President’s Message: “Five to One, Baby, One in Five”

Julia Wright, DFA President, 2019-20

Last month, I went through a few million-dollar figures from the Dalhousie budget—a surplus of $6 million, a cool $1 million thrown in the general direction of buildings, a $43.2 million reduction in academic spending over the last couple of decades, and so on. This month, let’s talk about ratios.

Online, the administration reports that Dalhousie has “more than 6,000 faculty and staff” of which 999 are professors, a tad higher than the full count of DFA Members in 2016 (professors, instructors, librarians, and counsellors, including limited-term appointments). That puts the staff to faculty ratio around five to one—part of the reason my title is taken from Jim Morrison’s 1968 lyrics. This imbalance is registered in other figures. The administrative Dalhousie Professional and Managerial Group (DPMG), which does not typically include unit-level staff, is now nearly as big as the DFA: according to the 2018 Dalhousie Census, 957 DFA members and 721 DPMG members responded (and an even 100 in “Senior Administration”; see page 2 of the pdf).

The Census suggests another ratio: if the DFA response rate to the Census was 91% and 957 responded, then that puts the administration’s 2018 DFA count at about 1,050; 134 non-union faculty also responded, so the number of faculty may be closer to 1,200. Even if the proportion of university employees who are faculty may be as high as “one in five,” to again quote Morrison, it sure isn’t anything to brag about.

The University of British Columbia was criticized in 2015: “UBC has a 2:1 staff-to-faculty ratio, while [the University of] Toronto has a 1:2 ratio.” UBC is closer to the norm, though. Here are Dalhousie’s closest Atlantic peers and some other U15s (using their terminology for employee groups):

So the university website puts Dalhousie’s proportion of faculty (1 in 6) at less than half of the lowest ratio reported by these seven universities.

Universities do vary in terms of who they count and how. The University of Victoria is unusually detailed about its count and it has close to a 1:1 ratio of academics to non-academics: it recognizes instructors as academics but separates them from faculty and many of its academics are precariously employed. And some of these universities are reporting slightly different years, though they’re all the most recent available.

Even recognizing such variations, there seems to be a general trend in those universities that put this information clearly on their websites: at least one-third of their workforce is faculty. If Dalhousie were in a comparable range, we would have over 800 more faculty colleagues. Take a moment to think about what even half that would mean to our academic programs, our students, our research, our workloads—and the province, given the role of universities in driving economic success and other social benefits.

Let’s move beyond staff-to-faculty ratios. If Dalhousie had the same ratio of faculty to full-time students as Memorial, a similarly sized medical university in the region, then Dalhousie would have 1,444 faculty. (You can see this at a granular level—I checked some comparable units and numbers of professors at the two universities are either similar, as in Biology, or Memorial has more, as in Social Work.)

Our ratio also affects the university culture. Five to one, Human Resources and myriad other units are not dealing with us. Five to one, our Collective Agreement is irrelevant to the work of the administration. In policy development, planning, and so on, we’re not a significant cohort. Our Collective Agreement is just one in five at Dalhousie.

According to Research Infosource’s 2017 data (and using the university’s 999 figure), Dalhousie has over 25% more research income than Memorial, even though it has over 25% fewer faculty, and more than three times the research income of UNB, even though it has less than twice as many faculty. Since faculty numbers are differently calculated, let’s look at this from the perspective of total employees: York University (the second-largest university in Canada by undergraduate enrolment) has 7,000 faculty and staff to Dalhousie’s 6,000, but less than two-thirds the research income of Dalhousie.

Again, these numbers may be differently calculated; moreover, disciplines are highly variable in terms of whether external research funding is needed and how much, so the discipline mix is always a factor in research income. But these and other calculations all point in one direction: we are doing more with less. #DalProud, indeed.

“Five to One” is a song about revolution, recorded just weeks after anti-war protests at the Pentagon: “They got the guns, but we got the numbers,” sang Morrison. We’ve got numbers, too, like those I’ve detailed above and last month, as well as many others collected by the DFA over the years (with more to come!).

DFA concerns about workload and fairness are not rooted in speculation, or belly-aching, or faculty failure to organize their time. Workload problems are real and they are discernible in the numbers as well as palpable in our daily experience, especially for our limited-term colleagues. We are less than “one in five” doing the work that in other universities is done by over one in three.

I invite your comments and feeback by email at Julia.Wright@dal.ca.


President’s Message: The Six Million Dollar Surplus

Julia Wright, DFA President 2019-20

I started reading more on the DFA website in the early 2010s when I chaired my Faculty’s working group on Finances. Those materials, along with other readings and various consultations for our working group, led to my understanding of spending at Dalhousie as “buckets and troughs”:  all resources go into buckets; resources then get poured into different troughs, until they’re more or less full. If one starts to run low, skim some from the other troughs. Pouring slop from a bucket is never a finely tuned calculation. It’s a metaphor, of course, but one I’ve

found useful because it grasps the lack of detail in the information we get. It’s hard to know why, for instance, every year there are tuition increases but cuts to Faculty budgets (the so-called BAC Cuts, named for the Budget Advisory Committee)—and every year the university ends with a surplus.

This year, there was $6 million left in the buckets—enough to erase the .5% cut to Faculties in the 2019-20 Budget and reduce tuition increases. (They’re not, of course.) It is the annual BAC Cuts that make faculty renewal more difficult, driving our continuing reliance on precarious and under-resourced LTAs as well as less easily tracked forms of workload creep for everyone (larger class sizes, more committee obligations, fewer unit-level staff, less resources for research). And, of course, there’s the scrambling for ERBA, the Enrolment Related Budget Allocation. It’s the only regular BAC mechanism by which a Faculty budget allocation can increase and it basically works like this: if you manage to teach more students after your budget is cut then you will get a bit more money the following year that will offset that next year’s cut. Both ERBA and the BAC Cut normalize Faculties doing more with less.

The DFA has noted repeatedly in recent years that academic spending as a portion of the university’s overall budget has declined significantly. Here’s the April 2018 Review of Dalhousie Finances:

In 2016-17, the proportion of the total operating budget spent on the Academic Responsibility Centre was approximately 9% less than in 2002-03. In 2002-03, Dalhousie used just under 74% of operating funds for the Academic category. In concrete terms, this means that Dalhousie would have had an additional $43.2 million to spend on the University’s core mission if the percentage had remained the same in 2016-17 as it was in 2002-03. (p. 2)

It’s easy to see how big a difference that might have made in supporting faculty renewal, reducing tuition fees, and even addressing uncompetitive salaries at Dalhousie and pay equity across all ranks and groups. And there’s more: “Over the past 15 years, nearly half a billion dollars has been diverted from every funding envelope into the Capital fund, and more than $215 million flowed from operating budgets to acquire capital assets” (p. 2). (See the DFA’s last BAC Submission on restoring funding to the academic mission now that the building boom is starting to wind down.)

The budget and collegial governance used to be a lot more tightly linked than they are now, as my last President’s Message briefly noted. Senate even used to have the power to gather information and make recommendations on university budgets, while duly recognizing that budgets were finally in the hands of the Board of Governors. Here’s a taste of the sort of discussion that used to happen at Senate about these budgets:

Mr. Bradfield asked if interest on the capital debt is charged against the operation fund. Mr. Mason stated that interest on the operating accounts is charged to the operating account, but that interest on the capital fund [is] only charged to that fund during the construction phase. He stated that he did not believe it was possible to charge the interest on unfunded capital to the capital account. (Minutes, January 1987, p.5)

Later that month, “The entire meeting was devoted to the presentation and consideration of the 1987/88 Budget Book Summary and related matters” (p. 12).

There are a lot of interesting passages in these Minutes, some very familiar (especially those on fiscal concerns in the face of provincial funding shortfalls), and others less so: “The President... reported an intention to cut back in the President's Office” and “reviewed the cost of maintenance, repairs and furnishings” of the President’s house (p. 15). Imagine! In our own period of austerity and annual BAC cuts to Faculties, the President’s Office budget allocation increased dramatically, from $2,998k in 2009-10 (p. 10) to $4,200k in 2015-16 (also p. 10). That’s a 40% increase over six years.

Here’s what we used to have. In the 1983 Senate Constitution, the Senate Financial Planning Committee’s tasks were detailed and included the following: “monitor and report on the financial aspects of the development, administration and expenditure of the university’s annual budget, making policy recommendations where appropriate”; “respond to such specific requests for financial information, analysis and reports as it may from time to time receive from the Academic Planning Committee” (p. 7). As late as last decade, there was a Senate Academic Priorities and Budget Committee (in place from 1996) that was to “act as a principal advisor to Senate . . . in the conduct of academic, and financial planning,” as well as “be involved in the preparation of the annual budget so that it reflects the University’s academic priorities” (Constitutional Provisions Governing the Operation of Senate [January 2005]: 27). The BAC has been around since 1992, so it isn’t that BAC replaced the Senate committee. It’s just gone.

Now, instead of Senate scrutiny leading to even the president being accountable for his spending, we have surveys and town halls in which urgent calls for help cannot be effectively heard and few of us have enough information to effectively analyze what we are being told. We don’t even know the basis for that cool-million-dollar price tag for facilities in the 2019-20 budget (p. 14). What items were costed, and for how much, to lead to that oh-so-very-round figure? Will fifty small fixes yield more benefit to the academic mission than three expensive fixes? Who is doing that analysis, and on what principles? If there’s money left over, where does it go? This isn’t pocket change—a tenth of this amount could make a significant difference to an academic program struggling to maintain its course offerings because of unreplaced retirees.

Skimming the same percentage from all Faculties every year and slopping six- and seven-figure sums at vague, campus-wide projects don’t generate much confidence in evidence-based decision-making. Nor do they allow meaningful discussion about academic priorities and university spending overall, or even a basic risk-benefit analysis to know when, and where, a further small cut may be so damaging that it isn’t worth the short-term savings.

In the common phrase, budgets are about priorities. At a public university, shouldn’t evidence-based, transparent, and accountable budgets dedicated to the academic mission be the priority?