Thursday, April 9, 2009

  • Big turnout for 'town hall' meeting
  • 'Real pressures', lower levels of service
  • And applause for a departing provost
  • Editor:
  • Chris Redmond
  • Communications and Public Affairs

Big turnout for 'town hall' meeting

The main level of the Humanities Theatre was filled — that’s some 500 seats — and they were opening the balcony level just before 3:00 yesterday afternoon, the announced time for the faculty and staff “town hall” meeting featuring UW president David Johnston, provost Amit Chakma and vice-president (external relations) Meg Beckel.

It was Beckel, the senior official in charge of such UW functions as communications, who called the gathering to order from a lectern while Johnston and Chakma sat on grey stools at centre stage, each with a bottle of water placed within easy reach.

She drew laughter — and applause — when she confiscated Johnston’s and Chakma’s BlackBerries, which had caused an interruption or two at the previous town hall meeting in November.

Johnston started the serious business with a review of the economic conditions facing Ontario’s universities. There are no “startling revelations” to make, he assured the audience, but he ran through some familiar facts: enrolments are up, pension and endowment investment funds are down thanks to the sagging economy, government operating grants remain flat, and private givings are down by about half from last year. The result: across the province, universities are cutting budgets, most of them by something like 5 per cent in the year ahead.

The federal and provincial budgets were “not great, but better than expected” for universities, he reminded his listeners. The high points included substantial federal money for “infrastructure” spending, which could provide UW with some building funds. “We have been very ambitious in submitting proposals,” he said, but there’s no word yet on whether any of them will be accepted.

He pointed out that UW’s board of governors has just approved a 3 per cent cut in the operating budget for the coming year. “The good news,” said Johnston, “is that we will be able to do it without layoffs of permanent staff, and without encouraging early retirements where you lose good long-term people.

“We will manage this well,” he assured his audience, complimenting them — the staff and faculty — on both talent and dedication.

Chakma spoke next, declaring that UW is in the best financial position of any university in the province: “no structural deficit” and a pension fund that was in good shape up until the market meltdown of 2008. “We have not delayed decisions,” he said, “so we have not accumulated problems.”

There’s a “difficult” time ahead, he said — not necessarily in 2009-10, “but certainly 2010-11. We will be losing capacity because we won’t be able to fill positions,” as the hiring freeze of the past half-year is set to continue. Extra spending for the recent increased pension plan contributions will make things more difficult as well. It all points to a 5 per cent budget cut a year from now, on top of this year’s 3 per cent.

Chakma noted that the current faculty and staff salary agreements cover another year — that is, they expire May 1, 2010 — and he’ll be looking for the employee groups “to consider significant moderation” in their expectations for 2010 raises. “These are the tradeoffs we’ll have to consider as a community, to mitigate the pain,” he warned.

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'Real pressures', lower levels of service

Then came the questions and answers, starting with ones that had been submitted online ahead of time. “Will there be, or when will there be, an early retirement program?” Beckel read from her list. “We don’t plan on an early retirement plan,” Johnston replied, though he pointed out that for years it’s been possible for a staff or faculty member to retire at age 62 without an “actuarial reduction” in pension level.

Layoffs? “No, there will not be,” the president said. “We’re confident that we can avoid layoffs this year. But we’re not sure what 2010-11 will hold — we’ll work very hard to deal with that.”

Managing the workload? “That’s something that all of us must and should do,” Johnston said, in response to a question about what support or guidance managers will get about doing less as UW has fewer resources. “Service levels will not be what they have been in the past,” he conceded.

Somebody who’s doing two jobs? “Those are real pressures; you really can’t ignore them,” said the president. He noted that paying a staff member a stipend (or overtime pay) and expecting them to do more work than they can handle is counter-productive. “This is a temporary problem," he insisted, "and I hope we will have more manageable resources in the future.”

Chakma, the provost, also tackled the question of eliminating, or “managing”, work. He cited his recent memo telling faculty that they won’t get credit for teaching courses smaller than 10 students: “that’s one example of how you manage your workload and how you decide what not to do.”

As for the problem of equipment that UW doesn't have the funds to buy: “Talk to your manager. The key mantra here is ‘mission-critical’. We cannot determine that; your manager can.”

There was a question about the $250,000 formerly spent each year on the staff recognition program: where is it now? Much of it has gone into staff development and training, said Johnston, and “Within the staff relations committee, there are discussions ongoing about how to use the remainder of that money.”

Child care, which a questioner said was an important factor in employee stress and absenteeism? Said Chakma: “The desire is to try to consolidate those three child care centres in one place at some time. . . . We have made significant progress in terms of coming up with an appropriate business plan.”

Plans for a new or larger library? “No immediate plans,” said Johnston. “We’ve made some great improvements in the past few years,” in both Porter and Davis, he said, noting that even in the age of electronic resources, “the frequency of library usage is higher than it has ever been,” and providing study space, as well as library materials is a continuing challenge.

As for library budgets: there will be no cuts to the acquisitions budget, the provost promised, and in fact a $400,000 boost in the coming year. “Unfortunately that only keeps up with inflation. On the operating side, the library, like all other units, will be subject to that 3 per cent budget cut.”

Somebody asked about energy conservation, and there was praise for the plant operations department and its long-term efforts. Chakma noted that UW already ranks near the top among Ontario universities in a key measure, the amount of energy used per square foot of building space.

Answering another question, the provost said officials are currently looking at aspects of how the budget is administered — building costs in particular — and whether it would make sense to charge more costs to the end users, the departments, rather than the central budget. “If we can come up with some formula where all the units will be responsible for their space costs, we are hoping that that would generate some efficiency.”

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And applause for a departing provost

That was it for submitted questions. “We’re going to open it for questions from the floor,” said Beckel. And a hand went up immediately — one that was attached to David DeVidi, president of the faculty association. “Does the acceleration of new building that might happen have any implications for the campus master plan?” he asked. “We don’t think so,” said Johnston. “In fact it fits in with the master plan.” And in all likelihood, much of whatever money arrives thanks to government "infrastructure" programs will be dedicated to maintenance and renovations, not to new construction, he said.

Next question: can the university ask the government to change its regulations about pension funds, considering that not long ago we had too much money rather than not enough? “Everybody is lobbying about that,” said Chakma.

Another questioner picked up a previous topic, complaining that his department is under pressure to buy “more efficient” and more expensive equipment, but the savings will show up in the central budget, not his. “There should be no issue,” said Chakma. "The centre should carry that cost. We just don’t know when — we have to prioritize," with projects that will pay for themselves the fastest getting to the head of the urgency list.

There was some discussion of change to academic programs, and the way spending has to change correspondingly. “If we keep on doing the old things, we may be able to maintain excellence but we may not be able to afford it,” said the provost.

“I don’t think we’ll see dramatic changes to our programs over the next year or two,” the president added, but a good university — even in stable times, which these are not — needs to keep reexamining what it does and making appropriate change. On the graduate side,” he reminded the audience, “we expect to go from 2,600 students to 8,000, and that’s a very, very substantial change.”

What about all the new buildings that are going up, even while “you guys are talking about cuts”? Remember that building money and operating money don’t come from the same place and aren’t interchangeable, said the president. “In a sense there’s a contradiction, but you respond to the environment you have,” and governments are pushing for expansion, and providing money for it. “On the capital side, we’re being very entrepreneurial and aggressive. “On the operating side, it’s a very different picture. One has to be careful. You’ve got to operate and maintain those buildings.”

And remember, Chakma added, that much of the new space is driven by expanded enrolment, and some by an increase in the amount of research that’s being done. “I’m thankful that we have this opportunity to build that space.”

Next question: is the Dubai campus still seen as a revenue generator? “We remain optimistic,” said Chakma, “but like any startup, you have to go there and start small. We do not anticipate that it will come anywhere close to our ultimate targets in years 1 to 3.” If there aren’t “20 to 25” students for this fall, we’ll postpone things for a year and try again.

The event wrapped up with a few more words from Johnston. “Thank you for the civility with which you conduct yourselves in these meetings,” he said, “even when we are dealing with difficult issues.”

And he paid special tribute to Chakma, who will leave UW June 30 to become president of the University of Western Ontario ("the best university president in Canada", Johnston predicted). Nearly the whole crammed theatre stood and applauded the departing provost, who said a few final words of his own about the sense of community at Waterloo: “We can have differences of views — even David and I argue — but even with that, we are friends. I’m going to miss you all.”


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Easter long weekend ahead

Tomorrow is the Good Friday statutory holiday: most staff, students and faculty will have a long weekend, and most university offices and services will be closed. No exams are scheduled Friday or Saturday. Some key services at UW will always be accessible:

• UW Police: 519-888-4911, or ext. 22222 if dialing on campus
• Student Life Centre is open as usual; turnkey desk 519-888-4434; ext. 84434 on campus
• Emergency maintenance calls: ext. 33793
• Computer emergencies: ext. 34357

The Dana Porter and Davis Centre libraries will carry on with their extended exam-time hours without change. The UW Bookstore and other retail services outlets will close on Friday and Saturday, as well as Sunday. Food services outlets will be closed on Friday and over the weekend, except for the residence cafeterias.

Monday is a normal working day for UW.

Link of the day

Christianity's Holy Week

When and where

Winter term examinations continue through April 24. Unofficial winter term grades appear in Quest beginning April 27. Grades become official May 25.

Columbia Lake Health Club open house, final day, 340 Hagey Boulevard. Details.

Easter luncheon buffet at University Club 11:30 to 2:00, reservations ext. 33801.

T’art technology art exhibition: end-of-term show of technology-mediated sculptural works from Fine Arts 392, continues 12:00 to 7:00, Student Life Centre multipurpose room.

Senate long-range planning committee Monday 3:00, Needles Hall room 3004.

Vietnam: If Kennedy Had Lived, new book discussed by its authors, sponsored by Balsillie School and other groups, wine and cheese reception, Monday 4:00, CIGI, 57 Erb Street West.

Davenport Showcase dance performance Monday 6:30 p.m., Humanities Theatre.

St. Jerome’s University lecture “Jesus of Hollywood” by Adele Reinhartz, delivered in January 2007, rebroadcast on CBC radio “Ideas”, Monday 9 p.m.

Inventory clearance book sale outside UW bookstore, South Campus Hall, April 14-15, 9:30 to 4:30.

Sabbaticals 101 with Nancy Matthews, Tuesday 12:00 noon, Dana Porter Library room 329, sponsored by UW Recreation Committee. Details.

Senate undergraduate council Tuesday 12:00 noon, Needles Hall room 3004.

Arts faculty council Tuesday 3:30, PAS building room 2438.

Bridging the Gap pre-retirement workshops. Six weekly sessions Tuesday, April 14, through Tuesday, May 19, 7 to 9 p.m., Rockway Centre, 1405 King Street East, Kitchener. $60 plus GST. Details.

Surplus sale of UW furnishings and equipment April 16, 12:30 to 2:00, East Campus Hall.

UW-ACE instructor user group April 16, 1:30, Flex lab, Dana Porter Library. Details.

Pharmacy building community open house April 18, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 10 Victoria Street South, all welcome. (Official opening ceremony, by invitation, April 17.)

Friends of the Library Lecture by Prem Watsa, chancellor-designate of the university, April 20, 12:00 noon, Theatre of the Arts.

UW Retirees Association spring luncheon April 22, 11:30 a.m., Luther Village, tickets $25, information 519-885-4758.

Alumni in Windsor: reception for engineering alumni, with leaders of the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR) and student Alternative Fuels Team, April 22, 6:00, The Keg Riverside, Windsor, Ontario.

Graduate Student Research Conference April 27-30, Davis Centre. Details.

Fee payment deadline for the spring term: April 27 (cheque, money order or fee arrangements), April 30 (bank transfer). Details.

UW-ACE system will be down Tuesday, April 28, 6:30 a.m., to Wednesday, April 29, 12:00 noon.

PhD oral defences

Electrical and computer engineering. Mehrdad Hosseini Zadeh, “Factors Affecting Human Force Perception and Performance in Haptic-Enabled Virtual Environments.” Supervisor, David W. Wang. On display in the faculty of engineering, PHY 3004. Oral defence Tuesday, April 21, 10:00 a.m., CEIT building room 3142.

Electrical and computer engineering. Haojin Zhu, “Security in Delay Tolerant Networks.” Supervisor, Sherman X. Shen. On display in the faculty of engineering, PHY 3004. Oral defence Tuesday, April 21, 10:00 a.m., CEIT building room 3151.

Recreation and leisure studies. Dawn Trussell, “Organized Youth Sport, Parenthood Ideologies and Gender Relations: Parents’ and Children’s Experiences and the Construction of ‘Team Family’.” Supervisor, Susan Shaw. On display in the faculty of applied health sciences, BMH 3110. Oral defence Tuesday, April 21, 2:00 p.m., Matthews Hall room 3119.

Optometry. Shankaran Ramaswamy, “Colour Vision Test for Railway Dispatchers.” Supervisor, Jeffery K. Hovis. On display in the faculty of science, ESC 254A. Oral defence Wednesday, April 22, 10:00 a.m., Optometry room 347.

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