Letter to the Chair of the UNB BoG

Members will remember that the University community received a message from Kathryn McCain, Chair of the UNB Board of Governors, on June 27 2013. As AUNBT was to meet with the employer in front of the Arbitration Board over the FT contract the following week, we sent out a message declining comment. In the meantime, the Academic Council sent off an excellent open letter to Ms. McCain on July 16 which was subsequently printed in the Telegraph-Journal on July 19. The Arbitration dates having now passed, we also turned our attention to responding. The letter was sent to Ms. McCain and the rest of the BoG earlier today, and circulated via email to the members (see below for full text; click for PDF).

July 22, 2014

Dear Ms. McCain,

Now that the active roles of the parties in the arbitration of our full-time contract have ended, we take the opportunity to reply to your message to the UNB community of June 27 2014. From its inception in 1956 the Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers has played a vital role in the articulation and protection of the rights and responsibilities of our members, not simply as employees, but as academics with duties and responsibilities to our chosen professions. It is in this capacity that we write.

Your message anticipates broadened discussion of the issues that matter to all of us in the University community. We fear, however, that the Board does not appreciate the scope of the problems that confront UNB. How else to explain that, despite the first strike/lockout in UNB history, followed closely by non-confidence motions from practically every faculty, the Board is pursuing several initiatives, any of which would require significant discussion and levels of trust if they were to succeed? We refer to the revision of the UNB Act, “prioritization,” changes to the budget process, and the latest fund-raising campaign.

We offer this response in the hope of better understanding and transparency. It is divided into three parts: “Crisis”, Communication, and Direction.

“Crisis”

At several points your letter mentions that various financial scenarios were presented to the Board in recent years. Adopting repeatedly the worst-case of these scenarios is not a reasonable way to oversee an organization. Many of the potential challenges that your letter mentions never materialized. The financial crisis of 2008 was used to impose shock doctrine austerity measures at UNB, specifically cutting operating funds for academic programs and positions, in concert with systematic attacks on collegial governance. As we now know, the financial crisis was not severe in Canada, in NB or at UNB in particular, where we enjoyed a relatively quick recovery in university endowments and other investments. However, senior management persuaded the Board to continue austerity measures well into 2014, years after any rationale for a crisis had disappeared. Academic programs were and continue to be starved and academic/support staff salaries suppressed in order to stockpile cash in restricted funds. At the same time, faculty complement has declined perilously under an attrition policy of “aggressive vacancy management” with resignations and retirements replaced, if at all, only fractionally or with temporary, non-tenure track term positions. Over the same period, administrative ranks expanded, and continue to expand, and new administrative units continued to be created, while academic programs, departments, and faculties find themselves under constant threat of merger, loss of accreditation, or even suspension of enrollment: in effect termination.

Your letter maintains that “cost reduction is the only real way to deal with” budgetary challenges. In that case, we would ask why the Board failed to examine the extraordinary growth of the administration? Despite what the senior administration claims, the numbers are inarguable: during a period of stringent, needless austerity, UNB has nevertheless become increasingly top-heavy.

We note your references to the pension plan as one of UNB’s recent challenges. While the state of the plan certainly caused anxiety, our members’ agreement to convert to a shared risk plan — an agreement made at considerable individual cost to both active and retired members — has been a windfall for planning and stability in future UNB budgets. Here and elsewhere we are disheartened to see that the Board has apparently accepted the same selective half-truths of financial disaster that we hear routinely from the VP Finance.

At the joint Senates meeting of April 17th the VP Finance disclosed that he had become “concerned” over the budget surpluses by June 2013. This admission was astonishing given the longstanding “inability to pay” arguments we hear during every round of bargaining, arguments that morphed awkwardly into a belated “all right, we can pay, but we have priorities other than the core mission” in the latest round.

Your letter intimates that in hindsight, the Board ought to have made different decisions. Those decisions — all decisions — should have had protecting the core mission of the university as their first consideration, with a thorough search for economies in non-core areas of university operations. Here are a few possibilities: hiring freeze and cuts to administration; reduction of salaries, bonuses, travel allowances, and conference/retreat attendance fees/costs for senior administrators and their immediate support staff; reduction of use of outside consultants and head hunters; reduction in expensive use of external lawyers; curb on legalistic and adversarial approach of HR to grievance matters.

Another element of the discourse of “crisis” is what is termed the demographic problem. Your letter presents the issue in the overblown way propagated by the senior administration. Certainly there is a declining birthrate in the Maritimes and UNB will need to expand the proportion of the provincial population who pursue post-secondary education and attract more students from outside the region. But in order to deal with the issue, we need to view it dispassionately. Your letter seems to assume UNB’s artificially inflated enrolment levels of the Ontario double cohort years as the normal baseline for comparison, despite the unreasonableness of this approach having been exposed at the joint Senates meeting of April 17, 2014. In this, as in many other instances, the Board as well as the UNB community as a whole have been given massaged data in an attempt to justify what is now exposed as a destructive, unnecessary program of austerity.

Communication

While we welcome the Board’s commitment to greater communication we wonder what such a reserved body can mean by the term. Communication must go beyond being invited to offer “input and suggestions.” The internal culture at UNB needs to change significantly if we are to recover from the self-inflicted wounds that produced the wave of non-confidence motions. The recent review of roles in upper administration is an example of a flawed communications process: the initiative was introduced in an apparent rush despite what must have been considerable preparation; input from the wider community was solicited only belatedly; and, although the results of the review were apparently delivered speedily to a Board committee, there has been no communication to the UNB community of the report’s findings and recommendations. More generally, we are faced with persistent efforts by the senior administration to avoid sharing information. For example, we have recently been forced go to court to pursue our right to information on the Board’s restricted funds. This is not transparency.

Managed messages from a disconnected, top-down and top-heavy senior administration will not resolve UNB’s issues and challenges. Hiring more PR personnel to “manage the President’s brand” or generate brochures for alumni and donors will do nothing to address the elephant in the room: the failure of those who administer UNB to protect and nourish its core mission of teaching and research.

The wish your letter expresses that members of the university community will stop criticizing the Board, the president and others in the upper administration does not consider the right and responsibility of faculty in a democratic society to criticize the management of power structures and institutions. Such discussions are part of academic freedom as laid out in Article 14 of both Collective Agreements. Article 14 expressly includes the “freedom to criticize … the University of New Brunswick.” Such rights are necessary precisely because universities function in the public interest and are complex organizations: they are not private, for-profit corporations.

Your letter asks that faculty “engage with the processes of the University to provide input and suggestions regarding future actions” but the grass-roots votes of non-confidence were clear indications that the hierarchy of reporting within UNB is not adequate for communicating the level of mistrust currently experienced by our members. Those “usual processes” are insufficient and are often part of the problem.

Direction

Where the UNB website used to say “governance” it now says “leadership,” a marker of the top-down, managerial approach that has led us so far astray. UNB needs to return to, and improve on, the collegial governance model if we are to have any hope of maintaining our reputation.

We do not question that it may sometimes be necessary to modify a budget in the face of (actual, not projected) reductions in funding. We do question the policy of making all the cuts to the core mission of the university. Your letter describes how UNB is now in a better financial position, but without addressing the “mission deficit” seriously, we see no grounds for celebration.

According to the approved and publicly posted Strategic Plan, the ”Overarching Goal” for UNB is “to be the best teaching and learning institution in Canada, balancing and integrating excellence in education and research” (p.11). Yet the Board and senior administration have failed to even ensure the status quo. Your letter acknowledges that “[t]he decisions made over this period have come at a cost.” That cost has been the undermining of UNB as a national, comprehensive university, in contravention of both the core mission and the Strategic Plan.

All UNB Board members occupy a position of public trust. The Board and senior administration — regardless of intentions — have failed to fulfill their obligations to i) all past and present students, by risking the credibility of the UNB degree; ii) faculty, who have devoted careers to building and sustaining the national, international reputation of UNB; and iii) the people of New Brunswick, whose tax dollars contribute to funding UNB with the expectation that they are funding a national, comprehensive university.

We invite you and the Board to engage in meaningful, open and ongoing discussions on the nature of universities, UNB’s problems, and paths on which to move forward together.

Yours truly,
Miriam Jones, President
Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers

cc. UNB Board of Governors
AUNBT membership

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Categories: Communication, Governance, Issues, Media