Why Not Hear What People Have to Say about Aiming for Less? A Reply to Principal Daniel Woolf (25 April 2010)

As originally posted on the QERAP ipetitions blog, 25 April 2010:

By Mark Jones, for Queen’s Employees for Real Academic Planning

On April 15, 2010, a group calling itself “Queen’s Students for Real Academic Planning” floated a petition to the board of trustees, complaining of an “undemocratic academic planning process” and demanding a halt to the “rushed restructuring of our university.” Within a week over 700 students had signed. A few days later the “Queen’s Employees for Real Academic Planning” followed the students’ lead. The employees’ petition complains of an “exaggerated” financial crisis and charges Queen’s with having “simply refused to listen” to objections by faculty, students, and staff. Within a few days over 150 had signed (the respective numbers are 836 and 167 as of noon April 25).[1]

The numbers suggest that there might be some deficiencies in the process now underway on Queen’s campus under the rubric of “academic planning.” The process has left a bad impression among those whom it most closely concerns. It might be, of course, that they have failed to understand what is good for them, but it would be worth hearing, at least, what so many of them wish to say.

In an email of April 23, addressed to “Queen’s Faculty,” Principal Woolf brings oil for the troubled waters but avoids mentioning the petitions explicitly. He opens by observing only that “there appears to be confusion about the Academic Plan.” He offers reassurance that the plan (which, incidentally, is not supposed to exist yet but to be in the consultative planning stage) “is not a financial plan disguised as an academic plan,” and that “It will not prescribe mass virtualization and monster classrooms.”

Dialogue about such matters is certainly good. But it would be better if Principal Woolf explicitly addressed his interlocutors so that he could respond with specific counter-evidence to the specific objections made by the students’ and employees’ petitions. It is also possible, of course, that what he calls “confusion” refers to the recent Arts and Science Faculty Board motion to reject the planning process, a motion passed overwhelmingly at a meeting attended by 300 faculty, staff, and students on Mar. 26, 2010.[2] In any case, this dialogue will be both more productive and less liable to produce further “confusion” if we can agree to identify our interlocutors and the specific points on which we disagree.

In the spirit of such dialogue, we quote Principal Woolf’s entire email here (in italics) and respond point by point.

Dear Queen’s Community,

In some areas of campus there appears to be confusion about the Academic Plan. Over the next few paragraphs I will try to explain what the Academic Plan will be, and what it will not be.

The “confusion” in question may arise from the fact that the Administration has talked about an academic plan but led with financial cuts and threats of further cuts. Or it may arise from the fact that the Administration has promised consultation [3] but has (a) set too fast a schedule to allow of genuine consultation [4], (b) claimed to synthesize views of groups it had not consulted with at all [5], (c) ignored strong objections by Faculty at two FAS Faculty Board meetings, in spring 2009 and spring 2010 [6]; and (d) set out conclusions in advance of consultation [7].

The Academic Plan is a document that will guide master planning for our university. It will highlight Queen’s strengths, show areas for cooperation and help define the trajectory for the university in the years to come. As a newly arrived Principal, I would be embarking on this process regardless of financial circumstances. In good times and in bad, this is a way for academic considerations to lead our financial decision making. We are, after all, an academic institution. And successful academic institutions must embrace academic revitalization.

To suggest that objections to Principal Woolf’s process are tantamount to the obstruction of “academic revitalization” is ludicrous.

Let us recall that Principal Woolf has seen fit to launch his process under the banner of “doing ‘less with less’” and that the Administration led off with severe cuts to units such as Italian before any academic planning had been done.

Let us also recall that most of the propositions floated by the Administrators and objected to by other groups on campus to date—propositions for doing “less with less,” for ballooning undergraduate class sizes in years 1-2, for virtualizing classrooms [8], for considering 50 concentrators the minimum benchmark for an academic program’s viability [9], for relaxing the ratio of course credits to instructional contact hours [10], and for centralizing departmental staff by buildings [11] —have nothing to do with “academic revitalization” and everything to do with financial cost-cutting. Indeed, it is precisely in the interest of preserving academic standards and revitalizing the academic mission that concerned groups of experts on campus have spoken out in opposition to Principal Woolf’s so-called “academic planning” exercises.

And let us never forget the foundational words of Principal Woolf himself:

“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.’ [. . . .] since Engaging the World was adopted, much has changed. Our financial situation has become more complex, our enrolments continue to rise, and demands on our internal resources are more acute. In this context, the challenge is not to find other values, but rather to recognize that we cannot be all things to all people. This will entail hard choices. There will be some things we will want to emphasize; there will be others we will no longer be able to do.” [12]

These are promises not of “academic revitalization” but of financial retrenchment.

To start the process to arrive at an academic plan, I wrote a vision document in January called “Where Next?” In the vision document I presented some proposals to get people thinking about what Queen’s is and what it might strive to be. Then I asked faculties and administrative units to react to the document by sending in their own thoughts through their own plans, this month. From here, senior faculty will amalgamate input and write a draft university academic plan over the summer. Over the fall, the Queen’s community will be asked to comment on the draft so that the academic plan can be completed by December. In all, the process will take one year.

Yes, the process has been given a year, and the year is not up. But in a consultative process that is pyramidally envisioned like this one [13], the consultative foundations are critical. And the objections made at the FAS Faculty Board on 26 Mar. 2010 were that those foundations are worse than sandy—they are pure administrative invention. Students, staff, and faculty never proposed mass virtualization of class-rooms, ballooning year 1-2 class sizes, centralizing departmental administration, or making 50 concentrators the benchmark for a concentration’s academic viability. The FAS “Response to Principal Woolf,” Drafts 1-3, to which the Faculty, Staff, and Students objected in March, claimed to synthesize views of staff and students who had never been consulted at all. It claimed to synthesize views of faculty members whose objections to these summaries were then ignored. It is now late April, and Faculty, Staff, and Students are now objecting loudly to gaps and other flaws in the building’s foundation; will the Administration merely brush this off as “confusion” and continue building, or will it return to the foundation and attempt to set it right? If it is allowed to do the former now, merely because it has dressed financial retrenchment in the gown of “academic revitalization,” all hope for genuine academic planning will be lost. Programs will be lost, much of Queen’s reputation will be lost, and once these things are lost they will not come again.

I thank all faculties and units for their helpful engagement so far. While the large majority of faculties and units experienced a smooth submission process, some people feel that insufficient consultation has taken place to date. However, input for the plan has only begun. While several staff meetings, a student symposium, a request to student leaders for input, and faculty and department meetings have all occurred, I regret that some members of the community feel they were not sufficiently heard. I take this very seriously. More is to be done and I will find further ways to facilitate input both over the summer and the fall, including focus group meetings and communication opportunities with the senior faculty writers. I will also continue to solicit advice from the Principal’s Advisory Committee composed of faculty, staff and students.

That some sectors of campus have responded cheerfully while others have objected to “insufficient consultation” is a serious admission. The differential in response to the Adminstration’s planning program reflects the fact that the budget-cutting with which the Administration has led (both in fact and in threats) affects and will affect various sectors of campus differentially. The sectors themselves may care for the whole but do not all have information about the whole. The reports from the more vulnerable sectors are critical parts of that information about the whole with which all sectors, and above all the University’s administrators, ought to be concerned. Those who speak up now are precisely those who foresee that disciplines and students for whom they are responsible will suffer. They must not, therefore, be dismissed as merely dissonant voices. They are precisely the voices that a proper consultative process is designed to hear. It is somewhat reassuring to hear Principal Woolf’s promise of further consultation. But the dismissive treatment of FAS Faculty Board motions passed in spring 2009 and spring 2010 suggests, to the contrary, that dissent will be ignored or dismissed. Groups on campus are not concerned for no reason or merely out of fear of “academic revitalization.”

After a year, we will have a plan that can help guide the future of our university. Queen’s has had its share of challenges over the past few years and its future will be helped by a document that gives broad direction on how to build on its strengths. The Academic Plan will not dictate terms to faculties, departments, schools or units. It is not a financial plan disguised as an academic plan. It will not prescribe mass virtualization and monster classrooms. Instead, it will simply help to guide us towards the best possible future for a great university.

This is what we wish, too. But this cannot take shape in this way if all of the voices are not heard, and they cannot be heard if the schedule gives insufficient time for consultation. You cannot build such an academic plan by providing departments with templates and demanding an account of their strengths and their five-year plans ten days later. You cannot build it if a Faculty drafts an overview of its units where the drafts are produced on one-week intervals, where they are not sent to all affected members, where the members are not given either a time or venue for feedback, or where their strenuous objections (as at the Mar. 26 FAS Faculty Board) are simply ignored.

I hope that this helps to clarify the intent of the Academic Plan. To keep the community apprised of our financial situation I will send out a Financial Update in early May following the Board of Trustees meeting where the 2011/12 budget is submitted for approval.

With all due respect, if the Academic Plan is still being hammered out, we should not yet be speaking of “the intent of the Academic Plan.” All that we have so far is a plan for the plan; all that we should have so far is a proper process for making a plan.

I continue to seek your feedback and welcome suggestions (you can include your name or choose to be anonymous) at: http://www.queensu.ca/forms/principal/.

We encourage all faculty, staff, and students, to take the Principal up on this offer, and we ask the Principal to ensure that all feedback and suggestions will be considered in an open and collegial spirit.

[1] See http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/queensstudentsforrealacademicplanning/ and http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/queensemployeesforrealacademicplanning/).

[2] For the text and an explanation of this motion, see QUFA Voices, 6 April 2010, pp. 3-8.

[3] See, e.g., Daniel Woolf, “Where Next?” (15 Jan. 2010), pp. 2-3.

[4] “Where Next?” pp. 20-22.

[5] See Faculty of Arts and Science, “Response to Principal Woolf,” Drafts 1-3 (Mar. 11, 18, and 25, 2010), e.g., Draft 2, p. 2.

[6] See Faculty Board Minutes for 3 April 2009, pp. 6-8, and QUFA Voices, 6 April 2010, pp. 3-8 (as linked in note [2] above).

[7] See, e.g., the “Faculty of Arts and Science Draft Planning Document, Feb. 2010” and the analysis in QUFA’s Response.

[8] Faculty of Arts and Science Response to “Where Next?”, Draft 2, pp. 4-5.

[9] ibid., pp. 4, 15.

[10] ibid., pp. 5-6.

[11] ibid., pp. 15-16.

[12] “Where Next?” pp. 5-6.

[13] “Where Next,” p. 3.

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