Questions probe budget initiatives

A number of probing questions— about rumours, about budget adjustment initiatives and even about how students can help—were at the heart of a Feb. 26 town hall meeting held to provide an update on the institution’s financial situation.

By Kris Foster

The meeting began with Provost Brett Fairbairn and Greg Fowler, acting vice-president of finance and resources, restating the university's projected $44.5-million deficit by 2016 and the goals of the budget cutting measures—a sustainable operating budget with the best people and programs possible in place, and resources focused on university priorities.

Fairbairn noted the four-year timeline for trimming the operating budget gives the U of S "the time to make the right decisions. We don't want to end up in a repeat cycle of having to make cuts to our budget."

Fowler reiterated the need for changes to the university's workforce, its largest single expense. Some 50 administrative and support positions have been eliminated since November, he said, in units that "were ready to proceed," but every college and unit will do workforce planning before the end of April. Staff reductions to date will amount to about $2.4 million in budget savings by 2016.

Fairbairn also described the university's program prioritization initiative—called TransformUS— that will see two task forces spend the year evaluating every program and service against a set of criteria. Final rankings will be submitted in a report to the president by Nov. 30. An implementation plan for change will follow that will see increased investment in some areas, no change, or the elimination or reduction of programs and services.

The goal of TransformUS, said Fairbairn, is to save the university $20-25 million annually with $5 million of that earmarked for reinvestment in high-priority programs. TransformUS, he added, will drive future workforce planning.

Totaling all of the efforts made so far, Fowler said about $5 million in savings have been realized, about 10 per cent of the reduction target.

Patti McDougall, vice-provost teaching and learning, then chaired a question period, toggling between online queries, written questions submitted at the meeting, questions from speakers on the floor and from Twitter. The first asked what or who caused "this state of affairs," which Fairbairn described as a combination of lower projected provincial funding, compensation growth, deferred maintenance challenges and going concern pension payments.

Asked from the floor what University Advancement is contributing to increasing revenue, the provost acknowledged a conscious investment in expanding its fundraising function but compared to other institutions with well-established endowments and funding sources, "we're coming late to much of that work." Expect to see a major fundraising campaign in the next year or two, he said, but advancement work is "more of a long-term strategy."

Barb Daigle, associate vicepresident of human resources, took the microphone to address what one questioner described as the "perceived brutality" of the U of S lay-off process and the appearance of people being "perp-walked out." Daigle said no security staff is involved in layoffs but the university has hired Meyers Norris Penny transition workers to assist laid-off employees, largely "to protect them (employees) from their own emotional reaction," which in some cases may be strong.

People generally do not want to react badly in front of co-workers or their boss, she said, so not allowing people to return to their workplace is common practice. "What appears to be harsh on the face of it is really rooted in the best interests of people."

Daigle also addressed a question about compensation for senior administrators, explaining the university takes the strategic approach of setting all pay relative to market salaries in similar positions. "We don't increase compensation in good times and roll it back in bad times," she said. Taking a strategic approach, she went on, aids the university in its recruitment efforts for senior positions.

A graduate student asked what more students could do to assist the university. Fairbairn expressed the need to continue to hear the student voice and encouraged them to submit questions, comments or suggestions, attend meetings and participate in opportunities to share their ideas about priorities. The U of S wants to hear from "anyone who makes an investment in post-secondary education."

He also responded to a question about tuition being used to shore up revenues, assuring the audience the U of S intends to stick to its practice of making tuition decisions based on comparability, access and affordability, and ensuring quality. "You'll notice that the financial need of the university is not a criterion on the list."

Fowler answered a question about possibly contracting out non-cost effective services by saying the board has directed that all costs be explored. He added, however, that the university remains bound by all collective agreements and provincial labour legislation.