It is Still About Choice

You may have heard that Laurentian University recently filed for creditor protection. This news, coupled with some Senior Administrators discussing deficits in terms of “number of faculty positions they no longer have funding for,” has many faculty worried about job security at the University of Saskatchewan. Let us assure you that faculty jobs are largely secure here because of both the strong financial position of the University and the provisions in our collective agreement.

Article 29 of the Agreement states that layoffs will occur when the resources of the University are not sufficient to finance existing academic programs without layoff of employees.

Why should we be skeptical about the Administration’s description of the University’s financial position? There is no denying that government funding to the University has declined and the pandemic has exacerbated financial challenges, but do not let the Administration’s fear-mongering and catastrophic language fool you. We have heard it before but once you scratch the surface of the University’s financial disclosures and budgets, even just slightly, you will see that we are not heading in the direction of Laurentian. For example, budgets are regularly presented using worst-case scenarios for revenues and expenditures, resulting in regular “surprise” reports that we have “performed better than expected” and even have surpluses.

Those of you who have been around campus for a while will remember the USFA campaign “It’s About Choice.” That campaign remains as relevant today as it was when the campaign was first launched. The Administration has adopted a funding model that inequitably disperses financial resources and decision-making authority across campus. Each year significant resources are funneled away from Colleges and Schools to central administration in the form of fee for services, indirect costs, and tuition claw-backs. The Administration has made the choice to starve some programs and units and reward others. The current standard of financial reporting at the University of Saskatchewan, however, makes it difficult to readily identify that pattern. While academic units have to report each penny they spend, there is no transparency for the campus community to understand whether the budgets, expenditures, and deficits of senior leadership are dealt with in terms of comparably punitive measures. Faculty searches are halted and recommendations to appoint faculty are rejected, yet appointments of senior administrators go ahead. Every one of us can recall an instance when we’ve been told that there is “no money”—until suddenly, it turns out there is in fact money for a special project or initiative that someone in Senior Administration recognizes value in. 

You should question the statement that the cupboards are bare.

The University of Saskatchewan has, if not the largest, close to the largest land base of any post-secondary institution in Canada, and the University’s official plans have included using parcels of this land for revenue generation since Vision 2057: University Land-Use Plan was approved in October 2009Vision 2057, prepared by Brook McIlroy Inc. of Toronto, states that the University owns about 1865 acres/755 hectares of land within the city of Saskatoon (approximately 1/20 of the total urban lands within the city’s urban boundary) and in total it has land holdings of about 13,300 acres/5,382 hectares across the province of Saskatchewan. This land base would be expected to be sold if the Administration had mismanaged the finances so much that the University could not pay its debts. If the University were in such dire financial straits, then there are senior administrators who should be held to account because they have been taking inappropriate risks.

The USFA has negotiated a strong collective agreement. Article 29 governs lay-offs and severance can only occur if there are not sufficient funds to pay existing employees or an employee is found to be redundant. As mentioned, the Administration has a lot of land to sell before the University would be unable to pay employees. A redundancy can occur only after a program is discontinued, and the Administration does not have the authority to make that decision. That authority rests with University Council. Even then, the employer has an obligation to attempt to economize in other areas, find affected faculty members a home in another unit, provide them with retraining, or encourage early voluntary retirements to avoid layoffs before they can offer a severance package.

The job security that USFA members enjoy is unique at the University of Saskatchewan. We must emphasize, however, that the choices the Administration makes about resource allocation makes us concerned about our most vulnerable members and places members in the other bargaining units at significant risk of job loss. Fewer dollars to colleges has meant fewer sessional lectures and graduate student TAs. The closure of campus has resulted in temporary and permanent lay-offs of vital CUPE and ASPA staff. At the same time, contracts are awarded to external “service providers” and contract researchers. And we do not hear rhetoric concerning how many Senior Administration positions could be eliminated to balance this deficit. It is still about choice.