WUFA Statement on President Wildeman’s State of the University Address  Banner Image

WUFA Statement on President Wildeman’s State of the University Address

On Friday, January 27th President Wildeman gave his annual (and, as it turned out, his penultimate) State of the University Address.  In it he laid out five priorities for the coming year and made a surprise announcement.  We will come back to the surprise, let us first respond to the three of the five priorities most relevant to members.

The priorities are:  completing infrastructure projects; the interrelated issues of curriculum, enrollment, and the new Strategic Mandate Agreement; and collective bargaining with WUFA.  We should think them through in light of the purpose of the university that the President himself articulated in the address:  “It is a university’s role to encourage learning, to create excitement about discovering things that you did not know, and to expose people to ideas with which they might not be comfortable.”  Indeed, this principle ought to guide everything everyone who works in any capacity or studies at the university should do.  Our work as academics presupposes our departments and faculties, supportive physical infrastructure and the contributions of all other campus workers, and all of that presupposes a healthy university institution, adequately funded and with clear priorities.  WUFA shares President Wildeman’s commitment to this principle.  It will not surprise anyone if we add:  at times we have had to question whether this principle has always informed senior decision making.

Take the campus transformation plan, and the budget-related issues it raises. Reading the speech one can sense the President’s pride in his ambitious, 300 million dollar investment in re-making the campus and expanding it downtown. He has pursued it with single-minded purpose, and it has resulted in an aesthetically much improved campus. There is no doubt that much of this work needed to be undertaken, and for initiating it the President should be congratulated.  At the same time, the single-mindedness with which he pursued it left too many people—amongst them, faculty, who have the longest term stake in the projects and their associated costs—feeling alienated from the value of the changes. While hundreds of millions were invested in buildings, faculty were forced to accept concessions in the last round of bargaining (in which, you will recall, our negotiators were informed, in response to our financial analysis, that the administration and the faculty were working with “different realities”). Long after President Wildeman is gone we will continue to pay the debt on these investments. That is fine as long as interest rates do not skyrocket or enrolments crash, but in a volatile period of history who is to say either will not happen.

The issues of funding the debt thus cannot be separated from issues of enrollment, provincial funding, and budgeting generally. The second presidential priority relevant for WUFA members is the new Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA) with the Government of Ontario. As this document will have implications for the amount of government money we receive, it is of vital importance that it not only accurately reflect the comprehensive strengths of the university, but that it also actively involve public meetings with faculty members from across the university. A document this important cannot be written by senior administrators and then submitted to faculty for comment after the fact. This SMA is being written at a time of uncertainty, as the government continues to work out the details of its new funding model. A core principle of democracy is that those who will have to abide by a law or policy should have an active role in shaping the law or the policy. Let us hope that there will be a democratic process set forth and followed so that the SMA we have to live with is our own collective work.

This brings us to the closely related issue of enrolments.  As the President explained in his address:

Looking over the past fifteen years, total full time enrolment at the University expanded during the double cohort years, but has been relatively stable since then. What is changing is the ratio between undergraduate and graduate enrolment. In the year 2000, 93% of the students were undergraduate. Today, it is 78%.  And the graduate growth is almost entirely from international students. In 2010 we had 1658 graduate students, 71% of whom were domestic.  In 2016 this had almost doubled to 3044, but now only 43% were domestic. As full time undergraduate enrolment has declined by 1300 students over the past five years, full time graduate enrolment has increased by close to 1300, an increase due almost entirely to international graduate enrolment.

The diversity and vitality that international students bring to campus and the city are of irreplaceable value. The problem is not the ratio of domestic to foreign students in the abstract, but the fact that the international students are concentrated in professional programs. That means that if university revenues are tied closely to those enrolments, and faculty budgets tied tightly to faculty enrolments by activity-based budgeting, some faculties are going to be progressively disadvantaged if domestic enrolments remain flat or fall. We acknowledge that the administration is working hard to address domestic enrolments and we hope those efforts bear fruit. At the same time, we think the administration would do well to rethink the new Activity Based Budget model. Overall, university finances are sound; shortfalls in particular budgets are functions of a flawed budget model. Of course, we recognise that growing departments require relatively more resources, but the budget should not unwittingly create poverty traps from which some faculties can never dig their way out.

When it comes to enrolments and the future of the university, faculty are of course not just passive spectators, we also have a role to play. In that regard, faculty will continue to do what they can to help recruit new students, while remaining mindful of the fact that our main contribution to recruitment has to be the excellence of our work as teachers and researchers.  In that regard the President’s thoughts about “Curriculum 2020” also need to be examined.   The President is right to say that, “the University must continually change and adapt, and to do that there must continually be renewal” and that “the academy of the future must embrace the best approaches to teaching, and build upon the value that opportunities for work-place experience can create, as we prepare students for an increasingly multidimensional world.” We agree with both statements.

Yet, in renewing the institution in response to changing social forces and structures, we must be careful to not abandon living traditions of thought and scholarship just because they do not yield saleable commodities. This point applies just as much to the sciences as to the humanities:  before there was Steve Jobs and Bill Gates there was Alan Turing and John von Neuman, who never sold a computer, but were instrumental in working out the mathematics upon which they run. 

And we must be careful to be guided in our deliberations about transformation by the deep disciplinary expertise of the faculty and the well-thought out needs of students, not management fads imported from outside the academy which try to quantify the unquantifiable, predictably fail to say anything of use, but which instead lurch from short term strategy to short term strategy and offer solutions in search of problems

If we are talking about workload, it must be time to shift the focus to third of the President’s priorities: collective bargaining with WUFA this spring.  The President has committed himself to “ensuring that faculty compensation remains fair and competitive, and safeguarded by the Windsor Salary Standard, which ensures that faculty are paid on average at the median in the province.”  He adds that “it will be the administration’s goal to successfully conclude bargaining with faculty by the end of June when the existing agreement expires. To that end, in spring we will be bringing forward to the Faculty Association’s bargaining team an offer that will underscore our desire to be fair, to be fiscally responsible, and to be serious about getting a deal by June 30th.”  WUFA looks forward to a productive round of good faith bargaining which satisfies members' financial and workplace interests while being responsible to the longer-term needs of the institution.

WUFA hopes that these public commitments by the President will be reflected in an approach to bargaining which is constructive and collaborative. It would be naïve to expect either side in collective bargaining to not push hard for their own agenda; it is another thing to employ tactics (like changing the terms of employment in the midst of bargaining) that, while legal, are not conducive to a healthy and collegial environment.

As they say, ‘that was then, and this is now’, so WUFA approaches this round openly. We will not share our priorities yet or speculate about time frames (bargaining rarely improves if it is rushed) but we are heartened by these comments and are excited to begin (and eventually end) the negotiations.

And now, finally, President Wildeman’s surprise:  

At the end of June, 2018, I will leave this extraordinary position I hold, and make way for the next person to help continue the University down its path. It is a decision I have made only after long reflection. It will be a decade that I will have served – yes that decade thing again – a decade during which I have given this job my undivided attention…. It will be a decade of you listening to me … always patiently, sometimes frustratingly I am sure, but, with very few exceptions, always listening to me respectfully. I am and will be forever grateful for that. It is a decade the likes of which I will never again have.

This announcement did take us by surprise, and in response we would like to say, in the spirit of shared commitment to an institution we all care deeply about:  thanks to the President for his energy, service, and contributions.  Where we have disagreed, even sharply, we have tried to disagree with the policy and not the person.  That important distinction is sometimes forgotten in the heat of the moment, but we are all fortunate to work in a public institution whose purpose is not to produce profits for the owners (there are none) but to help build the future.  We do that by educating, creating, writing, and inventing. None of us would be taking our roles seriously if we never disagreed about how that mission can best be advanced, but at a deeper level we believe that is what motivates us all. 

On behalf of WUFA,

Jeff Noonan, President
Windsor University Faculty Association (WUFA)