Monday, July 27, 2009

Universities Have Forgotten Their Purpose

One of the main reasons I do not contribute any money to either of my alma maters is the fact that it has become obvious over the years that universities have forgotten the reason they exist. While it may come as a surprise to the ‘visionaries’ who have been busily building their empires over the decades, the base mission of the university is, or should be, teaching excellence, not the forging of partnerships with businesses, not the building of grander and grander buildings, not the endless fundraising efforts, and certainly not the proliferation of already bloated academic bureaucracies (i.e., $500,000 a year presidents, multiple vice-presidents, deans, etc., etc.)

Now that these institutions are facing greater than usual financial pressures, what is their solution? Not to pare down non-essentials (see the above bloated academic bureaucracies), but, of course, to cut teaching staff and increase class sizes. Organizational behaviour is so predictable, not to mention so destructive to the well-being of the organization. I saw the same misguided and short-sighted antics during my 30 years as a high school teacher, when boards would spend outrageous sums on non-classroom personnel (“You have to pay top dollar to attract top people,” they would tell us) while begrudging us the smallest of increases.

I am reproducing below an article from today’s Globe and Mail that details the latest folly of these academic ‘leaders.’

Staff cuts to boost class size on campus

Services hurt as universities strapped for cash

Elizabeth Church
From Monday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Monday, Jul. 27, 2009 03:52AM EDT

A wave of staff reductions at cash-strapped universities will mean larger classes and fewer services for students at campuses this September.

The budget squeeze – the result of falling investment income and rising costs, especially for pensions – has left many universities scrambling to find millions of dollars in savings for the coming school year. With salaries accounting for the lion's share of budgets, job losses are the inevitable result, school leaders say. That's led to a range of actions to reduce head counts on campus, including layoffs, buyout offers, the cancellation of teaching contracts and hiring freezes.

“You've got to know these discussions are going on at every university in this country,” said Harvey Weingarten, president of the University of Calgary, who recently warned that as many as 200 jobs would be lost on campus this fall. Dr. Weingarten said efforts would be made to limit those cuts to areas that have the least effect on students, but he said with so much of the budget spent on salaries and benefits, staff reductions are the only way to meet the province's requirement for a balanced budget.

While many schools say it is too soon to put a firm number on job losses, others are in talks with unions or have already taken action.

At the University of Guelph, as many as 100 teaching contracts and 30 posts for teaching assistants are in question. The exact cuts will depend on course demand and student numbers, a university spokesman said. Earlier this year 145 staff at the university accepted an early retirement package.

The University of Western Ontario was one of the first campuses to implement reductions, offering a buyout package and a phased retirement option this spring, followed by the layoff of 55 staff.

“I think it's fair to say the system is under distress,” said Jim Butler, vice-president of finance and administration at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. Laurier is using one-time provincial funding to help bridge this year's $8.8-million funding shortfall, but also is cutting casual workers and posts through attrition to make ends meet. The measures will mean the elimination of some smaller classes. “If there is a class of six people in it, we will not be running it,” Mr. Butler predicted.

There will also be fewer campus jobs for returning students. Cuts have already been made at the Special Constable Services, a 24-hour on-campus security hub that last year employed 32 students to work as dispatchers.

The centre responds to student emergencies, whether it's a stolen bike or a bar brawl at the campus pub. During the school year, student dispatchers work six-hour shifts in teams of two, answering phone calls, dispatching officers during emergencies, and keeping an eye on the 236 CCTV cameras on campus.

This fall, the centre will hire 16 students, with only one working per shift.
Second-year business student Jodi Martin was a student dispatcher last year and used her earnings to help pay for tuition. She was hoping to keep the position throughout the summer but was discouraged when her manager informed her of the staffing reductions.

“I was really unimpressed by the fact that they were cutting that,” she said, adding that the centre was actually redesigned last year to accommodate two students per shift. “Especially since they had drilled it into us how important it was that there was two people there for regulations and for being able to do the job properly.”

Other schools are floating proposals for unpaid leave. Lakehead University in Thunder Bay is attempting to require staff and faculty to take days off in December and the idea of unpaid “Queen's Days” was suggested by the administration at Queen's University recently, but was rejected by faculty.

“Clearly all this will inevitably have a significant impact on how we deliver programs,” said Patrick Deane, vice-principal academic at Queen's. Mr. Deane said many, but not all, contract faculty will not have their appointments renewed, and proposals for early retirement packages are being discussed.

While universities say the cuts are necessary, faculty groups are attempting to gauge the severity of the situation, with some questioning the need for drastic action and warning about the effect it will have on quality.

“It's a muddied picture,” said Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “We are trying to separate out legitimate claims of financial hardship from less legitimate claims, but it is not easy.”

Mr. Turk said it is too soon to see trends in the reductions. While some schools are cutting contract faculty, others are using them as a less costly replacement for departing tenured professors. “It's an evolving story,” he said.

As the story develops, faculty members such as Mark Jones, an English professor at Queen's University, are troubled by the departure of talented scholars who have been told they will not be needed next year.

“It's very upsetting,” he said. “There are tremendous losses here.”
Over the past two decades, Prof. Jones said, he has watched seminar classes double or even triple in size and introductory courses swell from 50 to 200 students. He fears what further cuts will do to course offerings and the ability of the department to offer a full program.

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