Opinion Piece by Mark Dimirsky
The messages from the AU President and the Board of Governors (BoG) are that AU needs renewal. Dr. Coates’s report provides a good framework for achieving that renewal and indicates staff should participate in the process. I will participate because if something is going to affect my job satisfaction then I want to try to make some difference. But this opinion piece is about why staff at AU should not trust AU until they see evidence of changes and about the kinds of changes needed.
To stabilize and balance the structure of AU, the new administration and BoG should first better define and strengthen the role of GFC as the body with expertise in academic matters. GFC needs to be an equal partner with the BoG, which has not been the case in the past few years. The BoG should also look at how much of its decision-making process is held behind closed doors with representatives of the various AU constituencies who are bound to silence by stifling confidentiality expectations. In terms of governance, addressing the above two points would give us reason to believe the future at AU will be different than the past.
Financial need is an area that I concede is tricky. There should be more openness than there has been about the University’s finances but I don’t pretend to know exactly where the lines should be drawn. At the very least, however, I’d like to know if AU is sharing as much information as other publicly funded universities in Canada. AU’s history of perceived poor financial management, secrecy, and desire for its labour force and students to shoulder the load of its financial difficulties has made the money issue explosive. But before AU calls on my union to give away some of my earnings, I want more proof than I have seen thus far for the need for this.
If AU wants new directions for itself then it must recognize that blaming its employees for managerial mistakes is not a constructive path. I don’t expect the current AU Executive or BoG to go on a witch hunt about past decisions that didn’t turn out well but I think there should be an admission that we got to the place we are at financially due primarily to management decisions. I did the job I was hired to do and I did it well. I don’t want mixed messages from AU that suggest I am a major factor in their financial distress. I wasn’t hired to manage the institution.
I think it wise to insist that trust be earned by actions. Harm has been caused by AU’s actions and there needs to be meaningful changes to the secrecy, top-down management style, and poor planning that has characterized past AU actions. Many of the current incumbents are new but it still is ironic (politely put) that the group most directly responsible for the financial, IT, and other administrative problems that motivates AU for staff cut-backs, is the group that is growing and best remunerated.
Despite forecasting a deficit for the last fiscal year, AU’s BoG recently announced that the University has a budget surplus, as it has done previously. The unicorn deficit has been used as a justification for staff reductions as well as enlarging the call centre model (SSC). A surplus is a good thing (an uncertain future deters student interest and fewer students means less work for CUPE3911 members) but the good news is delivered with a reminder that AU is still not financially sustainable and a new business plan will require re-negotiating labour contracts: Instead of a green light to a new era of labour peace we have AU sending signals that it is still labour’s fault that AU is in the mess it is in.
Over the past several years AU’s treatment of its labour force shows a pattern of decreasing labour costs on the backs of our members, designated faculty, and support staff. This contrasts with increases in expenditures for the small but growing AU Management/Executive (add a Provost and needed support staff to current group).
Full-time designated faculty left either voluntarily (through financial enticement) or not. About one-fifth of CUPE’s membership at AU had their positions converted from one pay category (Individual Study or IST) to another (call centre or SSC). This was done without consultation or agreement. Why did AU convert positions from the IST to the SSC? The only justification that we have been given by AU is that the SSC is less expensive than the IST model.
In a recent CUPE3911 survey, many of you who are in converted positions reported lowered earnings and lowered job satisfaction. You also reported increased stress due to student complaints about awkward and inefficient communication channels in the SSC model. Many of you felt you were not consulted or treated respectfully during the process of transition.
This past year, the actions of the Government of Alberta has made it clear they knew change was needed at AU and that change could not be entrusted to the BoG alone. This was the reason that Dr. Coates was appointed and asked to evaluate the institution. AU needs us to help in its revision and revitalization but they need to demonstrate good faith by taking actions that show a willingness to learn from past mistakes.
Finally, AU was founded as an open university that would admit and educate students unlikely to get that education elsewhere. Of great importance was the fact that this education could be obtained by other than face-to-face means (distance learning). How sadly ironic if AU should fail at a time in history when advances in technology are working to minimize distances in so many ways. I believe AU’s mission statement and educational plan are sound. What hasn’t been is their execution of these ideas.