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)


Comments are welcome, but are moderated.
Please see guidelines at the bottom of this page.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Drying out in Iran

I'll be giving my liver a rest for the next couple of weeks while on fieldwork in Iran. Internet can be iffy in Iran, and Blogger is blocked, so unless my VPN can get around the censors I may not be able to post or moderate comments for the next little while.

In the meantime, read the Economist's article on the fate of universities in its June 28-July 4 issue ("Creative destruction"), then go to the jobs page!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A response to IS on "academic freedom"

Mark Mercer, a Professor of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, has penned a letter to the Prince Arthur Herald in response to our President Samarasekera's recent statements and writings on the post-UofS definition of academic freedom. Mercer quotes Samarasekera's attempt to differentiate between academic freedom and freedom of expression:
"Academic freedom is so hopelessly misunderstood. Academic freedom is there for you to be able to speak about things you absolutely are an expert on. We’re talking about free speech, here." [CBC News website, 29 May 2014]
He points out that the caveat about academic freedom only protecting you when you are talking about something you are an "expert" on does not appear in the UofA collective agreements, or most others, and seems to be something that IS "wishes" were true rather than actually is. Differentiating academic freedom from freedom of speech simply muddies the water, and opens the door to a dilution of the rights of academic freedom, one of the last real benefits and protections of being an academic.

Monday, July 14, 2014

AASUA Council approves release time for committee chairs

I have heard unofficially that the petition to grant release time for all AASUA Committee Chairs was approved by Council at its emergency meeting last Friday. (I was not able to be present for the meeting, so I don't know any further details.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

More on land-lease and fundraising

The Edmonton Journal has an update on the UofA's decision to lease some of its lands to generate revenue.

In principle I support the idea of making the University's surplus lands work for it, but as always the devil will be in the details, and there are many.

The article also mentions the plan to launch a $1bn fundraising campaign. President Samarasekera says the money could be spent in three ways:
  1. Student support.
  2. Hiring more exceptional professors.
  3. Setting up research partnerships that lead to “breakthroughs” at other universities.
Apart from the odd wording in (3) (why would we only support research that led to breakthroughs at other universities, and not the UofA? — probably a transcription error), IS goes on to say: "We need to have more professors and more in the top one-to-five per cent." I suppose I agree with the first notion of more professors (so long as it's accepted that they can earn a decent salary, and won't be overworked and nickel-and-dimed), but it's that old statistical thing again with the top 1–5%. And also the notion that the other 99–95% are not really wanted.

Time for a vacation — I may be offline for a while, so please be patient if posts are infrequent and I don't moderate comments immediately.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Two members of AASUA Executive Committee quit

Two members of the AASUA Executive Committee have quit this month: Prof. Malinda Smith (Chair of the Equity Committee) resigned after the turbulent Council meeting of June 5; and now Prof. Carolyn Sale (Chair of the Academic Faculty Committee) has also quit. These are major losses to the Association.

The details behind these resignations are not known, but one can guess at the climate that led to them from some of the earlier comments on this blog (this post is closed to comments, by the way), and accounts of the various Council and Executive meetings that have taken place this month. I found myself in a similarly untenable position a few years ago and quit from Executive as a result (you can read the history of that incident in some of the first posts on this blog). Oddly enough, I feel much better for it, and I hope Malinda and Carolyn will eventually feel the same way! But something is wrong when a volunteer organization like AASUA puts such personal pressure on people. It certainly doesn't encourage active participation.

Sunday, June 29, 2014


The Faculty of Science's new spinoff company Onlea states that its function is to:
Produce and market quality online and blended courses powered by pedagogy, assessment, research, and innovation for post-secondary, professional development needs for industry, community service, and K-12 for Canada and internationally. [i.e., MOOCs]
The company is stated to be not-for profit; it has three "founders" (Jennifer Chesney, Glen Loppnow, and Jonathan Schaeffer), and one person named under "operations" (Jim Armstrong), who appears to be an external consultant (he is listed as an "Executive In Residence" with TEC Edmonton, but does not appear to be a University employee).

Given the number of comments about Onlea under a previous post, I thought that a new thread on this topic would be useful. Some questions arising include:
  1. Is Onlea part of the Faculty of Science's mission to generate new external revenue (in response to recent budget directives from Central)?
  2. If so, how can it do this if it is not-for-profit?
  3. How does Onlea function financially? How and by whom are losses underwritten? What happens to profits? How was it initially financed? What stake do the financing parties have in the company?
  4. Who does the work of the company, and how are they paid?
  5. If faculty members do work for the company, is this part of their normal work as professors, or is it SPA? Do they get paid?
  6. If University employees work for Onlea, how will conflicts of interest be managed?
  7. Who owns the intellectual property of Onlea products?
  8. What are the long-term goals of Onlea? As a spinoff company, what links does it maintain with the UofA, and what benefits does it bring to the University?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Presidential salary debate continues in the US

The debate over the scale of university presidential salaries continues, with an on-line dust-up in the New York Times: Lofty Salaries in the Ivory Towers

… and now on CBC 6 o'clock radio news!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

June madness?

I'm not sure what's going on inside AASUA at the moment (I'm safely out of town — sunny Whitehorse today), but a second emergency Council meeting has been called for next Friday (June 27) — the third meeting this month! As with the last two, I, like many other Councillors, will be away and unable to attend — June is a terrible time of year to organize any kind of meeting on campus. Even if the topic is important.

But the topic that has spurred this emergency Council meeting is to debate a petition, signed by 50 AASUA members (in itself is a great rarity), which reads as follows:
We call upon Council, at its special meeting of 19 June 2014, to approve the expenditure of $93,500 for the resourcing of all of its constituency committee chairs and the three chairs of its standing policy-making committees, Equity, Teaching & Learning, and Research & Scholarly Activity, for its 2014-2015 budget. We also call upon Council to institute a permanent policy change in this regard. The resourcing of chairs on the Association’s Executive is consistent with best practices elsewhere, and vital to the work of the Association’s representation of its seven constituency groups, and its pursuit of effective policies on equity and academic freedom, and effective practices of teaching, learning, research, and other scholarly activity at the University of Alberta.
The intent of the proposal is to provide limited teaching relief (or equivalent) for AASUA committee chairs. This is not a new concept, and the AASUA Policies & Procedures Manual already provides for  such release time for Officers and specified committee chairs (see section 1.5.2 quoted below). The proposal would broaden this provision to all committee chairs — hardly precedent-setting, or unreasonable given the increased workload (since 1988 when the P&P provision was implemented by Council) expected of Directors of the Association (i.e., committee chairs).

But apparently this new proposal is so radical that not only did it derail the scheduled June Council meeting, but has also necessitated calling two additional Council meetings, and a petition, to deal with it. The sum of money ($93,500) is not large — remember that we give over $500,000 to CAUT and over $250,000 to CAFA each year to do exceedingly little (most of the time) for us. It doesn't seem unreasonable to me to spend a fraction of this money on providing teaching relief to people who actually work directly on our behalves. (Note: I will not be eligible for release time, although I did benefit from it when I was President and VP.)

UPDATE: Due to the increasingly personal nature of some of the comments on this thread, it is now closed to further comments. I have also removed one comment sent on June 21 10:38 pm, which constitutes a thinly veiled personal attack.

From the AASUA Policies & Procedures Manual:
1.5.2  Release Time
As authorized by a general meeting (1972.11.14), the Association reached agreement with the University for release from teaching duties for the President. The policy has been extended for partial release time for other officers and the chair persons of standing committees. 
Council (1988.9.27) approved the following procedures: 
Funds for Executive Committee replacement may be used to provide for: 
(a) The salary costs of persons retained by departments to replace the President (all teaching costs or their equivalent) and any officers (up to one course each semester), in their teaching duties if they are academic faculty members, or equivalent replacement for other university duties as may be appropriate to the individual’s circumstances; 
(b) Where the funds are required for replacement of time for the fulfillment of research duties, a sum equivalent to the above may be made available through the budget process; 
(c) For the President, in addition to replacement for teaching or equivalent, the Association shall pay a grant equal to the average chair’s honorarium, which shall be administered as a grant equivalent to a Professional Expense Reimbursement, and be paid either into an account held by the President, or an account held for him or her by the President’s home Department; 
(d) For the Chair of the Members’ Advisory Committee and Vice President, at least 50% release may be negotiated (Executive, 1995.03.01; Council, 1995.04.10); 
(e) Members of the Salary Negotiation Teams or Agreement Review Committees may negotiate release for one course in the academic year (or equivalent), or up to two courses in exceptional circumstances; 
(f) The Executive Committee may authorize the purchase of release time as it deems necessary. Decisions regarding the allocation of release time are made in the budget process according to past practice and are approved by the Executive Committee. Arrangements for release time must be reasonable and justified in the circumstances.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Our pensions are safe — nothing to worry about!

A communication from Fred Horne, Minister of Health, to a concerned constituent regarding Bill 10 (Pensions — no, it has not gone away) reassures us as follows:
Unfortunately, there has been some misunderstanding about the nature of Bill 10, the Employment Pension (Private Sector) Plans Amendment Act, 2014.

The Employment Pension Plans Act (EPPA) sets standards for non-statutory plans such as your Universities Academic Pension Plan (UAPP).  The EPPA does not dictate the terms of the pension plan; those are established by the sponsor or sponsors who establish the plan.  The UAPP is co-sponsored by the universities and the academic staff associations.

The EPPA amendment in question would allow sponsors to convert to a target benefit plan at their option as long as conditions are met that would be set out in the regulation.  One of the conditions will be employee consent.  However, in the case of the UAPP, the employees are co-sponsors through their staff associations and, therefore, a conversion would take place only if the staff associations agree to such a conversion.  You and your colleagues need not be concerned about unilateral changes being made.

On May 5, 2014, Minister Horner moved an amendment to send Bill 10 to the all-party Standing Committee on Alberta's Economic Future for further review and discussion. This will give the 15 MLAs on the committee more time to discuss some of the questions that have come out of the bill. It will also allow them time to hear from actuaries and experts in the field of private sector pension plan policy to help inform their discussions, and to back their recommendations in the fall sitting of the Legislature.

For your information, a target benefit plan is similar to a defined benefit plan in that a benefit formula is established in the plan document and the sponsors set funding policies to pay for the benefit in accordance with funding rules, which will be contained in the regulation.
Somehow I am not reassured. Particularly by the disingenuous statement "a target benefit plan is similar to a defined benefit plan" — the big difference being that if a target benefit plan deems it can't pay, it won't pay. Also, the ringer "as long as conditions are met that would be set out in the regulation" — except no-one knows what the "regulations" will allow.

Sounds like a deal to me! I'll sleep well on my flight to Whitehorse tonight.

PS: It's fieldwork and SPA season — I may not be able to moderate comments, or offer new posts so often.

Monday, June 16, 2014

IS not leaving UofA at end of the month

Contrary to a report on Slate, President Samarasekera is not leaving her post at the end of this month. I think they got the year wrong.