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

University of Guelph provost shares her thoughts on program prioritization

Today, Maureen Mancuso, provost and vice-president academic at the University of Guelph shared her perspective on program prioritization with University Affairs magazine. As the University of Guelph has been a leader in Canada in undertaking this type of process, we are often asked about their experience. We encourage you to read the article to see first-hand what Provost Macuso’s thoughts are on program prioritization.

Brett and Greg

Reprinted with permission from University Affairs magazine. Original can be viewed at www.universityaffairs.ca

Explaining the Program Prioritization Process
It’s one way for institutions to become sustainable.
by Maureen Mancuso

A number of Canadian universities are engaged in a Program Prioritization Process (PPP). Others are contemplating related initiatives.  As with any significant trend that involves change to traditional ways, anticipation leads to legitimate questions but also to sloPPPy thinking. There are a lot of myths about just what PPP is, many of them straw-man distortions of what the process actually involves. My university just completed the first and most attention-getting part of such a process – the ranking of programs – so I feel well- placed to state what PPP is and is not. Continue reading

How do we compare on tuition?

In the past few days we have had many questions and comments posted with regard to tuition and would like to take a moment respond to some of these.

We understand that students do not want to pay more. No one would. Costs of many things go up from year to year, and this includes the costs of running a university. Students are paying 23% of the operating revenue of the U of S, a relatively constant share that has not increased more than a fraction of a percentage point in years. Not only are students at the U of S paying a constant share, this is a lesser share than at most other universities. We appreciate that paying this share may be difficult for some students (and/or their parents in some cases). Our university is working to help those who face particular barriers by increasing the numbers of scholarships and bursaries, offering learn-where-you live distributed education to keep living costs lower, and developing great support services for Indigenous learners. Continue reading