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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 1998

A Cautionary Tale from Carleton University

E. Peter Fitzgerald

Program Closures & Layoffs

During the first week of December the Carleton University Senate voted to accept a proposal by senior administrators to close academic programs in two faculties. As at other universities, the senate is Carleton's highest authority in academic matters, and this decision was in theory taken on academic grounds.

Nevertheless, all those present clearly understood the targeted programs were in fact being shut down for financial reasons -- just as everyone understood these closures would lead to the dismissal of tenured academic staff.

During the senate meeting the administration refused to say how many tenured staff would be affected by this decision. Statements made by senior administrators in other contexts suggest a range of 12 to 26 layoffs. But in subsequent negotiations with the faculty association, the administration has continued to refuse to specify how many colleagues will be required to leave the university in the name of financial recovery.

Carleton's financial difficulties are real. After the election of the Harris government, all Ontario universities were hit by two years of swinging reductions in provincial grants. While all universities were hurt by these cuts, Carleton's situation was made significantly worse because of concomitant drops in enrolment.

As a result, the decline in Carleton's operating revenues was proportionally greater than declines experienced by other post-secondary institutions in the province.

Carleton's administration tackled this revenue shortfall by cutting internal budgets across the board and by encouraging academic staff to elect "voluntary separation." The buyout incentives that were part of this program became the chief contributor to the growth of Carleton's operating deficits -- though they tended to make the financial situation look worse than it was in actual cash-flow terms. (This is because accounting rules require that the total sum of a buyout be entered on the books in the year the arrangements are concluded, even though real cash disbursements will be paid out over future years.)

The financial legacy of two miscarried capital projects also added a significant amount of red ink, perhaps as much as a third of the $21.5 million at which the accumulated deficit currently stands.

In this context, Carleton University President Dr. Richard Van Loon presented the board of governors with a financial plan designed to expunge the accumulated deficit over a 10-year period. After this plan was accepted by the board, Carleton's senior administrators have tended to reify it: it is no longer to be seen as their creation, but rather as a board-imposed "mandate" with which the university has no choice but to comply.

This artifice is disingenuous to say the least, but there can be no doubt the transformation of a self-imposed goal into an "external" constraint proved to be an effective tactic in selling the need for layoffs.

In any event, the fundamental element in the administration's plan was the attainment of a zero-deficit outcome in fiscal 1998-99 to be followed by a series of rising surpluses on operations in subsequent years.

In order to generate the additional cost savings necessary to meet that objective the administration proposed to abolish undergraduate (and some graduate) degree programs in European languages and literatures. As well, the undergraduate program in physics was slated to be downsized into an applied physics program. These were the concrete measures which Carleton's senate voted to endorse, with surprisingly little opposition, on Dec. 5.

In retrospect we can now see the faculty association made two important mistakes in the 18 months during which program closures were in the offing. One of these mistakes was certainly avoidable, the other perhaps not.

During contract negotiations in the spring of 1996, the faculty association accepted an important change in the terms of our collective agreement that govern program redundancy. In essence, decision by senate on program closures was substituted for a complex and drawn-out procedure that required the administration to declare financial stringency before the procedure could be invoked.

At the time we were persuaded to believe that senate would never take a decision to close academic programs and that job security was therefore not really compromised by this change.

Some members of the association have complained they would never have voted for the new language on program redundancy in 1996 had they fully understood its implications. Even members of the association's executive have wondered about the adequacy of the information that was provided about the new language. This reaction is understandable. But at the end of the day there is little point in looking for someone to blame.

On the advice of our experienced negotiators, the association's executive took the calculated risk, as a trade off for other concessions, that merely acknowledging senate's power to close academic programs (a power which senate in fact already possessed) would not result in any significant change.

We were wrong. Had we maintained the financial stringency clauses unaltered, Carleton's administration would have faced a much graver decision in order to proceed with layoffs of tenured staff. Of course, given the extent of the university's financial problems, there is no guarantee that even those clauses would have prevented layoffs. We are obliged to admit that there is merit to the administration's case that targeted, vertical cuts will be less disruptive than the alternative of across-the-board dismissals (and awful publicity) that would follow a declaration of financial stringency.

Nevertheless the fact remains that our decision in 1996 made it significantly easier for the administration to bring forward a financial plan that included the dismissal of tenured faculty.

A second mistake arose from our failure to develop a credible budgetary alternative to the administration's recovery plan. We did not realize early enough that we had to challenge immediately the two key assumptions underlying that plan: namely, that salvation was to be found only by cutting costs, not by increasing revenues; and that deficits had to end in 1998 so that a series of surpluses could be generated afterwards. Once this self-imposed payback schedule was converted into a board-sanctioned "mandate," the administration could argue that program closures and layoffs were "inevitable" in order to meet the 1998 deadline.

Moreover, this "final step" to recovery was presented as involving the sacrifice of only a small number of programs and people. Indeed, President Van Loon was tireless in insisting that these layoffs were a one-time measure: "We will not do this again" are the words he used to reassure academic staff at a general faculty board this fall. This approach -- emphasizing the inevitability of cuts while at the same time stressing their selective and one-time character -- encouraged a reaction along the lines of "well, it's too bad, but it can't be helped -- and at least it's not me."

The faculty association is currently negotiating with the administration with a view to minimizing the actual number of layoffs and maximizing the possibilities for retraining and internal transfer. At the time of writing, the results are inconclusive but the tenor of the talks indicates the administration is not disposed to take a particularly generous approach to the matter.

At the same time we have we asked President Van Loon to incorporate his previous statements about "not doing this again" into a formal undertaking to the faculty association not to seek further program closures or layoffs.

Prior to the critical senate meeting, the president's categorical declarations that such measures would not be repeated constituted perhaps the strongest argument in the administration's armoury. It effectively neutralized the alternative interpretation that what the administration was really after was a precedent on which to base a second and more extensive round of layoffs next year.

In short, we are now asking the president to show that his statements were genuine promises, not tactical ploys. Despite our differences we have no wish to doubt his good faith. That is why we are providing Dr. Van Loon with a public opportunity to dispel the rumours about further program closures by consolidating his earlier statements into a formal promise.

We have called a general meeting of the faculty association for Jan. 16. We earnestly hope that at that meeting we will be in a position to convey the president's undertaking to our members. In the absence of such an assurance the entire position of the faculty association in regard to this year's round of collective bargaining will have to be revised in a fundamental and far-reaching way.

E. Peter Fitzgerald is president of the Carleton University Academic Staff Association.