Theme: Focus on core mission

A while back we wrote that we have seen a number of patterns and similarities as we have conversed with deans and unit leaders about how the TransformUS task force recommendations roll up at the college or unit level. Among the kinds of actions suggested by the task force reports, the ones that seem to be widespread or material at the university level fall under a few headings. One of these we wrote about previously is the idea of simplification and amalgamation of structures.

Another grouping of possible projects and actions is those related to tightening the university’s focus on its core mission.

Every organization has a core mission. For universities, this mission is about learning and discovery at an advanced level: about teaching, about students, about research and scholarly and artistic work and their impacts in communities. Our mission distinguishes us from other organizations that are not universities – say, from school boards, hospitals and businesses. The way we pursue our mission – our values, vision and priorities – distinguishes us from other universities.

So it is very logical that when resources are short, we consider concentrating them on the things that are most core or most distinctive to what we as an organization contribute to society. The TransformUS support services task force advanced this perspective in various ways in their report. They noted that the primacy of the teaching and research missions means we should streamline administrative operations and ensure administrative units and services are focused on the needs of students and of faculty. They also suggested that various activities – for example, outreach functions – be reviewed with respect to their centrality to what the university does.

The thought process with respect to mission focus is not black-and-white, not that things are all in or all out. Rather, it is like concentric circles with university learning and discovery at the core. Some other functions are essential: we need buildings, we need learning supports for students, and so on. In an era of limited resources, we need to reassess carefully what may be peripheral, and we need to make sure that everything in which the university invests is efficiently organized and clearly focused on the academic mission.

Brett and Greg

What to expect in the coming weeks

We know with the end of the month quickly approaching, our campus community is looking for more information on what is to come with regard to the release of the TransformUS action plan and what will happen next at the U of S. We know rumours are rampant (have you heard the one that 200 positions will be cut May 1?) and hopefully this update will reduce some of the anxiety you may have.

As committed to in February, an action plan will be shared with the campus community on or before May 1. The action plan will identify a set of coordinated actions which, taken together, will represent response of the Provost’s Committee on Integrated Planning to the recommendations contained in the reports of the two task forces. The plan will include:

  1. An action plan that identifies a set of themes under which all actions will flow from, outlines a series of actions/projects to be taken to address the $20-25 million target and indicate who has the decision making authority (university’s governing bodies, unit leaders). One theme, simplifying structures, has already been explained on the blog.
  2. A set of project briefs that further define the cross-institutional and large-scale unit-based projects of university-wide interest, including scope, time frame and critical success factors.
  3. A document we are calling a disposition that outlines how the action plan compares with the recommendations of the two task forces.

All three of these elements will be shared publicly and posted online at transformus.usask.ca.

Projects outlined in the action plan and further defined in the project briefs will not be based solely on individual recommendations from the task forces. Extensive discussions have been held with college, school and unit leaders about how these roll up at the college/school/unit level to define actions addressing groups of recommendations and that are significant in terms of savings and/or efficiencies at the university level. Various smaller actions specific to a college/school/unit will be deferred to the unit leader for discussion, decision and corresponding action.

The plan will take into account the following:

  • The new vision statement for the university
  • The outcomes of the incentive plan for retirement for faculty
  • The relationship of TransformUS to the overall operating budget adjustments (OBA) project
  • The messages sent by the task forces regarding increased effectiveness/impact/profile of programs and services and the need to create a more horizontal organization with improved service delivery
  • The need for increased flexibility for program and service delivery through new models and approaches to specifically address interdisciplinarity and break down vertical silos

Although a few actions will be taken very quickly, most actions will be phased in over the course of the coming year to allow time for discussions to take place and to follow the normal governance processes as described in the University of Saskatchewan Act. Timelines, some more specific than others, will be outlined in the action plan and project briefs.

We know many on our campus are anxious about what all this means for them, their roles and their jobs. With close to 75 per cent of our operating budget dedicated to salaries and benefits, we know there will be job loss as a result of changes made through TransformUS and other budget adjustment initiatives, although at this time we don’t have a specific number or timelines. We will continue to keep you, our community, informed throughout this process, and commit to ensuring there is support provided to employees affected by job loss and that all employment legislation and our employment agreements are followed.

To our students, when academic programs are affected, all students currently enrolled in programs as of the 2014-15 academic year will be given the opportunity to complete their program of study within a reasonable time frame.

We know there needs to be a significant transformation in the programs and services of our university in order to ensure our resources and activities align with our goals and priorities. Change is not easy, and we understand the anxiety that exists in this era of uncertainty. As we transition to the final phase of TransformUS, we are confident the actions we take will allow us to make significant gains in ensuring the future sustainability of our university and the changes to our programs and services will position us to make the first steps towards realizing our new university vision.

Please continue to watch the blog over the coming week to learn more about the themes that will make up the action plan. If you haven’t been to our blog lately, here are a few recent posts:

We also encourage you to submit any rumours you hear for the operating budget adjustment’s rumour mill. Rumours can be submitted online at usask.ca/finances.

If you have further questions, we encourage you to speak to your dean, executive director or associate vice-president, or to visit us on our blog to be part of the discussion.

Warm regards,

Brett and Greg

Why we should not be “doing more with less”

What are the programs that are most important to us? What ways of doing things are most efficient? What will we stop doing? The latter question can be the most difficult to answer. Many of you worry that with position eliminations, those who are left behind will be left to do more with less. These are significant and possibly legitimate fears – that staff reductions to date have resulted in additional workload on those left behind.

As leaders, we must make difficult decisions and we must stop doing some important work in order to focus on our priorities. It is the responsibility of leaders across the university and at every level of authority, to ensure the work they assign is aligned with the university’s priorities for learning and discovery. We strengthen our priorities by putting our resources more squarely behind them. It is equally important to make focused decisions about what to stop doing. If we don’t make clear decisions about what we will stop doing, we risk losing this opportunity to focus on our priorities. In the short-term, help your leaders and yourselves by identifying and discussing work that could be stopped in order to focus more on higher-priority work. In the longer term we must work together on our shared services initiative to create a better designed organization that provides a better way to organize our work, creates more specialized support services and steps into a better support service model.

Greg and Brett

Why, at times, we need to eliminate positions

We often listen to comments about how, as a preferred and respected employer, the university should not have to lay-off staff or eliminate positions. On the surface this seems to be a principled stance to take, but one that may be completely unrealistic and impossible to achieve in a large, diverse and continuously changing institution. In fact, these statements are incorrect if we are to best serve the interests of our students and priority research activities.

The university serves over 20,000 students and performs international research on a large core campus, along with serving many distributed learning sites throughout the province. The university’s main campus is over 1,000 acres consisting of approximately 7.2 million square feet of facility space used for various purposes – from intensive research labs to student activity space – all of which requires support staff to maintain and provide a safe learning and working environment for students, faculty and staff.

As one of Saskatchewan’s largest employers with over 5,000 faculty and staff, the university has an incredibly diverse group of skilled and competent professional and para-professional staff, ranging, for example, from pharmacists, lab technicians, research facilitators, radiation safety officers, student counsellors, custodians, information technology programmers, residence student life professionals, sports coaches and specialized finance professionals. In fact, we would be hard pressed to find a profession in which the university does not have staff employed due to its size, diversity of teaching programs and research activities, and varied student support services.

Over time, the university’s administrative and support needs must shift for a multitude of reasons, including changes in priorities, student services, regulations and reporting, enhanced methods to perform support services, or re-structuring to better serve students and faculty. The result of these changes are that some positions that were once highly valued and necessary become less necessary. We have a responsibility, in terms of good stewardship and providing support services for our students, to make changes in positions. Ultimately, this is the more principled route that best serves the long-term interests of the university as we continue to change to better serve our teaching and research mission more effectively, and be as responsible as possible in terms of the allocation of limited financial resources.

During this past week, we invited a representative from the Education Advisory Board on campus to present on best practices in shared service initiatives at other universities. One of the messages we heard was that in the past universities have employed generalist positions to serve colleges and units. This staffing model works much less well today and will serve universities and staff poorly in the future, as the processes and systems in which we work are becoming much more complex and sophisticated, requiring more specialized professional expertise and a different type of support positions. The result, if we do not change our structures, is that we will employ staff in generalist positions for which they will be incapable of serving the university in the best way possible.

We know from working within the university and through the findings and recommendations of the Service and Process Enhancement project and the Support Services TransformUS Task Force that our support services organizational design requires re-thinking and a renewed vision. This vision will require further position changes. However, the result will be more effective and efficient support services in a more specialized service structure, where staff are more satisfied and highly trained to provide the services the university requires.

In some ways, it seems inconsistent to say we value people while we are making decisions that will ultimately see more of our colleagues and friends losing their jobs and leaving the university. These decisions and actions are hard, specifically because they affect people—people who have contributed to the university in very real and significant ways and with whom we have personal relationships. We never want to lose sight of those contributions even though we must part ways. For the majority who will remain employed at the university, we need to find a way as a community to come to terms with change, to heal from our losses, train and develop for the future, and co-operatively approach how we must do things differently. Leaders must remain focused on a collective responsibility to ensure that the university is organized to endure, succeed and change over time, and every employee should know how they contribute to the goals and priorities of the university.

Some of you may have been wondering what you can do to ensure there is a place for you at the U of S. We work at a university—lifelong learning is a natural value. Our best advice is to keep your skills and knowledge current, take every opportunity for your own learning, and have ongoing and open conversations with your leaders about new opportunities and challenges at the university. Each of us must take responsibility for our own professional development and our employability in an ongoing way.

Greg and Brett

Provincial funding support: The reality

In early April we sent out an announcement explaining details of the funding increase in the 2014 provincial operating grant for the university, indicating that a base increase of 2% is consistent with our plans. Although this makes it necessary for the university to continue its operating budget adjustment efforts, there is appreciation that the university can continue on track with its current plans rather than having to make more significant adjustments.

Several questions were posed to the president in the annual report to the General Academic Assembly last week relating to provincial support for the university and the projected deficit. The president and the senior leadership team represent the university in the most energetic efforts to advance the university’s interests, to deepen public support and understanding, and to ensure government knows that the university is aligned with public priorities. These continuous efforts, led by our president, are an important reason why our financial support from government is strong. However, we must not fall into the thinking that even more strenuous efforts with government would resolve our financial situation. A glance at the post-secondary landscape across the continent shows why this is the case. In terms of the projected deficit, we have made it very clear that this is a forecast, that we have not been in a deficit position, and our planning efforts are designed to avoid such circumstances. Our financial pressures were made plain, and our forecast deficit was predicted and announced in spring 2012, well before President Busch-Vishniac arrived.

To respond more fully to the question of how well the university is supported by government, one needs to compare how we are doing relative to other provincial sectors in terms of total funding and comparatively with our western Canadian peers. Continue reading

Theme: Simplifying structures

One of the big things on our minds has been the importance of simplifying our university’s structures.

Since the end of January, PCIP has been reflecting on and talking to deans and unit leaders about how the TransformUS task force recommendations roll up at the college and unit level. We have been interested not so much in individual recommendations – many of those should appropriately be considered and acted upon at the college or unit level – but rather in larger groups or clusters of possible actions, things that make a material difference at the institutional level, and things that illustrate patterns or themes across the university.

Simplification, amalgamation, and streamlining of structures is one of those themes that seems to us to capture some of the most important messages to the university out of the work of the task forces.

We see huge opportunities to maintain areas of academic work and needed services in future with simpler and more cohesive structures supporting them. This might mean combining academic or administrative programs or units in new ways that are stronger and sustainable.

The task forces pointed to a number of instances of duplication, fragmentation, overlap, or undue complication that have been known for some time. We seem to be overstructured and oversubdivided for a university our size, which burdens us with costs and hinders working together. In an era where resources are and will be constrained well into the future, we can no longer afford to simply work around such situations. The time has come to resolve them.

This includes the top-level organizational structure and administrative leadership of the university. Streamlining and simplification begin here, where we are planning and taking actions to combine offices and roles where we see ways to do so. The thought process is to support needed work in future with fewer separate offices, and to reduce the overall size of the university’s leadership group. Similar thought processes of amalgamating and combining can be applied in various academic and administrative units across the campus.

The effect of such changes will be that the university will have stronger and fewer units, sustainable into the future, and we will have staff, faculty, and leaders at all levels who are empowered and have authority to act. We see multiple projects of this kind coming together, and will present them in a comprehensive action plan by May 1st.

Coming blog posts will address other themes and patterns we see regarding actions that can ensure sustainability and strengthen our university.

Brett and Greg

What are the administration’s “pet projects”?

As indicated in our last blog, the two of us have noticed a couple of cases where people have suggested that the university’s projected deficit is due to the administration’s “pet projects.” The idea behind these statements appears to be that the multi-year operating budget framework is inflated by unnecessary costs for things the administration wants to do, and that budget cuts would not be needed if the administration did not have these plans.

So that is the assertion. What is the reality?

Reality is that the operating budget covers the university’s core activities, where regular, predictable costs are rising faster than revenues. These cost increases, not new or special projects, are the source of the projected deficit.

So what are the areas of cost increase in the budget projection? Here are the top 3 growing or new line items that were the basis of our projected expenditure growth from 2012/13 to 2015/16, and upon which our budget adjustments to date have been based: Continue reading

The value of the U15

You may have heard the term “U15” used at the university, and you may wonder what it means and why is it something we want to be a part of.

The U15 is a group of 15 of Canada’s top research intensive universities – a prestigious group we were invited to join in 2011.The members of the U15 count:

  • 47% of all university students in Canada
  • 71% of full-time doctoral students in Canada
  • $5.3 billion in annual research income
  • 80% of all competitively allocated research funding in Canada
  • 80% of Canadian university patents and start-ups

So what does this mean and why is it important to us?

First, being a part of the U15 helps others see us for who we are; it shines a light on the accomplishments of our faculty and students. And second, it helps us learn from and collaborate with our peers. U15 membership makes a difference both in perceptions and in practical actions and collaborations. Continue reading

Multi-Year Forecast: Importance and Accuracy

There continue to be comments and criticism expressed to us about the accuracy of our multi-year forecast – more specifically, that we have inflated our deficit projections and that the budget adjustments we are making are not needed.

The definition of “forecast” according to the Webster dictionary is “to calculate or predict some future event or condition usually as a result of study and analysis of available pertinent data.” This analysis of data involves looking at the recent past, comparators and other key indicators (or drivers) to project future results. Our multi-year forecast is based more specifically on an organizational planning definition for forecast and is a strategic tool that helps the university link its integrated plan with its expenditures. The importance of a multi-year forecast must be considered based on the university’s multi-year teaching and research commitments. For example, a multi-year forecast supports the multi-year nature of the commitment of expenditures required for students to complete their programs. In addition, changes within much of the instructional and research activity supported by the operating budget require significant long-term investment costs to develop and substantial transition costs to adapt, resulting in an increasing importance for universities to prepare multi-year forecasts directly associated with multi-year plans.

We are often asked about the projections made in the 2012-16 multi-year budget framework (MYBF), and more specifically why, at that time, we projected what some are saying were unrealistic annual increases to the provincial operating grant. Continue reading

Changes to university leadership – a follow-up to yesterday’s announcement

Yesterday all members of the campus community received an announcement regarding the elimination of two associate vice-president positions as actions taken as part of TransformUS. Understandably, I and others have received questions on the specifics of the actions undertaken and the individuals affected. Many are wondering why the secrecy, why not name names or provide more details as to the reasons behind the actions?

Let me start by saying that there is no easy way to eliminate a position and no easy way to find out that you have lost your job. Out of respect for all affected, we consciously choose to limit the information we share to those who are immediately impacted by the changes as part of their position at the university. We are not trying to keep secrets or ignore the significant impact the eliminated employee has made to the university; instead, we are respecting the privacy of the individual. I can see that it is less clear when the position spans the university in terms of scope, but the principle of privacy remains uppermost in our minds. Any sharing beyond what I have described is at the discretion of the individual and the affected units. Continue reading