by Jeremy Richards
Thoughtful people must not cede all power to politicians and business interests; we must make our voices heard across the full range of professional, social, and civic circles.
(p. 95: Karr, J.R., 2008, Protecting society from itself: Reconnecting ecology and economy, in Soskolne, C.L., ed., Sustaining Life on Earth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, p. 95-108)


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Friday, September 19, 2014

Some things IS didn't say in her State of the University address

Under the headline "University of Alberta will have to ‘recalibrate’ salaries," the Edmonton Journal reports some comments our President Indira Samarasekera made to its editorial board, presumably in a later interview after her State of the University address yesterday (although the timing of these remarks is not clear from the article).

In response to a question about her salary (reported to be $529,000 plus benefits for a total of $1.2 million in 2013), she is quoted as saying:
“I think they are going to have to recalibrate (compensation) and they will have to look at benchmarks at other public universities. You also have to look increasingly at what the public thinks is appropriate. You don’t want a race to the bottom, but I do think there has to be discussion about what is appropriate.” 
Samarasekera said her salary initially was in average range, not that much above some highly paid professors. But high inflation in Alberta meant a few years of rapid salary increases, she said. 
“I actually went to the board and said ‘I don’t think I or the senior team should get 4.75 per cent,’ ” she told the Journal Wednesday. 
“But I was told: ‘You can’t do that, you cannot deny the increase to your VPs.’ ” That’s because the president and all vice-presidents are part of the academic staff association, she said. 
Samarasekera was told she could give her salary increases back to the university privately. She said she will make an announcement on that subject later this year.
There are several points that need to be clarified, which may not be clear to the casual reader:
  1. The article title and IS's comments relate to the salaries of senior administrators, not regular faculty.
  2. Her salary is "not that much above some highly paid professors" — Ooh, there's a teaser as we enter salary negotiations! Now Martha and Henry will really think professors are overpaid!
  3. "Samarasekera said her salary initially was in average range" — average of what? And anyway, an average is not a range. More accurately, if she is talking about university presidents' salaries, hers is at or near the top of the range.
  4. 4.75%? That was 4 years ago (2010)! For clarity, in 2013-2015 we got 1.65%.
  5. "You can’t do that ... because the president and all vice-presidents are part of the academic staff association." I have a simple solution for that problem!
  6. And on the last point, maybe IS is planning to make a big donation to the UofA endowment fund (reported yesterday now to be over $1bn) when she finally leaves next year. The Samarasekera Leadership College perhaps? (Competition is always good, right?)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

New enrollment management plan to be piloted

In an effort to make the UofA more competitive for the best students, and to gain better control on meeting government-defined enrollment targets, the Academic Planning Committee of GFC was yesterday told about several new procedures that will be piloted for 2015-2016 admissions (see agenda item 7, previously posted on the GFC-APC website). The proposed changes include issuance of early firm offers to the best students (based on grades from Grades 11 as well as 12), limiting the time an offer can be held, and requiring a $500 deposit upon acceptance of an offer.

These changes are in response to the difficulty in the current system of exactly meeting enrollment targets as set out by the GoA, and over-enrollment in several faculties (especially Science and Engineering, which have been over-enrolled recently by several hundred students). This over-enrollment has caused significant financial problems because the University receives no funding from the government for these students (the cost is borne by the University). The changes are also directed at ensuring the best possible student cohort, and reducing the tendency of applicants to hold offers from the UofA as a "safe" placement, while actually seeking a place at another "more desirable" university (read UofT or UBC).

The general response from APC was, "Why aren't we doing this already?"

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

IS in the G&M again

Dear Dr. Samarasekera,

An anonymous reviewer and I have read the article relating to your recent interview, submitted for publication in the Globe & Mail. The reviewer suggests that it contains several controversial or arguable statements that need to be corrected or explained and justified in more detail. In particular, the reviewer makes the following comments, quoting first the relevant section from the article:
Every Canadian university is trying to compete internationally for students and faculty just as governments can no longer afford to give them generous, above-inflation increases in funding. 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.
  • "governments can no longer afford to give [universities] generous, above-inflation increases in funding" — Not true; governments have simply decided that funding universities is not a priority in their budgets.
  • "Specializing in some programs and cutting others ... will be the only way to succeed" — At some level this comment must be true, but why is this "the only way to succeed"? Keeping programs properly pruned would seem to be a sensible starting point for a successful university, but that is hardly the only or key ingredient for success.
"They’ve [U of S] set themselves back and potentially affected the ability of other university presidents and administrations to take risks, because they took some risks and they got slapped down. So, if I’m a new president, what’s the likelihood that I am going to start to think about major transformation?" — IS
  • I just don't get this. U of S simply handled criticism of their plan very badly, and got slapped down for that, not for the plan itself (although that might indeed have benefitted from a bit of a slap!).
  • A university president commands a very large salary and perks precisely as a reward for their leadership and calculated risk-taking skills. If you're not up for that, don't apply for the job. And hopefully a Board wouldn't appoint such a shrinking violet in the first place.
The university [of Alberta] is at a turning point: It must find money to increase enrolment in fields related to Alberta’s strengths, such as oil and agriculture, and grow graduate education. Jim Prentice, the new Premier, understands the province cannot continue to rely on well-paid jobs in oil and gas that do not require university degrees, Dr. Samarasekera said. The university has dealt with funding constraints by raising the grades required to get in, which limits the number of students it can accept.
  • Huh? Why is the UofA trying to "increase enrolment in fields related to Alberta’s strengths, such as oil" if well-paid jobs in this sector don't require a university degree?
  • Increasing entry grades does not limit the number of students the University can accept — the numbers keep going up — but it does improve the general level of education within the student population, which is a good thing, right?
  • It is the GoA that limits the numbers that the University should accept. Entry grades have been increased by Science (al least) to try to keep admissions to within those limits, as students above the limit are essentially not funded.
"Our entrance averages into science, into engineering, just keep going up and up. My belief is that any student who has a nice high school average of 75 to 80 per cent should be able to do a postsecondary degree, and yet they can’t,” she said. “That’s a loss of human talent. You can never recover that loss." — IS
  • Of course a student with a high school average of 75 to 80% can take a postsecondary degree — just not necessarily at the UofA. There are plenty of other PS institutions in Alberta that can cater to such students, and many of them would be better off in technical or professional programs rather than degree courses for which they might not have much aptitude or interest.
“We have a perverse system where we’ve kept tuition low for everyone. As a result, we are restricting our ability to increase the quality of the programs.... Often times, when you keep tuition low, what you can’t cover are things like co-op opportunities, like extracurricular activities.”
  • What's perverse is that governments in most of the western world, encouraged by their voter bases, have decided to disinvest in advanced education, such that government support for state universities is everywhere dropping. That the same governments sometimes limit their universities' ability to make up for this funding shortfall through tuition increases is also a response to their voter bases, but is also a reflection that society still at some levels thinks that education is a public good, not a commodity.
Most of the rest of the piece needs extensive editing (cut by 50% — unclear what points are being made), but the last paragraph deserves comment:
The hardest part of her job has been adjusting her ambitions for the university to the speed and tone of academic decision-making. “Often, people mistake consensus building with consent. … You have consulted everybody and everything and you make a decision and they’ll accuse you of not consulting,” she said.
  • I think it is the haphazard and mercurial "decision-making" of the GoA that is the problem, not the slowness (if that's what she means) of academic responses to those decisions.
  • "Consultation" is such a loaded word, and can cover everything from real consultation where the final decision clearly reflects the input heard, and nominal consultation where it's clear the decision had already been made, and a process was just being followed. A good decision is one where all affected truly feel that their concerns and input were listened to and incorporated willingly where appropriate, and can understand, even if they do not agree, why certain other things were left out or recommendations not followed. Achieving the latter is the mark of a true leader, as opposed to an autocrat or dictator.
I concur with the anonymous reviewer's concerns, and feel that the article requires major revision before it could be published.

Editor's decision: Resubmit after major revisions.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

UofA moves up to 84th in QS World University Rankings

The UofA moved up to 84th place (from 96th in 2013, and 108th in 2012; it was 59th at the end of the 6% era in 2009) in the QS World University Rankings, just behind the University of Montreal (at 83), and well behind UBC (43), McGill (21), and UofT (20).

Some interesting facts appear if you drill down into the data, including this ranking by faculty area:

Arts and Humanities: 89
Engineering and Technology: 141
Life Sciences and Medicine: 91
Natural Science: 135
Social Sciences and Management: 158

The QS rankings appear to rate our faculties in almost perfect inverse proportion to the way they are valued and treated by our own central administration.

The other curious thing about this ranking process is that on all of the survey indices listed we fall below 98th place (including 240th place for faculty/student ratio), yet our total ranking is 84th. Clearly we shouldn't take these rankings too literally (a good dose of discovery maths might help)!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Don Scott (a lawyer and MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin) is reported to have been made Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education in Jim Prentice's new cabinet. Apart from degrees from the University of New Brunswick and the University of Cambridge, he does not appear to have any other experience with higher education. But why would that be needed?

Upcoming GFC and APC meetings

Materials for the upcoming GFC Academic Planning Committee (APC; 17 September) and general GFC meeting (22 September) are available on the Governance website, or on Whitherleaks.

Interesting items on the GFC agenda include a motion to approve a revised policy on electronic USRIs (eUSRIs), an Information session on the University budget 2014/2015, and a "Response and Update Regarding Recommendations in the Renaissance Committee Final Report". No materials are provided for the budget update, and materials are not yet ready for the Renaissance Committee response.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Responsibility Centered Management (RCM) coming next year

UofA administration is planning to move to a Responsibility Centered Management (RCM) system for University finances in 2015. This proposal has been floating around for a while, but it seems that it is now going to be implemented soon. The problem is, few people (myself included) know what it means. Apparently the concept has been discussed by GFC Executive and the Academic Planning Committee (APC) over the summer, but GFC itself has not been apprised of it yet. There are plenty of rumours around, including one that will see all merit pay and ATB salary increases being paid from Faculty budgets (as opposed to Central, as currently), while Faculties will directly receive tuition payments from their students (taxed by 15% to pay for Central administration).

The intent is apparently to make Faculties masters or mistresses of their own financial fate (and perhaps existence). This could work well for popular programs, but could spell the end for others — presumably that is the point.

Logically though, if Faculties are now responsible for paying for salary settlements, shouldn't AASUA be negotiating with deans and not Central? That could be fun! (Not.)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Open dialogue at GFC! — Let's talk about what we want you to talk about!

Our President's weekly pep talk announces that there will henceforth be an opportunity for 30 minutes of open dialogue at GFC meetings. Fantastic — what could be wrong with that?
On Monday, I proposed to the GFC Executive Committee that we include a 30-minute period of open discussion at GFC meetings on topics related to its work.... Topics, we decided, will be identified and selected by the GFC Executive Committee prior to full GFC meetings….
Oh right — GFC can't be trusted to wake up in the morning and put on its pants without being reminded by our leaders.

They really don't get it do they?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Strike actions in Ontario

OCUFA (the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations) reports that three Ontario universities are either planning strikes or holding strike votes. Windsor faculty will be on a one-day strike on September 15 aimed at bringing their administration back to the negotiating table, Laurentian faculty voted 90% for a strike mandate in their negotiations, and Guelph faculty held a strike vote on September 8 and 9 (results not available yet). The reasons for the strike calls are in all cases monetary.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


I've been pondering our President's recent article in the Globe and Mail about Canada's "drought" in Nobel awards. At first glance, the following quotation seems to equate receiving Nobel (and other prestigious) prizes with national scientific excellence:
When it comes to the highest forms of recognition, such as Nobel Prizes ... our record is hardly stellar. 
What can Canada do to raise our standing in global scientific excellence?
In fact, Dr. Samarasekera, in the previous paragraph, indicates that Canadian academia already punches well above its weight:
Canada has many outstanding researchers, some of whom are definite Nobel contenders.... We punch above our weight in terms of total number of publications and citations, and our government investment in publicly funded research remains among the highest among OECD countries.
So is there a problem here, other than not getting as many gongs as we'd like? Do we really need investments in a “Grand Opportunities Program” or an “International Empowerment Fund”, as IS suggests, just to win more awards? Or would the money be better spent by returning it to the once great but now horribly crippled NSERC Discovery grants program (and equivalents in other Tri-Council agencies)?

Dr. Samareskera partially rescues her piece by saying:
The end goal is not recognition in itself but creation of a culture where research and discovery are championed for their societal benefits in the long term.
Had she not added that sentence (perhaps as an afterthought) I would have suspected that recognition was exactly her goal. But a culture of appreciation of the fruits of research doesn't simply equate to showering accolades on a very small, select group of people. Nobel-quality research is built on deeply rooted (and well funded) foundations, and cannot generally be grown by grafting superstars onto withering vines.

The pursuit of gongs seems to be an aberration from what should be the primary pursuit of academics: generating knowledge. If some of that knowledge is judged more useful than others then that's great, but the big money needs to go in at the bottom, not the top.