University of Alberta staff unions have written a letter expressing their concern about the future of university collegiality after a key decision in the academic restructuring process was made.
The letter, written by the University of Alberta’s Association of Academic Staff (AASUA) and the Non-academic Staff Association (NASA), addressed Kate Chisholm, chair of the university’s highest decision making body: the Board of Governors’ (BoG). It detailed concerns about the board’s decision to instate executive deans in the university’s administrative restructuring model, despite the fact that General Faculties Council (GFC) — the highest academic governing body — had recommended to have a council of deans report to the provost, with each college supported by a service manager.
The service manager would be responsible for the administration of shared services within the college, and would report to the the council of deans.
The letter asked BoG to approve GFC’s recommended structure without executive deans, a recommendation that was passed at GFC with a vote of 102-22, with five abstentions. Further, it described BoG’s rejection as “an affront to the principle of collegial governance.”
Ricardo Acuna, the president of the AASUA, described how instead of deferring to GFC’s careful deliberations, the Board of Governors made split second decisions to reach a new administrative structure agreement.
“I think it’s really unfortunate that, that’s what it came to,” he said. “Scrambling with wordsmithing … the board should have said ‘you know what, we’re not the academic experts, after six months of work the people on the front lines of teaching research and academic structures at this university have made this recommendation and we need to accept it as it is.’”
Acuna said that the type of decision-making modeled by the board does not bode well for the future of governance at the U of A.
“[Deferring to GFC’s recommendation], that’s protocol,” he said. “That’s best practice in collegial governance … for them to do otherwise I think sets a really dangerous precedent.”
Disconnect between corporate experience of the BoG and collegial expertise put towards GFC recommendation, union leaders said
Elizabeth Johannson, the president of NASA, said many board members cited their experience in the corporate sector as a reason that they believed hiring an executive dean would be the best administrative method. Johannson pointed out that while this might be the best practice in business, the university operates differently.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the business people forgot that important element of being a successful business person is listening to the experts,” she said. “You bring in subject matter experts and then you implement their advice, and in this case it’s GFC who are the experts in university governance.”
Acuna also highlighted what he saw as a disconnect between the board members’ business experience and GFC’s expertise with the university structure.
“The relationship between a professor and a dean is not the same as a corporate relationship between a vice president and a manager,” Acuna said. “The dean and the professor are colleagues — they’re peers — the vice-president and the manager are not. I think that’s where that corporate experience falls apart and that’s why we have a GFC.”
In a statement, Kate Chisholm reiterated what she said previously after the BoG meeting:
“GFC heard the administration’s recommendation but elected, after diligent and careful deliberation, to amend it,” she said. “The Board of Governors then heard and carefully considered GFC’s recommendations but amended one of them. This is exactly the process envisioned in the Post- Secondary Learning Act and it allowed us to arrive at a structure that will enable collegiality within the colleges while also ensuring that we can meet our budget milestones. Now, we can move on to working together to build a strong future.”
While it is uncertain at this point what future steps the staff unions will take at this point, Acuna shared that going forward will require a watchful eye.
“We will need to be vigilant on the impact that this restructuring process has on [AASUA’s] members, on their workload, on our academic freedom and about how decisions are made about programs and their faculties,” he said. “Whether we do take any further steps on pushing the board … that’s still up for discussion.”