing a budget system derived from the precepts of “responsibility centered management.” You won’t find any announcement about this on the University’s blog “Colloquy,” and there has been no information about it any of the President’s weekly bulletins. Instead, news has been filtering out through department chairs. The principal idea appears to be that the responsibility for funding their annual operating budgets will be downloaded to individual Faculties, and Faculties’ new financial responsibilities will include having to pay for their faculty members’ annual merit increments and benefits. Faculties that cannot generate their own revenue to meet their budget “responsibilities” will, we are told, go “into receivership.” 

At the General Faculties Council meeting of September 22nd, Vice-President Finance Phyllis Clark, in a very brief budget presentation, offered to give GFC, on another occasion, a full presentation on the proposed new budget system. It was entirely unclear why GFC was not receiving the presentation that day. If the University aims to create a new budget system that is, so the word in the hallways goes, to be in place by July 1st, 2015, and one that can prospectively send Faculties into receivership, why wasn’t the proposed scheme laid out for the General Faculties Council at its first meeting of the year? The General Faculties Council is, after all, supposed to be the chief seat of collegial governance at the University of Alberta, and President Indira Samarasekera had begun the meeting noting that she understood that there was concern that matters that ought to be coming to GFC for discussion sooner rather than later, or while in embryonic stages rather than after they were “matured.” When I rose, however, during question period to ask the Provost whether we could be assured that we would hear Phyllis Clark’s presentation at the next meeting, noting that this was surely one of the matters that ought to come before the GFC sooner rather than later, the Provost claimed that there were many “blanks” that needed to be filled first. Any such “blanks” should, however, be filled after the General Faculties Council has had an opportunity to discuss the premises, principles, and goals of the proposed system.

This is especially important given that the preliminary definitions that the University is offering suggest that “responsibility centered management” bears a relationship to the infamous “program prioritization process” advocated by American businessman Robert Dickeson, a process that was being pursued at the University of Saskatchewan under the rubric “TransformUS” until the University community rose in strong objection against it last winter and spring. The “program prioritization process” is one in which units that cannot justify their worth according to one or another financial metric receive less funding than others as a tactic for bringing about the immiseration that permits University administrations subsequently to claim that the given programs constitute a financial liability that justifies their closure. In an interview with the Globe and Mail in September, President Samarasekera declared her unhappiness with the fact that the University of Saskatchewan community has seemingly been able to bring about an end to the “program prioritization” process there: “Specializing in some programs and cutting others – which the University of Saskatchewan was trying to do when it was derailed by controversy – will be the only way to succeed, Dr. Samarasekera said.” And while the Provost used to speak of the University’s need to maintain “a balanced academy” — All boats must rise, he would say — in response to my question at the September 22nd meeting of the General Faculties we heard something quite different. Faculties must generate “a whole lot of revenue fast or the University must shrink,” the Provost declared. “Or we do both,” he added.

“Some will say different faculties have different capacities to generate revenue,” he noted. “This is going to be painful.”

This is not merely a matter of prospective pain. What is at stake in the proposed model is the very nature of the Academy. To require Faculties to fend for themselves in terms of revenue generation in order to meet their operating budgets is to require them to do work that alters the Faculties’ activities. And Faculties’ differential capacity in this regard will result in a reshaping of the academy. The University as a whole may not shrink. Only some parts of it may. But either way, change according to this criterion — a Faculty’s capacity to generate revenue — is change according to something other than academic principles. Market forces are hereby given carte blanche to enter the University and shape it from the inside out without there being any indication whatsoever of how the University’s Central Administration proposes to ensure the thriving of the academy as represented by the humanities, social sciences, and those disciplines housed in Science that pursue “basic research” or “creative” thought unfettered by the need to meet any immediate pragmatic end.

The University community has already received one clear indication of the reactionary thinking that the “new budget model” encourages in a post from an anonymous professor of Business on the blog WhithertheUofA. The enlightened Business professor suggests that humanities professors, who do nothing more profitable than “drop acid” and record their drug-inspired thought in their articles, ought to be paid no more than $20,000 a year. This professor primarily values those who teach students how to profit within a capitalist economy. S/he derides those who object that the academy exists for other purposes as Marxists. (The professor is apparently still living in the ’60s without enjoying any of the benefits of that decade’s progressive thought.)

This is the thinking of “responsibility centered management” in one of its crudest forms, but it is clear that the vertical restructuring of the academy that “responsibility centered management” would support is already underway at the University. Let’s not forget that the University’s top-ranked unit, the Department of English and Film Studies, lost nine of its faculty members at June 30th as a result of the “voluntary severance program” that the Administration pursued in the wake of the Government of Alberta’s historic cuts to postsecondary education in Alberta with its March 2013 budget. We are told that none of these faculty members will be replaced. It would appear from this that the Administration’s interest in “excellence” is selective. The Administration’s choice not to reinvest in the Department certainly gives us a foretaste of how “responsibility centered management” will work. Those units that cannot do a revenue-generating tap dance may very well be left to immiseration no matter what it is that they offer the academy, or no matter what they contribute to the University of Alberta’s academic stature world-wide.

The great irony of the situation is that the entity that ought to be generating revenue on behalf of the University of Alberta, a public university, is the Government of Alberta, but we never hear any of our administrators calling for any change to the way in which the provincial government does or does not generate revenue on behalf of Albertans for investment in Alberta’s social goods. Astonishingly, we have heard just the opposite. While sitting down with the Globe and Mail’s editorial board in September, President Samarasekara appears to have suggested that Canada’s governments cannot afford to give Canada’s universities generous funding. Such a statement implicitly accepts conservative ideological premises along with current Government of Alberta practices that involve a choice not to generate increased public revenues from the development of Alberta’s natural resources. It also sadly appears to endorse government dis-investment in postsecondary education. How can the public be assured of the importance of public investment in postsecondary education if even the Presidents of our public universities do not publicly press governments to invest? And why would the President of the University of Alberta do anything but that?

Two weeks ago, the Council of the Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta (AASUA) received an eight-page report from the Joint Committee for University Planning and Budgets (Joint UPlanB) which declares that at one of its meetings last year the President claimed that one of the Administration’s chief goals is “emancipation from reliance on government funding.” It is easy enough to understand why the administration of one of Canada’s great public universities, dismayed at the lack of financial support from its provincial government, might investigate and pursue other sources of revenue. It is highly questionable, however, whether funds in the operating budget should be directed away from research and teaching to secure such revenues. What is still more questionable is why the administration of any public university could possibly conceive of its need to “emancipate” itself from government funding. Emancipation from government funding requires dependence on other entities. On what basis does a public university give up its dependence on the public purse for dependence on revenues from private donors? What is occurring south of the border at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where a professor, Steven Salaita, has been fired (or “dehired”) for tweets on the killing of Palestinians in Gaza this summer, shows us just one of the dangers of dependence upon private funding. Email correspondence at that institution shows that the decision of the university’s Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, was driven by pressure from donors threatening to withdraw their financial support. “Emancipation” from government funding is in such an instance subordination to forces external to the university, forces that should play no role whatsoever in the taking of any academic decision.

At the September 22nd meeting of the General Faculties Council, the Provost cited the figures indicating the decline in our percentage of government funding, which has already been reduced from a high of 78% — a high that distinguished us in the North American academy — to 70%. Universities in Ontario and the University of British Columbia receive government funding, he noted, in the range of 40–50%. The presumption of “the University of Alberta’s new budget model” appears to be that it is perfectly acceptable for the percentage of funding received from the Government of Alberta to continue to drop, without there being any consideration of the ramifications for the academy at the University of Alberta. The matter must come before the General Faculties Council at its November meeting so that body may hear what the Administration imagines the premises, principles, and goals of its proposed budget model to be, and the GFC may play its necessary role in indicating how the matter should be addressed. Every one of Canada’s public universities requires unequivocal and robust funding from its provincial government, and the idea that the University of Alberta should be content to follow other universities in receiving anything less than that is a proposition that should be rejected. Public universities require the healthiest public funding possible so they may pursue their work in the public interest with a sense of their responsibility to the public’s interests at the front and centre of their activities.

What also needs to be rejected: the proposition that universities can generate more revenue by an increase in tuition fees. In her conversation with the Globe and Mail in September, President Samarasekera declared that she finds Canadian universities subject to “a perverse system” that aims to keep their tuition low. Is President Samarasekera unaware of how debt from postsecondary education affects students? And is she unaware that many countries are renewing their commitment to a postsecondary education system that is free to their students? Germany, for example, has just decided to end its own brief experiment with the introduction of tuition fees. Is that decision perverse? No, it is a responsible decision on the part of the government of one of the most robust economies in the world to invest in its most importance resource, its own people. The necessity of that investment on the part of the Government of Alberta was brought freshly home to me just last week, when a student wrote to let me know that the demands of his course and work schedules make it difficult for him to get to the library to do his course assignments. The student in question, I should note, has been doing exemplary work.

Let’s be clear: the institution’s proposed “emancipation” from reliance on government funding comes with dire costs, and some of those costs are to the very students the institution claims to be “uplifting.” When we let the University “shrink” according to whether or not a given Faculty can “generate revenue” in an attempt to “emancipate” ourselves from government funding we are taking financial decisions that are in the interests of neither the Academy, nor the public, nor those students depending upon us to offer them the richest possible encounters with the world’s thought and knowledge during their time with us. Not a single one of them is going to be “emancipated” by a shrunken University focused on “revenue generation” rather than academic priorities, or an Administration that does not pursue, by the most rigorous means possible, a renewal of the government’s financial support of postsecondary education in Alberta.

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4 Responses to “Emancipation From Reliance on Government Funding” or, The Incredible Shrinking University?

  1. Alarming analysis. Thank you. The University of Alberta’s senior administration, the most handsomely paid in the country, responds to provincial budget cuts with a “shock and awe” campaign that blasts holes in the university. While the provincial government targets oil industry interests, this university leadership abandons principles of their own creation. President Indira Samarasekera’s earlier appeal to excellence and international standing in her “Top 20 in 2020” sloganeering appears no more than a fake publicity campaign. How else to explain why UofA’s most highly ranked department in the world was not celebrated but decimated.

    UofA administrators claim their plots are motivated by declining public funds, but ironically their “solution” reinforces and perhaps accelerates the privatization of post-secondary education. This transformation betrays the generations of Albertans who built the University of Alberta. Public cynicism is enhanced. To hell with public education. Let’s all set sail on the sea of funding that keeps only self-interested corporate life-boats afloat. By effectively jettisoning the arts, humanities, social sciences, and research science, we happily comply with the notorious anti-science, anti-evidence, anti-culture, anti-critical analysis policies trumpeted by our federal government. What is to be done?

  2. Brad Bucknell says:

    There are, as usual, so many things perfectly stated in the new article here. Even the tone allows for a reasonable and thoughtful response from those who are criticized. But this never comes; only condescension and more “hard facts” which are nothing but ideological blather.

    And that is what is hardest; the good reasoning in these many articles here is never seen as one of the great benefits of an arts education, it is rather seen (if it is seen or heard at all) as yet another reason to obliterate any opposition (a kind of Putin-esque form of thought. For instance, how could anyone, at any level, dismiss, the problem of “private” funding as a potential threat to the freedom of thought, and in any discipline? Apparently, there was no discussion, in “Dino 101” of the of the problems that even the pure sciences have when they are funded by large corporations. (Weren’t we all supposed to take that course….?)

    When we are told that Alberta’s drop in funding universities is way behind that of other provinces, we see the effect not of any logic, reason, or (God help us) alarm. No, we have the example of “best practices” thinking, that form of “reason” which amounts to little more than monkey-see monkey-do.

    No outbreak of reason will be allowed in Alberta, or Canada, which leads me to wonder what governments mean when they talk about the importance of “critical thinking” in education.

    They have many brilliant examples of such thinking here. We have to conclude that they either don’t know what they mean, or have trouble following something longer than a twitter note, or cannot even conceive of anything that is not on the “best practices” menu.

    “Reason,” it seems, can die many deaths, some more vicious than others.

  3. Laurie Adkin says:

    According to the 2014-15 Consolidated Budget, only 49 per cent of the University of Alberta’s revenue comes from the provincial grant. Eighteen per cent comes from student tuition fees. See http://www.resourceplanning.ualberta.ca/Planning%20Tools/~/media/Office%20of%20Resource%20Planning/Documents/Institutional_Budget__2014-15_CIP.pdf (p. 153).

  4. Steve Cumming says:

    It’s pretty clear what’s happening. The university is to be privatised into the hands of the administrative class, who can then start rewarding themselves like CEOs…in other words, by looting the place. After all, why should any VP be less wealthy than the Calgary oil-zillionaires sitting on the boards.

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