Faculty, staff and students send a blunt message to the U of R president
by John Cameron
Have some sympathy for Vianne Timmons — March 6 couldn’t have been an easy day for her. The University of Regina president had the unenviable task of maintaining order and focus during a two-hour-long meeting that sent her a blunt message of disapproval.
The rare meeting of University Council — a governing body composed of faculty, staff, administration and (scant but well-acquitted) student representatives — delivered a series of strong recommendations to both slow down structural changes to the university and decentralize the university’s budget process.
That budget process is set to result in three per cent cuts to every faculty on campus.
To Timmons credit, she ran the meeting quite well.
“It is wonderful to get all the faculty and student reps together to communicate and express their views, and this is an example of collegial governance that I think is very, very positive,” Timmons told the press afterward.
It’s certainly instructive, if you’re interested in the future of post-secondary education in Regina, to look at the products of the meeting: hiring and budget freezes; publication of an annual budget book outlining spending decisions, rationale for said decisions, and the salary of every employee at the U of R from senior VPs to Owl bartenders; and the creation of committees focused on spending plans and strategies.
As English professors Susan Johnston — who motivated four of the seven successful motions — and Marcel Decoste note, the motions are concerned with the way money is being spent, rather than the amount of money itself.
“You can distill six of those motions into ‘Where is the money going?’” Decoste says. “You’re asking us to make cuts or sacrifices that we know means this program disappears, or [student] timetabling gets more difficult because this can’t be offered as frequently, or our expertise and our ability to be a credible, professional university-level department of X is diminished because we never get to replace anybody.
“But we don’t have any idea of what the big budget picture looks like,” he says.
Over the last decade, the University of Regina’s budget has increasingly gone towards administration, services and ancillary programs. Only 27 per cent of the university’s budget is now spent directly in academic departments.
The U of R isn’t alone in this regard, however. Simon Enoch, director of the Saskatchewan branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, points out that non-academic spending is up at universities across Canada.
“Despite significant increases in university spending over the past 30 years, spending on academic salaries as a total proportion of total university expenditures has declined steadily,” Enoch wrote in an e-mail to Prairie Dog. “In 2009, spending on academic rank salaries represented only 20 per cent of university expenditures, down from 31 per cent in 1980.”
For her part, Timmons downplays the distinction between administrative and academic salaries, explaining that several positions that are considered “administrative” are within faculties themselves.
“Also, Continuing Education has a large number of administrative positions serving 7,000 students through distance education,” she adds. “So it’s not a clean divide.
“Many of our staff supporting students — our disability services, our international student services, our Aboriginal student services — those are all staffed by staff that are under that administrative [label].”
But at the U of R, very little of this information is broken down into component parts.
That means that while observers can see total salary numbers or faculty expenditures — academic salaries and benefits in the 2013-14 budget, for example, are lumped in with other salaries in the university’s operations forecast, totaling $141 million of the university’s $187 million projected expenditures — the actual spending details are opaque.
Decoste compares trying to assess budget decisions based on this information to “pillow fighting in the dark”.
Johnston agrees. She says that the lack of explanation of and insight into budgetary decisions, rather than the decisions themselves, was the driving factor behind most of the motions.
“My question isn’t actually whether or not administrative spending is in line with other institutions,” she says. “The restoration of fuller transparency and accountability is more important to the healthy functioning of a university even than the survival of my little corner of academia.”
Enoch concurs. “As an indispensable democratic institution, the university needs to embody the highest standards of transparency and accountability to the community it serves.”
TRAVELER CHECKS AND BALANCES
Let’s look at what this means in practical terms. In my last semester as editor of the Carillon, the U of R student newspaper, I requested information on Timmons’ travel from 2010 through 2012. The president’s office responded that dates would not be a problem, but costs — even non-itemized costs — would require an access to information request.
This presents a problem. Without knowing what the university spends on something not directly related to academic projects, such as costs of individual travel dates (to say nothing of the travel budget of a particular office), it’s impossible to judge whether or not that money is being spent effectively.
The University Council meeting throws the question of administrative spending versus academic spending into sharp relief. Are the unpublished costs of unknown travel worth, say, the loss of 26 sessional professors in the English department next year, from over 30 to four? Are they worth, as the faculty of Fine Arts pointed out in the informational package they submitted to Council, the inability to fund theatre performances and the subsequent loss of the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre?
Are they worth three per cent in cuts to every single department on campus or the first assembly of University Council since 1992?
We can certainly guess. But we don’t know.