Misperceptions of Process Are a Distraction from Substance

Towards the end of the period of discussion of the TransformUS task force reports, we noticed a number of statements that were not about the contents of the reports but rather about perceptions and misperceptions of the task force process that produced them. No process is perfect and there can and should be many opinions in a university. With that said, not all opinions are equally defensible or well-grounded in fact. Some of the opinions that concern us include the perception that the academic task force was biased, that the work undertaken by the task forces was impossible, that a peer-review process should have been used instead, that critical elements like service teaching were overlooked, and that budget cuts are unnecessary or impossible to carry out. We would like to address such misconceptions. In so doing, we also want to direct people’s attention to the task force reports themselves, which in our view contain generally important and valid insights that are highly relevant to academic and financial decisions facing our university.

It is important to repeat off the top that no member of senior administration sat on either task force. The task forces were dominated by respected members of faculty identified through an open nomination process and appointed in consultation with leaders of University Council. Students were added based on advice the president received, particularly from University Council. None of the priorities or recommendations have been pushed through by administrators.

One point we heard was that recommendations should have been made by external peer review, rather than by groups of our own faculty, students and staff. External peer reviews are indeed very useful for quality assurance and quality improvement. They are little help in resource allocation. Neither of us is aware of any university whose budgeting is driven by external review. This is because a university is an autonomous institution: we allocate our own resources among and between the things we have – and (ideally) we have no two things the same. Peer review is about comparing apples to apples; budgeting is invariably about choosing between apples and oranges. The word peer does not always mean expert specialist in the details of things. Our task forces were composed of peers in the everyday sense of the word – academic programs were reviewed by faculty members and students. They followed strict conflict-of-interest procedures, as they reported, and there does not appear to be any statistically significant evidence of bias in the academic report. We have been well-served by the work of our colleagues.

It is indeed challenging to review in a short period everything supported by our budget, but doing so is the only way to have a comprehensive view at a specific point in time. The task forces discussed their experiences and we spoke with both groups. They did not find the task absurd, saddening or impossible (words we have heard attributed by others who were not involved), and it seems inappropriate to attribute these characteristics to their work instead of reflecting what they said in their reports about their experience. They recommended repeating the process periodically, and suggested improvements.

It is incorrect to say that service teaching was not considered. The academic task force made this quite clear. The strong roles of particular departments in service teaching is why those departments were categorized as highly as they were. The task forces were in control of their own process, adapted it as they saw fit and used their judgment.

If it were true that “keep with reduced resources” (quintile 3) were a contradiction as one letter has stated, and that no programs could survive with reduced resources, then this would make prioritization even more essential. Without prioritization, every program will indeed see reduced resources. The alternative to prioritized resource allocation is across-the-board cuts. This is due to the financial pressures we have discussed and concerning which we have provided updates on numerous occasions since May 2012 (see www.usask.ca/finances). By the time 2016 gets here we need to have reduced the university’s operating budget by 10% from the level to which it would otherwise have grown (TransformUS aims to reduce by about a net 5%). Done across-the-board, this means every department and unit would see that percentage reduction in its faculty complement, staff complement and other expenses. Nor would this be enough, since our expenses would, if we took no other action, still be growing at around 4% as they are now, when our key revenue source – our operating grant – is growing at only 2% at most. We would likely face repeated rounds of hard budget cuts, until we eventually learned to do things differently and to prioritize.

We have been down such a path before. In the 1990s our university went through a prolonged period of resource constraint and had to make permanent budget adjustments without the planning, budgeting or prioritization mechanisms we have today. Across-the-board cuts, eliminations of available faculty positions, and arbitrary spending constraints were the norm (as they are at a number of other universities again today). It was no golden age. At the end of that decade, it appeared to many that our university was poised to slip into mediocrity. In the wake of that experience, we prioritized faculty hiring and compensation. We prioritized the strengthening of areas of established pre-eminence. We embraced research intensiveness and graduate students. We made choices. And now we are called upon to do so again. Among other budget adjustment strategies, TransformUS is key and the task force recommendations provide starting points for things our governing bodies and leaders will consider in months ahead.

Greg and I have welcomed all the feedback we have received so far, and will be happy to consider more as best we can while we proceed with our work.

Brett

The foregoing is adapted from a reply posted by Brett to a letter on the blog page for the academic task force report. Brett’s original post can be found at this location:

http://words.usask.ca/transformus/reports/aptreport/#comment-912

And the letter to which it was a response is here:

http://words.usask.ca/transformus/reports/aptreport/#comment-898

3 thoughts on “Misperceptions of Process Are a Distraction from Substance

  1. Thank you for your opinion. I was responding, in this blog, not to questions, but to claims and statements of fact that in my view are erroneous. The title refers to misperceptions being a distraction; it does not comment on people or motives. In an academic institution, in particular, we need to observe the distinction that facts, claims, and arguments are contestable, whereas people are to be respected and treated with dignity.

  2. The title of this blog post is, to be frank, galling: “Misperceptions of Process Are a Distraction from Substance.” Student leaders and others have spoken about flaws in the roll-out and publicity of program prioritization. It is manifest that there have been some lapses. But rather than acknowledge what seems apparent to many on campus, we are instead told, via this headline, that those who question are *themselves* somehow flawed, or that their questions are.

    For shame.

    The university’s administration could do much to reassure its community if it offered a simple “Oops–our bad” every now and then rather than simply digging deeper into its trenches. For instance: “Oops–our bad. We should have had more town halls, and/or at different times.”

    This headline is offensive, as is the “TransformUS” moniker itself. I’m not the first to notice that the university’s “____US” campaign is focused on *real* and *positive* words ending in “US” (ambitious, curious, etc.). To append “US” to a made-up word whose associations are, for a large portion of our campus family, almost entirely negative is to have made a huge miscalculation. It was/is a colossal blunder.

    These words and headlines actually mean things to people. As a Council member who voted in favour of undertaking program prioritization, I believe strongly that an apology is in order for the rather offensive nature of this blog post’s title. It is a slap in the face to people who are posing questions that they have in fact been *invited* by the administration to ask! This isn’t the time for censurious headlines on a blog that was purportedly designed to solicit unfiltered input. And please keep in mind that the authors of the open letter speak only for themselves, whereas posts on this blog from Brett and Greg speak for the university. Although I did not find the post itself to be offensive, the headline certainly does have an inappropriate chilling effect.

    I urge you to revise the headline. We can do better than this, and we should.

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