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

7 thoughts on “Why, at times, we need to eliminate positions

  1. I have been impressed with the transparency from you, Brett and Greg, through this entire process. In that vein, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how the current blog post is intended as a means of preparing campus employees for upcoming layoffs. We all know they’re coming; those of us interested in the meta- aspects of process would appreciate an account of your calcuations as to the rollout of bad news (i.e., management’s philosophy for how best to handle it). We all know it’s coming; some remarks on the messaging strategy would be appreciated.

    • Greg may wish to add, but for my part I would say we are just trying to be as open as possible about our thinking. Leaders and governing bodies in the university need to frame decisions in terms of the long-term good of the whole organization (and for this purpose it is helpful to pay attention to and talk about principles and priorities). Once a specific decision is framed, the overriding consideration in how it unfolds is respect for any individuals who may be strongly affected. This usually means we can’t talk about the specifics until after the fact; making it all the more important to talk about the generalities (principles, priorities, and process) whenever we can.

      • The work we want to achieve with our leaders and our staff is much more about creating something new that is more efficient rather than straight-line cost reductions. This involves much more effort from all of us in making changes to improve processes, changing what we are doing, and yes, in creating efficiencies by reducing the number of positions. The savings we require are very small relative to the amount of the budget. However, many of our staff will be affected, as it will involve changing what we do.

    • Generalists are typically responsible for a range of business support service; they hold responsibility for complex administrative activities and are located within colleges, schools and units. Reporting lines to an administrative functional area, such as IT or financial services, are often lacking. This model causes administrative inefficiencies within higher education which has struggled to achieve consolidation, standard practices and automation.

  2. Hey guys, I know a way to save the university near a million dollars a year in salaries and benefits by eliminating just 2 positions.

    To whom should I forward this information?

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