Queen’s “Academic Planning” Exercises, 2009-10: A Critical History with Documents (8 September 2010)

By Mark Jones

The “academic planning” exercises at Queen’s formally began on 15 January 2010, with Principal Woolf’s Where Next? and are now entering their second academic year. The adage that history’s long and memory’s short is especially true on a campus, where so many students graduate and so many arrive with every new year. Queen’s Students and Employees for Real Academic Planning (QSERAP) would therefore like to remind their colleagues of the critical importance of a process that, in the Principal’s words, will “set the course for Queen’s for the next decade or more.” The following history with linked documents is meant both to facilitate review and to introduce newcomers to the issues. The history makes clear that Queen’s “academic planning” will not pursue an academic agenda unless students, staff, and faculty get involved in numbers and ensure that their voices are heard. For that purpose QSERAP has provided the Real Academic Planning Blog, “a public site where all planning suggestions are welcome–and visible.” We urge everyone to use it. Most of the documents cited in this history are posted there.  (Acronyms and abbreviations are explained at the end of this post.)

In the beginning there were budget cuts without academic planning. Queen’s largest faculty, Arts and Science, required its units to have academic plans but did not have one itself. So when its Dean projected successive across-the-board budget cuts for 2009-12 and called that “optimistic,” and particularly when he proposed to cut programs with under 25 concentrators without due process (Feb. 2009), there was an outcry against making such decisions on purely numerical and financial grounds, and a call for academic planning. To cite just three signal events: (1) A noisy protest took place outside Richardson Hall (26 Mar. 2009). (2) Students and faculty thronged the FAS Faculty Board meeting of 3 April 2009 to stress the academic importance of Queen’s language programs, whatever their sizes. Faculty introduced (and easily passed) a motion from the floor requiring that FAS suspend the program suspensions and submit them to its own Curriculum Committee, as required by its own regulations. (3) In early July, a communal letter protesting the down-sizing of language programs and the laying-off of valuable limited-term faculty was sent to then Principal Williams (and copied to incoming Principal Woolf) with over 100 faculty, student, and staff signatures. By the time it was re-sent to Principal Woolf in September, over 140 had signed.

Little ground was gained by these actions. The protestors outside Richardson Hall received a short speech from FAS Dean Alistair MacLean about “reality” and budgetary pressures. The Faculty Board motion was end-run by legal pretenses in Senate that Faculty Board and Senate cannot make academic decisions with financial implications since financial decision-making belongs to the Board of Trustees (see Senate Minutes for 23 April 2009 and 5 May 2009, as well as Professor Emeritus David Mullan’s “Discussion Paper . . . on Responsibility for Academic Programs,” 5 Nov. 2009; see also the Real Academic Planning Blog’s editorial introduction to the Faculty Board Motion.) The communal letters to the Principals concerning language programs and faculty were accorded bureaucratic replies conceding nothing.

But one thing we did achieve. By the beginning of Daniel Woolf’s tenure as Principal (1 Sept. 2009) it was clear that Queen’s could not proceed further to cut budgets, reduce programs, lay off faculty, and increase student numbers in the absence of an academic plan. Woolf’s first message to the Queen’s community as Principal (1 Sept. 2009) opened with a section on “Academic Planning.” The message appeared to be that a university’s academic priorities must be sorted before cost-cutting decisions can be made. It began by acknowledging that Queen’s financial “challenges . . . . provide a context for our academic planning, but they should not drive it” (emphasis added). Principal Woolf’s welcome-back statement in January included a similar reassurance: “The Academic Plan,” it said, “will inform other decisions including capital planning, financial planning, and human resource issues” (emphasis added).

Unfortunately, the assurances that “academic planning” must come first have not been borne out in practice. The FAS “Planning Overview” of July 2009 opens with warnings of “ever increasing financial pressure,” dwells mainly on budget cuts, and barely mentions academic considerations. Anticipating Principal Woolf’s academic planning exercise in a further memo to FAS Heads and Directors (21 September 2009), Dean MacLean required “that each department and school complete a three-year academic plan” on the premise that “Departmental budgets will be reduced by an average of 2.5% in 2010-2011” with “a further 5% reduction in your budget for each of” 2011-12 and 2012-13. The Principal himself, despite his former assurances, launched his “academic planning” process with warnings of financial constraint. Where Next? Toward a University Academic Plan (15 Jan. 2010) has much to say about academic considerations. But the Principal’s own summation of his initiative echoes Dean MacLean in prioritizing financial retrenchment: “Essentially, I am asking every part of the University to take stock of what it does and plan for where it would like to be in five years, assuming for the most part no new university resources and increasing costs.” More famously, Woolf writes:

We are in difficult and uncertain times. To move forward, we need to be willing to let go of some things. It is not a matter of “doing more with less” – we have been doing that for a long time – but of doing fewer things, better, with what we have: doing “less with less.”

Similarly, Principal Woolf’s template of questions (Where Next? – Appendix 1) asks unit heads to “project your tenure-track and continuing adjunct staff complement ahead five years and calculate the total number of courses that can be offered given planned budgetary reductions” (emphasis added).

One might object that that is just being realistic—that even universities exist in a material world—and that any “academic planning” that ignored the limitation of resources would be pie in the sky. But there is no way that material considerations will be forgotten. All that we (Queen’s Students and Employees for Real Academic Planning) ask is that budgetary considerations wait their turn. Let us discuss and decide on academic principles first. For instance:

  • What is our overall educational ideal? Is our mandate primarily to evaluate and accredit students as a service to corporate and governmental hiring committees? Is it to train them to wield useful skills? Is it to teach them to think creatively and critically within disciplines? Or is it something else?
  • Pedagogically, do we believe in lectures or in Socratic method? What is the ideal relation between these methods, how does this differ by discipline and year, and how do we ensure that our learning conditions and pedagogical methods fit our objectives in every case?
  • What is the role of teaching-technology in and outside of the classroom, and how does this differ by discipline and year? How do we ensure that such technology is deployed to supplement (in the sense of enrich or extend) rather than displace human contact?
  • In what ways do we need to be more centralized, in what ways more integrated, in what ways more segregated? How many of our key academic and pedagogical questions need to be framed and answered differently for different sectors of the university?
  • Is it practially effective to precipitate key pedagogical functions such as “Writing” or “Teaching and Learning” into “centres,” or should our energies and resources for these functions be integrated more fully within our academic departments?
  • Is the Faculty of Arts and Science too large? Can one faculty formulate the academic needs and balance the pedagogical demands of both Arts and Science? Should FAS be subdivided?
  • How should the demands for “traditional content,” “innovation,” “skills,” “methodology,” and “discipline” be balanced in our curricula? To what extent should curricula (or what aspects of them should) be autonomously determined within academic units, and to what extent should they be governed by higher administrative authority?
  • Can a modern university function without teaching modern languages or international music, literature, history, and film and media?
  • Should the intake and treatment of graduate students be considered primarily in terms of what they can contribute to the institution and of how the province remunerates the university for hosting them, or rather in terms of what the institution owes them and of how it can best advance them in their final stages of preparation for careers?
  • Are tiered structures—of “research” vs. “teaching” faculty; of tenured vs. limited-contract faculty; of unionized vs. non-unionized employees; of full, associate, and assistant professors—healthy options for an institution? Are they wise or efficient options in the long-term? Do the benefits of having such distinctions outweigh the considerable political and financial costs of policing and maintaining them?
  • How do the institution’s functions of evaluation and education relate to one another? Where evaluative functions draw resources away from, or otherwise compromise educative functions, how might this be remedied?
  • Should we have career administrators or rotate our faculty in and out of administration? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

These are some of the questions that we believe should be discussed under the rubric of “academic planning.”

To demand that every existing academic unit produce its own three or five-year plan constrained by assumptions of 15 to 20% budget cuts—which is what Queen’s Administration did under the rubric of “academic planning” in 2009-10—was not to encourage discussion of any of these questions. It was to solicit only more resource-starved envisionings of the status quo, while at the same time dividing existing units against one another in a scramble for dwindling resources.

Not incidentally, prioritizing the university’s financial considerations has also served to shift authority in the planning process from the students and faculty, who best know their pedagogical needs, to the administrators, who keep the financial information.

Given the administration’s emphasis on financial constraints, its “academic planning” process has been “academic” in name only. In the crucial early stages, in addition to more overt pressures, short-scheduling put genuine, in-depth discussion of academic issues out of reach. In Where Next? Principal Woolf specified a one-year time-frame, and within this he accorded to the primary, grass-roots process only three months. Faculties and Schools had to report to the Principal by 15 April. Units in FAS received their query templates on 8 February 2010 and were required to respond to the Dean by February 19. This, during term, left no time to consult in any meaningful way with students, staff, and faculty.

With departments reporting by 19 February, FAS’s own synoptic Response was due by 15 April 2010—leaving a complex faculty of 29 very diverse units less than two months to account for itself, its needs, and its dreams. At this stage too, consultation and feedback were stymied by the extremely short time-frame. Most of the Dean’s drafts were circulated on one-week intervals (Mar. 11, Mar. 17, Mar. 25, April 5). This was far too fast to permit communal discussion of a complex and lengthy document (which expanded with each revision, from 7,300 to 19,300 words). Moreover, FAS sent these drafts only to unit heads, not all of whom circulated them to their faculty. Students and staff were left out of this loop entirely.

There was, predictably, a second spring confrontation at FAS Faculty Board. Over 300 students, staff, and faculty attended the March 26, 2010, meeting. A motion from the floor to reject not just the latest draft of the FAS “Response to Where Next?” but the whole “academic planning” process, was passed with so clear a majority that votes did not have to be counted. (For contemporary critiques of this stage of the planning, see documents by QUFABénard, Jessup, Mackey, and RobertsonJonesBurke, and Lamb.)

In response to this explicit rejection of the “academic planning” process by his own Faculty Board, the Dean of Arts and Science simply declared that he would complete the process as required by the Principal and deliver his final Report on schedule. With the question of university governance opened by the Dean’s defiance of the previous year’s Faculty Board Motion (April 2009) still unresolved (see para. 2, above), there was little room for students and faculty to appeal to Senate.

But one thing had become clear. The absurdly telescoped consulting schedule and the Administration’s defiance of both the April 2009 and the March 2010 Faculty Board motions made it clear that this was not a true consultation process. Queen’s “academic planning” exercise pretended to follow a democratic or collegial process but was actually being dictated by ex officio power.

Students and employees objecting to this had one place left to voice their objections, and that was the Board of Trustees, which was scheduled to meet on May 1. Our two allied groups, Queen’s Students for Real Academic Planning (QSRAP) and Queen’s Employees for Real Academic Planning (QERAP), emerged in April 2010 for this purpose. We presented a Queen’s students’ petition with over 900 signatures and a Queen’s employees’ petition with over 200 signatures to the Board of Trustees on 1 May 2010. Both were graciously received and otherwise dismissed or ignored. In an email to Queen’s Faculty the week before the Board of Trustees meeting (23 April 2010), the Principal dismissed the petitioning and related agitation as showing only “confusion about the Academic Plan.” He pursued the same line in a Kingston Whig-Standard article of 1 May: “I do think there has been an unfortunate conflation,” he said, “of the financial issues of the university with the academic planning exercise.”

Given the Administration’s refusal to take seriously its own community’s objections to its “academic planning” process, the coalition Queen’s Students and Employees for Real Academic Planning (QSERAP) took shape in late May 2010 for purposes of organizing and sharing information. Our efforts are now directed largely to ensuring that all stakeholders at Queen’s understand the history, nature, and stakes of the “academic planning” process and have access to the relevant documents, proposals, and discussions. A few gains in transparency and in scheduling have been made:

1. Publicizing the Planning Recommendations. In April 2010, members of QSERAP observed that while all academic units were required to submit planning recommendations to the Administration, “there is no provision in the Principal’s proposed timeline (p. 22) for an open publication of the submissions by all formal academic units.” They therefore launched TransparentU under the auspices of the AMS Assembly, SGPS Council, and QUFA: it consists of a Qshare page making “a compilation of those documents . . . publicly available in both electronic and print versions.” As their announcement explains, “When all of the voices at Queen’s are heard by all of the stakeholders in this academic planning exercise, then a true ‘discussion process’ can begin.” This objective has been achieved only in part, however, because the relevant documents could not be published without their authors’ permissions.

A QSERAP delegation met with Principal Woolf in June 2010, and among other issues they discussed the problem of publicizing the academic units’ recommendations to the Principal. Principal Woolf promised to take this up with the Provost, and by late August the Provost’s office had published a web page with links to the eight “Faculty/School responses to Where Next?” Taken together, this page and TransparenU have made 14 of the relevant documents public. Unfortunately, the recommendations sent to the Prinicipal by most departments and other academic sub-units remain off-limits.

2. Transparent Planning Fora. Until recently there has been no open forum for planning suggestions. Just as he did with the academic units’ proposals, the Principal solicited input from individuals by email and other forms of private communication; and his “Academic Writing Team” (AWT), appointed in May, did the same. The disadvantage to the Queen’s community was obvious: without access to the whole body of proposals, members of the community could not argue, develop, or refine each other’s proposals, and they would likewise be unable to judge of how well the resultant plan reflected the community’s wishes. As QSERAP objected to the AWT in May, consulting “can be effective and credible only if it is done in an open and transparent manner involving all parties in both the expression and the listening—e.g., not by way of community emails to an enclosed committee but rather by a blog-style website where all commentary on all sides is visible to all interested parties.” Since the AWT and Administration resisted this proposal, QSERAP launched its own Real Academic Planning Blog in late June 2010 as “a public site for all members of the Queen’s community to post suggestions for academic planning.” It was advertised as “open to all viewpoints.” In addition, in late August, the Principal responded to QSERAP’s repeated requests by creating the Academic Planning Forum. So far, this forum is designed only for comments upon the AWT’s planning Report (released 25 August 2010). But it does mean that there are now two transparent sites where members can post suggestions, read others’ suggestions, and conduct planning discussions.

The RAP Blog also serves as an archive of relevant Administrative and other documents, which are cross-referenced and in some cases have explanatory prefaces. Since these are chronologically arranged, the RAP Blog can be used as a documentary chronicle of the “academic planning” process.

3. Extended Timeline. The compressed planning timeline, discussed above, has been a point of contention since Where Next? was released, and when QSERAP met with the Principal in June 2010 we raised this issue and were assured that it was “under review.” In a planning update emailed to faculty on June 30, the Principal extended the process:

Over the past several months, concerns have been expressed that the time for consultations in particular areas of the university was insufficient over the winter; in particular the very diverse Faculty of Arts and Science, which did not have an existing strategic plan on which to build, was unable to conduct, in the time it was given, a full discussion within and between academic units. At the same time, it has become clear that the original timeline between September and December to finalize the Academic Plan may also have been unrealistically short.

Given the importance of the process—we are collectively setting the course for Queen’s for the next decade or more—and the need to have the broadest possible discussion (including inter-departmental and cross-disciplinary dialogues that the winter process afforded little space for), I have decided on the basis of the community’s collective advice, and with the agreement of the Academic Writing Team, that we should elongate the Academic Planning time horizon by several months.

Given this longer schedule, I will also be asking Senate to take an active and enhanced role in the development of the proposals from the Academic Writing Team into a full plan over the fall and winter term.

At this point (early September 2010), the exact process and timeline remain unclear. It is also unclear what can be done to remedy the flaws in a planning foundation laid on a rushed three-month schedule between 15 January and 15 April 2010. For the academic units’ hurried responses have already informed our thinking process; for instance, the AWT’s advisory proposals, which our Senate is now supposed to “develop,” have sought “to synthesize and digest the varied responses to Where Next?” that were submitted on 15 April (Report, p. 1). But both the extended timeline and the involvement of Senate are welcome developments.

This history so far (i.e., by early September 2010) shows that even in an institutional power structure there is some hope in critical discussion and strength in numbers. But it also shows that numbers, organization, and continued pressure are crucial. We at QSERAP urge all of our colleagues, whether student, staff, or faculty, to bear in mind the seriousness of a planning process that was initiated within an Administrative regime of budgetary restraint and program-reduction, even though it presently wears the more benign aspect of “academic planning.” We urge you to use the Real Academic Planning Blog to keep informed and to state your own planning views and priorities: log in and speak out!

Abbreviations used:
FAS = Faculty of Arts and Science
QUFA = Queen’s University Faculty Association
QERAP = Queen’s Employees for Real Academic Planning
QSERAP = Queen’s Students and Employees for Real Academic Planning
QSRAP = Queen’s Students for Real Academic Planning

About mrkjns96

Real Academic Planning is a public site dedicated to safeguarding academic quality at Queen’s and by extension in all of Ontario’s post-secondary education. It belongs to Queen’s faculty and students and assumes the principle that academic ends are best served by open public discussion and by transparency in record-keeping. This site is open to all viewpoints.
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