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)

Thursday, April 23, 2015


It’s time for me to wrap up Whither. I think it has run its course and served a useful purpose, and the coming year, which will feature a new University leadership team, perhaps deserves a new commentary.

This blog came into being after a turbulent couple of years for me within AASUA politics, first as AASUA President in 2008–2009, then as Interim Executive Director in 2009–2010. I took on the latter role for the sole purpose of developing a new model for the Executive Director of AASUA, and then to facilitate hiring of a new ED. Unfortunately, the second wave of the global financial crisis (apparently most people didn’t notice or ignored the first wave in 2008, which was the sub-prime mortgage implosion) hit the province’s and therefore the University’s budget in 2009, and Provost Carl Amrhein approached AASUA to seek some financial relief from salary pressures. After wide consultation, including with previous AASUA salary bargaining teams and Past Presidents, one Past President (not me) proposed that offering to take some furlough days was the least-impactful concession that AASUA members could offer. But it was agreed that that this would be offered as a one-off, take-it-or-leave-it deal, in exchange for non-monetary benefits for AASUA members.

After obtaining permission from AASUA members through a referendum to explore such an offer, a committee was set up to develop a proposal. I was involved in this committee, and through consultation helped develop several ideas, including the establishment of a committee to review University planning and budgets, a consultative role for AASUA in University policy-making, and the explicit confirmation of ownership of copyright and intellectual property by AASUA members in the collective agreements. These proposals were also approved by a referendum of the AASUA membership.

The AASUA negotiating team met with representatives of the Board of Governors several times. I was an advisor to the Association’s team, and along with an external advisor, I advocated for adherence to the principles that AASUA members had approved, which was that this was essentially a take-it-or-leave-it offer. After pressure from the Board of Governors’ representatives, I was sidelined by the AASUA negotiating team, who then proceeded to agree to a watered-down version of the agreement, relegating discussion of copyright and intellectual property to Agreement Review Committees (with no agreed outcomes — and to date no outcomes at all; in fact one of the ARCs has not even been struck yet, 5 years later!).

The final proposal was put to the AASUA membership in early 2010, and was approved. I quit as Interim Executive Director shortly after that, and started this blog. As a social media philistine (I don’t do Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn), I should acknowledge inspiration from Jeffery Deaver’s book “Roadside Crosses”, in which the central character (spoiler alert: he turns out to be the murderer) uses a blog to great social effect. So I thought I'd give it a try, and Blogger's promise that it would only take 5 minutes to set up a blog proved largely correct.

Well, after 5 years and over 2 million hits on the site, it’s time to call it quits. The blog has served a cathartic purpose for me, as well as disseminating hopefully useful information otherwise not readily available to UofA faculty. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback along the way (as well as plenty of vituperative negative feedback!), but it now appears that it has also cost me any hope of advancement within this University. My recent application for Chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences failed, and my blog came up frequently in the post-mortem conversation with the Dean, leading to a fairly obvious conclusion.

In closing, I would note that some people “got it” — and others didn’t. This blog never aimed to attack individuals, but to shine a light on offices, institutions, decisions, and decision-making processes. Some officers took that personally (and blamed me for all your comments too), while others didn’t. I value and appreciate those who didn’t. In addition, I adopted a policy of comment moderation that allowed anonymous comments. While not ideal, this enabled the widest possible sharing of ideas and opinions, some of which were by definition on the fringe. Some comments crossed lines of common courtesy, but I rejected only a very small proportion of comments (surely less than 0.1%). And so far I have not been sued for facilitating the publishing of libel.

So, thanks for participating in the discussion. But a word of warning to anyone who might want to pick up the torch: don’t do it unless you already have tenure and a full professorship, and don’t do it if you have any aspirations to progress further within the University of Alberta. A strange and sad thing to have to say, but that appears to be the truth.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Compensation impasse

The March 26 edition of Rhumblines (now mysteriously not listed on AASUA's website, but still with an active link) reports on the impasse between AASUA and the Board of Governors in compensation negotiations. AASUA's lead negotiator Christopher Mackay reported that the BoG wanted to include items in the negotiations that were not included in the terms of Article 19 (Compensation Negotiations) of the collective agreement. Specifically, Mackay told AASUA Council on March 26 that the BoG wanted to negotiate the language of the collective agreements, but this process is covered under Article 5 (Agreement Review and Amendment Procedures). Article 19 restricts the items that can be negotiated at the compensation table to:
19.01 The Board and the Association shall negotiate:
a) a salary schedule,
b) an increment structure,
c) policies for Faculty salary adjustments, and
d) a program of benefits.
Because the negotiation process has been shrouded in confidentiality, we don't know any further details about what the Board wanted to negotiate, and last heard the matter was in the hands of lawyers.

A commentator on this blog has argued that AASUA should be flexible, and should be willing to negotiate. I disagree: the collective agreements are there for a reason, and must be respected. There are provisions for dealing with contract language change — those processes should be followed. If the Board wants to include agreement language in compensation negotiations*, it needs to negotiate that change through the agreement review process, not at the current salary table.

* It's worth noting that this was the one recommendation of the Renaissance Committee that was considered to be totally unacceptable by many faculty. The BoG would have to offer a very major concession or compensation through an ARC process to secure such language change, because excluding contract language from salary negotiations currently affords us great protection. (Imagine being asked to permanently forego tenure for a one-year salary increase.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Are senior administrators' salaries to blame for everything?

An article in the New York Times, pointed out to me by a colleague, argues that the financial problems experienced by universities in the US (and by inference in Canada too) are not due to declining government support (real dollar support over the last few decades has increased, although support per student has declined slightly reflecting the large increase in university enrolment), or even to the increasing number of administrators per faculty or student, but rather to the hugely inflated salaries of the upper echelons of these administrators.
The rapid increase in college enrollment can be defended by intellectually respectable arguments. Even the explosion in administrative personnel is, at least in theory, defensible. On the other hand, there are no valid arguments to support the recent trend toward seven-figure salaries for high-ranking university administrators, unless one considers evidence-free assertions about “the market” to be intellectually rigorous.
Hmm — maybe. But the author also does not offer any evidence that this really is the main cost driver. In the grand scheme of things, these high individual salaries are a small component of overall university budgets. Not that I necessarily think these salaries are justified, but I think the root problems are more fundamental, and do indeed relate to the massive expansion in enrolment. Over the last two or three decades, universities have been converted from institutions of serious higher learning to an extension of high school (as our President noted at the recent campus forum). University campuses are now small cities, with vast dormitory complexes, state-of-the-art sports facilities, multi-storey car-parks, etc., not to mention vast new "teaching and learning" buildings. (Although faculty still get stuffed into pokey offices, with no telephones in many departments.) It's big business, and someone has to pay. Or should we go back to our roots, and downsize in volume but regain our academic mission?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Campus Forum notes

1.4% cut = $8 million shortfall in the University's budget. This will not be passed down to Faculties and units -- previous CIP budget will stand. Will consider how to deal with the $8 million shortfall, and the 2.7% cut for 16/17. Will be discussing what constraints on revenue generation can be relieved; how to access the $50 million that has been put aside by GoA to help transition.

"Low value programs" -- IS says she has no idea how you determine what a low value program is. Feels we need to defend programs from this threat.

PS: Forgot to mention that IS thinks we have an important (and potentially revenue-generating) role in continuing education (offering courses in the summer, weekends, and evenings). Hmmm — I thought we already had a Faculty of Extension — how's that been working out for us?

Galleria project dead?

The Metro News today suggests that the Galleria project is dead, given that the GoA didn't provide any funding for it in the budget. However, the UofA's commitment to lease part of the site is unclear — maybe we'll find out today at the Campus Forum?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

On the budget and "shedding low-value programs"

Paula Simons is on target as usual with her article in the Edmonton Journal on the effects of the GoA's budget on universities.

But she also highlights the statement by the Finance Minister Robin Campbell that the government would "work with the post-secondary institutions to preserve high demand, high value programs and, correspondingly, to identify and shed low-value programs that do not represent good return on investment." (His full speech is available here). Them's certainly fighting words, but we've heard them before. It will be essential for GFC to be ultra-vigilant in this process….

As for the budget hit, a 4.1% cut over the next two years comes close to VP(Finance) Phyllis Clarke's worst case scenario (a 5% cut, which would have resulted in an overall 9% cut to Faculty budgets). I note that, despite promises from the President to keep us all fully informed after the budget announcement, they've in fact been remarkably quiet. I'm sure the lights in SAB will be burning all weekend.

Meanwhile … carry on I suppose?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Settling dust

This has been a momentous and highly emotional couple of days. Many people put an enormous amount of effort into both the resolution at the general meeting, and the alternative solution. In a two-day process, at AASUA Council and then at the general meeting, first your elected representatives on Council affirmed their desire to follow a specific course of action for Bylaws revision, consistent with the current Bylaws; and then over 200 AASUA members voted resoundingly to reject a process proposed by the Association's President, which was revealed by the lawyer hired by the Association to have an agenda to replace Council with a small Executive Board.

It was a meeting that you had to attend to appreciate (too bad it was not live-streamed or videoed). Many members spoke eloquently and passionately against the resolution; almost none spoke for it. Having revealed the true agenda behind the resolution, the lawyer was grilled relentlessly, and I sincerely hope that AASUA never again retains that law firm.

Once the vote was finally called, and it was clear that it had been defeated, the room erupted into applause and cheering. Yes indeed, the members spoke.

President Kane subsequently stated that the process for Bylaw review approved at Council would now proceed.

In closing, this was a tough but perhaps cathartic and useful process. There was real unity in the room after the decision. I sincerely hope that that unity will carry us forward to build a better and stronger Association.

But I would note that, despite the lawyer's denigrating comments about the existing Bylaws and Policies & Procedures, they do work, and actually if you bother to invest the time in reading them fully, they are quite clear (but can and should always be updated and clarified as issues or questions arise). What has gone wrong in recent years is that the Bylaws and Policies & Procedures HAVE NOT BEEN APPLIED. For that, I lay the blame squarely at feet of the PSLA-non-compliant Executive Committee and Officers. I seriously suggest that, in the light of this decision, you resign.

And finally, a commentator here previously suggested that after this process had been resolved, that the main protagonists should make way for a new generation to pick up the torch. I agree. I'm done here, and I will be resigning my seat on Council at the end of this academic year (after 13 consecutive years). As a departing girlfriend once told me, "It's been a slice."

Resolution failed

The resolution at the GMM failed resoundingly -- celebrating at the Faculty Club.

Lawyer proposing eliminating Council

The lawyer at the membership meeting is proposing to abolish Council, and replace it with a 7 to 11 member Executive Board.

This statement has been made as a preface to the actual debate about the resolution. It has prejudiced the entire debate, which is ongoing.

PSLA-compliant election of Officers and Directors of AASUA

It was pointed out at the AASUA Council meeting yesterday that, in addition to the overall Bylaws review process approved at that meeting, if it was seen to be particularly urgent to bring the Bylaws into compliance with the Post-Secondary Learning Act by changing the wording to enable election by the membership instead of by Council, this could easily be done through a quick, separate process.

Very quick, in fact, because a motion was made (by me) to Council to achieve this in 2012 (and has been discussed on this blog since 2010). Unfortunately, that motion was referred to the Governance Committee for development, never to be heard of again. (How much grief could have been avoided if the Governance Committee had simply done its job?!)

So here it is (no charge!):

Revision to Article 10 (Nominating Committee): Deletions in blue, additions in red.
10.4.3 Present to Council the Association membership a slate of candidates for the Officers of the Association (the President, the Vice President and the Treasurer) and members-at-large and, in appropriate years, the Nominee to the Board of Governors. The Officers will normally be drawn from among current or past members of Council, and the outgoing Vice President is normally nominated for President. Nominations for Officers and the Association’s Nominee to the Board of Governors may be received until seven (7) days before the day of the election from members of Council the Association's membership by delivering a written nomination to the Chair of the Nominating Committee, such nomination to be supported by the signatures of at least five (5) members of Council the Association's membership plus the written consent of the nominee. Nominations for members-at-large may be received until seven (7) days before the day of the election from any members of the Association, and must have the written consent of the nominee. 
10.4.4 Present to Council the Association membership for vote or approval a slate list of candidates for Directors, consisting of: For approval: The names of chairs of constituency committees, plus the two co-vice-chairs of the Academic Faculty, elected by those constituency groups from their representatives on Council (7.4.1); For vote: Nominations for the chairs of other committees as defined in 7.4.2, who will normally be drawn from among current or past members of Council. If no chair can be found from among the existing current or past Council members, then the chair of a committee may be nominated from the general membership; Nominations for three (3) representatives drawn from the academic faculty members of Council; Nominations for the positions under and may be received until seven (7) days before the day of election from members of Council the Association membership by delivering a written nomination to the Chair of the Nominating Committee, such nomination to be supported by the signatures of at least five (5) members of Council the Association plus the written consent of the nominee. Council The Association's membership will vote only on nominations under and
Now that wasn't too hard was it?