Top-down Destructive “Planning” in Arts and Science (21 Mar. 2010)

By Frank Burke, as posted in QUFA Forum, 21 Mar. 2010.

The so-called academic planning exercise in the Faculty of Arts and Science continues to be top-down, rushed, and financially driven–hence not academic at all. It is the antithesis of what it should be: a thoughtful, sustained, inclusive process anchored in the experience of faculty, responsive to the needs of students, and built through the creative interaction of academic units–among one another and with the Dean’s Office. As “QUFA’s Response to Principal Woolf’s Academic Planning Exercise” makes clear, the Dean’s Office gave units a response time of ten days after developing the template for the exercise back in February. Although additional feedback has been possible since then, the Dean’s Office is trying to push the entire process through within two months. A genuine academic planning process would take at least a year and (as the recently posted “Open Letter to Principal Woolf” notes) require far more involvement from more stakeholders.

Disregard for faculty opinion in Arts and Science is clear from the two versions of the “Draft Response to Principal’s Vision Statement” circulated by the Dean’s office on March 11 and March 18. (See elsewhere on this blog.) Both claimed “to synthesize a range of comments by faculty, staff and students who have made their views known” to the Faculty Office. But students and staff have had no formal role in responding to the document, and faculty expressed shock at the first version’s claim to reflect their views when, in fact, it effaced them. Certain positions taken by the first document, such as the large-scale virtualization of first- and second-year courses and the centralization of staff by building (eliminating staff from academic units), met with strong opposition at a meeting of Heads with Deans that followed the release of the document. Nevertheless, they reappear unaltered (except for minor changes in wording regarding staff centralization) in the second version. There is no plan to submit the document to a vote of faculty. There will be a discussion at the next Faculty Board meeting, then the document will be referred upward. Dramatic changes pointed to by the document will be those of the Deans, without the support of their constituencies.

Why is a certain vision of restructuring being forced on the Queen’s community? Administrators would respond “it’s the budget crisis, of course.” Let us rehearse a few facts that were presented to the QUFA membership at a December 7, 2009 special meeting. (See also “QUFA Opinions” in QUFA Voices, December, pp. 3-5.) The Board of Trustees and Administration have, after years of operating surpluses, taken to predicting large deficits, only to admit by fiscal year’s end that they were wrong. In 2009 a predicted $6 million deficit turned into a virtually balanced budget. The predicted deficit for this year has already been roughly halved, according to the Principal’s latest figures. Moreover, Queen’s has more than enough resources to cover, certainly for the short term, whatever shortfalls might be occurring. As the rating agency DBRS stated in June 2009: “Queen’s has access to over $300 million in expendable resources (more than 3.0 times debt), which at year-end 2007-2008 included $193 million in reserves and $190 million in internally restricted endowment assets that could be unendowed, if needed.” THERE IS NO QUESTION THAT QUEEN’S HAS THE RESOURCES TO ENABLE AN INTEGRATED AND INCLUSIVE ACADEMIC PLANNING PROCESS TO OCCUR OVER AN APPROPRIATE PERIOD OF TIME THAT WOULD LEAD TO THE REVITALIZATION RATHER THAN DESTRUCTION OF THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT. The refusal to allow this process to occur generates strong suspicions that the crisis has been partially invented and artfully exploited to justify redesigning the university according to business models that do not promote the kind of creative and critical thought that are essential to universities and to their roles in individual intellectual development and in the betterment of society.

To the extent that there are shortfalls, they can be attributed to a number of internal factors: years of the Board and Administration siphoning money from a healthy operating budget to support Herstmonceux, the endowment, and capital projects; gross overspending on the Queen’s Centre; the failure to put a capital campaign in place to fund the Centre; mistakes in hiring at the highest levels of Queen’s governance; lavish pay-outs to former administrators; and so on and so on. The attempts of the Board of Trustees and Administration to blame shortfalls on the global recession never held much weight for those of us who know the recent history of Queen’s fiscal (mis)management. Now, as markets stage a strong recovery, the global situation becomes a thin cover for the real causes of Queen’s financial difficulties.

It is time that the Board of Trustees, the higher Administration, and, in turn, the Faculty of Arts and Science fulfil their responsibilities to the academic mission of this university. Let us have a proper academic planning process and a strong academic future at Queen’s.

Frank Burke

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