Managerialism @ UNB

Vladimir Tasić

 

The belief that post-secondary education requires fewer educators and more administrators is widespread among people who occupy high offices at universities and consultants commissioned to affirm their notions. These businessmen generally do not set foot in a classroom or a lab, and use the corporate terminology of “benchmarks” and “best practices” in a way that suggests great urgency. Such managerialism is not unique to UNB, but ongoing cuts to the faculty complement have made it a central and critical governance issue at our university.

The Senior Administration’s philosophy of the university closely resembles a crude form of the neoliberal doctrine. Everything that exists is a “resource”, which self-evidently requires a heavy management superstructure. Research and teaching are commodities, degrees are investments, students are customers, and academic staff is a set of content providers who fail to appreciate the virtues of outsourcing.

On this view, Faculties—the academic units that carry out the university’s core mission—are seen as companies that supply and exchange products and services in a shared economic setting (formerly known as the university), in an overall ambiance of competition and adversity rather than one of cooperation and collegiality.

Consider ITS: a UNB subsidiary that charges academic units for printing and copying services. In an attempt to boost profits by leveraging its virtual monopoly on the internal market, this entity unwisely decided to shut down a printing centre in a prime location that had served no less than three Faculties: Arts, Business, and Science. It doesn’t have to make sense in an academic environment, nor does it have to make sense in a broader context, where convenient alternatives are readily available; it only has to raise the bottom line in a spreadsheet filed with the Canadian Association of University Business Officers.

The Senior Administration seems intent on applying this idea of “success” (efficiency, profitability, rather than quality of teaching and scholarly work) to all Faculties. But the currency of inter-Faculty free trade is more difficult to determine than in the case of fairly straightforward transactions between a Faculty and ITS. For this reason, everything has to be converted into dollar values: teaching, research, service, even students (“bums in seats”). While the calculus does nothing to restore confidence in the Senior Administration, one can only assume that it will play a special role in the looming Prioritization Exercise; we should therefore familiarize ourselves with this new math.

Teaching Transfer as the Common Currency of UNB Trade

It is instructive to look at the Proposed UNBF Budget Template: Explanation and Summary of 19 September 2013. In a characteristically opaque manner, the plan for budget reform is treated as classified material: the watermark confidential is printed across every page in a conspicuous colour, signalling that the principle of transparency does not apply to matters of considerable interest to the university community.

The proposed budget model is not easily reducible to a formula, and only one of its many aspects will be discussed here: the calculation of the dollar value of the “transfer teaching rate”, namely the inter-Faculty trade in students. For example, some Computer Science students take Arts courses, and Nursing and Business students take Science courses. To valuate this exchange of customers on the internal UNB market, the top-secret policy paper introduces a common currency: “the average university-wide Faculty cost to teach and support a student”.

The two-line calculation of this universal currency involves both multiplication and division. The university-wide expense of Faculties—a figure that includes the sum of salaries of all academic staff—is divided by the total number of course registrants. The result: “average university-wide Faculty cost to teach and support a student” is approximately $1070 (per course registrant).

This number is then multiplied by 0.514 in a seemingly random fashion, with the implication that 48.6% of university-wide academic expenses are required “for those services Faculties need to help them be successful.” These, in turn, consist of success-essential services “such as the VPF and their office, Student Services, Registrar, CETL, CEL, UFirst, Fredericton Libraries, Security, and Facilities Management […] Financial Services, Research Services, Advancement and management etc.”

The arithmetic is simple enough, but the underlying principle should not go unremarked. Taking close to half of university-wide Faculty expenses and counting it as the cost of services described in the previous paragraph, including the farcically vague “management etc.”, is bizarre even on the level of abstract algebra. Considered in the material plane, it is in effect a decree that half of the labour represented by the sum of academic staff’s salaries is actually the labour of “management etc.” That, of course, is absurd.

There are in fact several layers of absurdity. For example, the budget model implies that various offices listed above contribute to the education of a student as much as Faculties. Worse, not only are the contributions of the offices in charge of success unjustifiably exaggerated, they are subtracted from the “average of cost of teaching and supporting a student”.

Administrative expenses, which are clearly substantial, should be added to academic ones. If this were done, however, some of the success-enabling offices might have to limit their monetary voracity to the revenues they could generate by offering largely unwanted and academically irrelevant services. Instead, UNB’s masters of financial matters treat Faculties as tenants who must pay rent and maintenance fees to be allowed to do what a university is supposed to do.

In the process, budget planners make it look like the “average university-wide Faculty cost to teach and support a student” is half of what their own calculation demonstrates on the same page. Quote: “Transfer teaching rate = Total cost of Faculties / total number of course registrants = $77M/72K=$1070”. The next line reduces this by 48.6%, citing the contribution of offices that appear in the calculation literally out of nowhere. It’s like magic. While we are being distracted by lofty references to teaching and supporting students, some $37.4 million worth of academic work done in Faculties gets attributed to “management etc.”

After the engorged apparatus created by our Senior Bureaucrats gets what it claims as its due, what remains of “the average university-wide faculty cost to teach and support a student” is: $550 per course registrant. This amount “also reflects revenue in terms of what students are ‘willing’ to pay”. [Scare quotes are original.]

Whatever the difficulties of these particular calculations, there is a broader issue at stake: a common currency of inter-Faculty trade in students gives rise to a certain metric of profitability of the Faculty’s teaching within the UNB market. As such, the system could conceivably be used as a criterion for deciding which units are “successful” and which are not. Spreadsheets based on this calculus already exist, and must not be taken lightly by anyone who cares about UNB’s academic programs.

The Price of Success

UNB’s financial experts appear to be undeterred by the fact that their exercises in arithmetic result in what could reasonably be described as nonsense. For example, if the market value of a UNB course were $550, international students would have to take 27 courses in a single academic year in order to break even on their $15,000 investment in post-secondary education. That would be a transformative learning experience of a special kind, and would no doubt enhance UNB’s recruitment efforts abroad.

Domestic students are already overworked at the break-even point of 12-13 courses per year, in addition to which many of them hold a low-paying job. In return for being forced into an economic regime that makes little academic sense, students are offered an array of customer-appreciation services (success workshops, orientation extravaganzas) that further increase administrative costs and take funds away from teaching and research. Ultimately, students and faculty are overworked and demoralized, while the Senior Administrators continue going about the strange business of helping all of us succeed in the manageralist world of their creation.

The administration’s budget model leads to absurd conclusions because it tries to count the expenses of assorted viceroys among the primarily academic expenses of Faculties. Clearly this must be corrected. Indeed, the Proposed UNBF Budget Template envisions a mechanism for correction, albeit of the kind that the Senior Administration appreciates. The percentage of the compulsory administrative excise (referred to as Extra-Faculty Costs) “is determined each year by an Extra-Faculty cost committee lead by the VP Finance, VP Fredericton, and a Dean. Together these 3 people represent the interests of the university at large […]”.

Let us recapitulate:

  • Getting help with success is mandatory: “A Faculty cannot ‘opt-out’ of its share of Extra-Faculty costs.”
  • The cost of help with success is expected to be around 50% of total expenses of academic work (48.6% in the baseline year).
  • The excise rate is to be adjusted annually by a committee “lead” by the VP Finance, VP Fredericton, and a token Dean. Having no conflict of interest in the matter of redirecting funds toward the offices of two Senior Administrators who hold permanent seats as leaders of this committee, the triumvirate will, without a doubt, vigorously and fairly represent the interests of “all Faculties that comprise Fredericton”.

There are two ways of looking at this. An optimistic view would be that having any system in place is an improvement on the current situation, in which Faculties are starved according to superficially rational but essentially arbitrary decisions by senior administrators. A less optimistic view would be that the system, as outlined above, institutionalizes and cements as law the established custom: expropriation, by an expanding bureaucracy, of funds used for academic purposes. On this latter view, which seems more likely to obtain in reality, the proposed budget template essentially legitimizes the practice of, in effect, forcing racketeering on Faculties.

A Modest Proposal

By far the simplest way to correct this flawed management-centred model is to permanently remove the arbitrarily imposed 48.6% managerial racket by setting the percentage to zero. With this minimal correction at hand, we can perform a few elementary calculations that apparently have eluded the VPF, VPA, VPSJ, AVP-HROD, and the Resource Planning and Budgeting Team.

Imagine, then, a professor teaching 100 students per year. It is not unusual for professors to teach that number of students in a single class, and sometimes twice as many (in a single class). According to the Administration’s top-secret budget model—minus the 48.6% excise—this professor’s work translates into dollars as follows: $1070 per course registrant, times 100, equals $107,000. This is close to the average UNB salary in 2013, except that it accounts only for the teaching part of the 40-40-20 distribution of responsibilities (which is formally recognized in the proposed budget model). Since teaching represents 40% of professional responsibilities of a professor, we should divide the $107,000 by 0.4 (or by 0.8 in case of instructors). It follows that a professor teaching a single class of 100 students makes a dollar-value contribution of $267,500 to the UNB economy.

Of course there are various class sizes and levels of difficulty. A language class with 200 students would not be much good to anyone. But it is a fact that in some departments professors and instructors teach 300 or more undergraduates in an academic year. A professor teaching an introductory calculus course can have 200 students in this one class, and easily another 100-150 in other classes taught that academic year. Assuming this colleague would have any time left for research (there’s always summer), he or she would, according to the Top Secret Budget Model, contribute a dollar-value of $802,500 to the university’s internal economy. Coincidentally, 48.6% of that sum is approximately the salary of UNB President.

There are other potentially edifying calculations in the Proposed UNBF Budget Template. If the managers made the document public instead of stamping confidential all over it, the university community might have a better sense of what is being planned, and may be able to offer constructive critiques.

For instance, colleagues in the Faculty of Education might comment on the proposed use of NSSE[1] scores to gauge the levels of student engagement in academic units that scramble to find the resources to staff their regular course offerings. Researchers may have something to say about the allocation of funds based on research ranking (an aspect of the budget that was not discussed here); they might point out, for example, that research ranking of academic units is an altogether abstruse process that requires faculty to input data readily available to numerous administrative offices, which eventually return an enigmatic output.

Yet it does not follow that it would all be negative and acerbic. There may be ideas in the new budget template that academic staff would appreciate. UNB faculty are perfectly capable of understanding the need to set aside a certain amount of contingency funding, as well as the need for maintaining or renovating the buildings in which, after all, we work. The Senior Administration, on the other hand, prefers to keep secrets from faculty and to infantilize students, while preparing to implement a new system. Only a select few—the Serious People—can be trusted with planning, discussing, or caring about, the future of UNB.

One might have hoped that the first strike/lockout in UNB’s history would result in serious soul-searching among the CEO, CFO, COO, CAO and other occupants of the university’s highest offices. But the Senior Administration remains Delphic about complement planning and royally out of touch with the reality of our classrooms and with the serious and growing concerns of faculty. For example, it would rather invest in an analysis NSSE scores than rebuild the trust of people who actually do the teaching. It would rather invest in a branding exercise than trust the academic units to hire excellent new faculty, arguably the best way to sustain and enhance the national and international reputation of UNB. That is what is stake here.

In this situation, requiring the Senior Administration to halt the process of stripping away funds from Faculties is only the minimum request. It does not address the issue of funding that has been transferred from Faculties to “management etc.” over the past few years. Ending the Hunger Games is not enough. The only real remedy would be to return to Faculties the sums systematically taken away from them; the funds would then be invested, with absolute certainty, in the university’s core mission.

 

February  16 2014

 

[Download this document as a PDF]


[1] National Survey of Student Engagement. According to MacLean’s, “NSSE is designed to measure student engagement and best educational practices, delivering feedback for university administrators.”

One Comment on “Managerialism @ UNB”

  1. Tony Rhinelander (Prof Em, STU, History)
    February 20, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

    Excellent article! (Especially enjoyed the “edifying” calculations in the Budget Template.) As always, “the bureaucracy expands to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy” (attributed to Oscar Wilde). But somehow I doubt the administration will embrace the call for transparency.
    I wonder if your readers know about the principles of holacracy? (see holacracy.org). A perfect fit for running a university, with a lengthy constitution and group of advisers, although they say they have never done one — yet. The problem, of course, is that it requires the person at the top to take the initiative, and from the sounds of things it’s not something Dr Campbell would consider.
    Q: is there interest (and passion) enough among UNB faculty now to really move to take back the university’s administration? They could do so, I believe, through a renewed Faculty Council — by simply meeting and facing down the administrators. We (I should say I, since it was my initiative) started it at St Thomas some years ago, but I retired and never really had a chance to follow it through.
    Good luck.

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