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, December 19, 2014

Grading gripes

I've just finished my biannual fight with Bear Tracks and eClass to upload course marks and grades. What should be a simple, fool-proof system that accurately maps marks and grades to the right students, is a gong show, full of hidden sources of error that can only be spotted and corrected by laboriously checking each entry line-by-line after the upload. The reason is that the class rosters that are provided on Bear Tracks and eClass use different rules for listing students alphabetically, and Excel uses different rules again. So if you assume the alphabetical listing is the same on all three platforms, there will likely be a few transpositions. For example, in my class of 320 students, there were 5 instances where students with similar or hyphenated names were listed differently. OK, so sort by student ID. That works OK for eClass (where, in a complex multi-step system, you can select to map by student ID), but in Bear Tracks you have to upload an Excel file and you cannot specify how the file is mapped. The only way to check it has been mapped correctly is to manually check it line-by-line. While that's not too laborious for smaller classes, for large classes it's a real pain.

After all the hard work students put into their courses, and TAs and staff put into fairly marking their work, the final step in the process, uploading grades, should be simple and foolproof. And why do we have two completely separate systems (Bear Tracks and eClass) anyway? Drives me nuts!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

GoA budget freeze

The Edmonton Journal reports today that the GoA will be freezing ministry budgets for next year, thus heralding yet another round of real-dollar cuts. This is going to get ugly.

With the provincial population growing at 100,000 per year (according to the Journal article), the parlous state of the GoA's budget can only be considered self-inflicted. A PST would be a perfectly reasonable solution, but of course they won't consider this for fear of losing votes.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Watch your step coming in this morning — the sidewalks are very icy.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Amrhein seconded to Conference Board for 5 years

It looks like our former Provost, Carl Amrhein, won't be returning to the UofA any time soon, as he has just been appointed for another 5-year term to the Conference Board of Canada as a Distinguished Research Chair.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Salary models

There's been a lot of discussion recently about salary models, and whether the current one should be changed. So first let's review what our current model offers:

We negotiate five aspects of compensation through Article 19 of the Faculty Agreement: across-the-board (ATB) percentage salary increases for all AASUA members, salary scales (i.e., number and sizes of steps), and the size of merit pools (for some collective agreements), the benefits plan, and "policies for Faculty salary adjustments" (not discussed further here). Historically, ATB has been close to but usually slightly below inflation, and is designed to provide some protection to base salaries and salary scales from erosion by inflation. A strong benefits plan is good for members and is seen as a recruitment and retention tool by administration. Merit is designed to reward performance, and is also attractive to both faculty and administration, because it encourages (and delivers) performance. However, the Faculty Agreement is silent on what anything above a zero increment means, and some have argued that the wording of Article 13.24(b) ("that performance requirements for an increment have not been met but performance is acceptable notwithstanding") implies that a 0b should be the default award for a satisfactory year's work. This, of course, is not how a 0b, or even a 0.5 increment, is viewed in practice, and as a commentator said recently, and has been discussed widely on this blog previously, 0 and 0.5 increments are viewed as black marks, and are of course appealable for that reason. The new 0.75 muddies the water further — it looks like a mild rebuke, but is probably still received very negatively.

So the next question is, what should the faculty complement look like going forward, and how should they be compensated? One scenario, which might appeal to some in administration, is to continue to supplant professors with contract staff to carry out basic teaching functions, and have a smaller cadre of "excellent" researchers winning the big prizes (and earning big salaries) that would keep the UofA in the headlines. I don't subscribe to that vision, and I don't discuss it further below.

If instead, we remain committed to a professoriate that is fully engaged in all of teaching, research, and service, then we need a salary structure that rewards this as a long-term career choice (because for most people, academia is a permanent career choice — it is very hard to step in and out of academia). The model should include a basic expectation for real salary growth with experience, seniority, and responsibility, plus a performance incentive scheme. Which is approximately what we currently have, except that these reasonable expectations are constantly being cast as a "problem" by administration, and the Association as being "unreasonable" for negotiating with such expectations.

So whatever new compensation model is to be considered (if indeed one is), then it needs to start with the premise that salary growth for faculty who are competently doing their jobs is reasonable and desirable for all parties (if administration allows salaries to fall relative to other Canadian universities, then they will quickly lose their best faculty, and applications from strong candidates for new positions will dry up). It also needs to be accepted that there must be some form of reward for merit, or, again, meritorious people will leave or not apply. If we do away with FEC and the current increment structure, then we will have to replace it with something, and it will still need some form of review process.

So here is a suggestion for a structure that recognizes rank, protects salary against inflation, and rewards merit:

  1. Link ATB to the local (Edmonton) annual change in CPI (like tuition).
  2. Provide major salary bumps at promotion steps (Assistant to Associate, Associate to Full Professor, and major academic administrative appointments such as to Department Associate Chair or Chair, Dean, etc.). This would represent real recognition of "progress through the ranks".
  3. Provide a merit reward system that is applied for. That means that only people who feel they have had a particularly good year need apply (to an FEC-like committee). All others can assume that their salary will at least keep pace with inflation (although 0d provisions and consequences should be retained). The merit structure should be such that it would be relatively easy to get a modest increment, but capped so that a few individuals don't run off with the whole pot. The structure of the merit system should be designed to fit both administration's expectations of growth of the salary mass, and realistic models of salary growth for individuals performing at various levels. Celebrate well-deserved merit awards!

OK, now back to setting exams. Comments?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Western faculty ratify 4-year deal

According to OCUFA, Western University faculty have ratified a 4-year deal that will provide base salary plus lump sum payments equivalent to total increases of 2.16%, 1.83%, 1.83%, and 1.65% over the term of the contract. The deal also contains new job security provisions for "limited term" (i.e., contract) faculty, including "no end date" appointments and larger salary increases.

The contract is also reported to contain new protections for IP and workload with respect to online courses. I wonder what happened to our promised Copyright and Other IP agreement reviews (promised as part of the furlough agreement 5 years ago)?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Retirement — voluntary, incentivized, or forced?

If next year's budget is as bad as it sounds like it's going to be, for sure plan for some form of VRIP in the coming year.

Actually, the University needs a permanent VRIP system, for the following reason: When mandatory retirement was abolished a few years ago, no provisions were put in place to encourage people whose heart and energy really weren't in it any more to "move on". Instead, there is considerable financial incentive to hang on for a few more years, firing on just enough cylinders to avoid being "0d'd". This is one of the reasons that merit has become decoupled from the savings traditionally gained from retirement (an expensive senior Professor could be replaced with a cheap Assistant Professor, with the savings essentially funding the merit pool — of course, market supplements have also undermined this by making Assistant Professors' salaries no longer "cheap").

So, for those who are still productive, the ability to work beyond 65 is great. But it is very difficult to move faculty along when their productivity falls. The Faculty Agreement in theory makes this possible through Article 13.05(b): "Performance expectations shall increase as a staff member moves through the ranks." But while it might be possible to decrease merit incrementation (0.5, or even 0b: §13.24(b): no increment because "performance requirements for an increment have not been met but performance is acceptable notwithstanding"), it is really quite difficult to demonstrate that a 0d (§13.24(d): no increment because "academic performance is unsatisfactory and unacceptable") should be awarded, let alone two in a three-year row, which would allow termination.

Consequently, we need a system that encourages people to pack it in at the appropriate time. The recently used voluntary retirement incentive program (VRIP) was an emergency measure to shed some senior faculty from the payroll in response to a financial crisis, but the crisis continues, and seems unlikely to be going away any time soon (i.e., we can expect a continual decline in the proportion of government funding, which currently pays for most of our salaries). So we need a permanent incentive scheme that makes retirement more attractive — perhaps an augmented version of the current stepped-retirement plan, or a better emeritus system — while at the same time applying Article 13.05(b) a little more rigorously in FECs. With Deans now more firmly in control of their salary budgets, AASUA can probably expect to see a flood of 0d-appeals in the coming years.

Deans behind the salary bargaining table

The new role that Deans will have in paying for ATB and merit increases places them in an even greater conflict of interest with AASUA than before. They will now be 100% on the side of the Board in negotiations, and may even have lobbying or advisory status to, or even representation on, the Board's negotiating teams. It seems obvious that all senior administrators, from Deans upwards, should now be excluded from the Association for their term of office. AASUA should be pressing for this as a matter of urgency, considering that the next round of salary negotiations are about to begin.

New budget "administration"

It has been difficult to get a clear understanding about the changes to budgeting that will be starting next year. The headline story is that Faculties will now be responsible for funding ATB and merit, and from what I have heard at GFC, APC, etc., the Deans are mostly on board and ready for this — some even keen, as they see it giving them better control over revenues and expenditures.

As I understand the process, whereas previously, Central allocated budgets to Faculties based on a number of things including the projected salary bill (including ATB and merit) for the coming year, but would then claw back percentages of that money when the GoA's grant fell short of expectations, now, Central will allocate funding to Faculties that excludes the ATB and merit component. (Presumably clawbacks might still be necessary if GoA cuts are severe enough.)

While all discussion of this process has focused only on the next (2015-2016) budget year, my understanding is that the process will be permanent, and will effectively freeze the salary component that Central will pay for at these 2015-2016 levels. The compounded ATB+merit salary increases will be met by Faculties into the future.

This process seems to represent an acceptance that the GoA grant will not increase any time soon, and by excluding ATB+merit from the Central budget, actually allows for the proportion of GoA funding to decrease steadily. While that might be a realistic expectation, it sends a pretty strong signal to government that they don't need to worry about funding for advanced education any more, which I am sure will be welcome news to them. It also begs the question as to the role of Central administration if they are abdicating the responsibility of ensuring adequate provincial funding.

So what is the end-game here? That the UofA will essentially be independent of government funding in a few years? Well, if we can find the necessary funding outside of the public purse to sustain our activities, then great. But I would then say that the GoA's control of what we do (how much we charge for tuition, how many students we accept, etc.) must be relaxed, if not relinquished entirely. They cannot have it both ways. (But of course they will.)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Head for the hills!

After the March 2013 budget fiasco, the GoA seems to have decided to be a bit more explicit in its warnings of more potential budget cuts next March (although I clearly remember similar hints being dropped in December 2012: see Will GoA renege on its 2% promises?). Confirming our intravenous reliance on oil and gas revenues to pay for basic provincial operating costs, the latest Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education, Don Scott, is warning of "fiscal prudence" ahead, and that all government department budgets will be affected by the collapsing price of oil.

In an article in the Globe and Mail, Scott is quoted as saying: "The one thing that is important is that institutions need the lead time to plan". So I guess he's giving us three months (instead of three minutes). Another big budget cut will be a nice welcome present for our new President!

The article also indicates that Scott sees market modifiers as one potential solution to the tuition revenue problem, but this just seems like a patch on a broken system (a bit like market supplements).