From where I sit - Between a rock and a hard place

August 27, 2009

Where I sit is getting awkward these days. I find myself caught in the middle of an increasingly acrimonious debate between faculty and administrators as financial pressures are creating a perfect storm around the allocation of teaching resources. You see, I'm a faculty member whose partner is an associate dean - not especially high on the administrative ladder, but high enough to have moved from "us" to "them" in the partisan politics of my faculty.

Here at Queen's, as at all universities in Canada, our main funding comes from a combination of government Basic Income Units (BIUs) - which are tied to student numbers - and tuition fees. However, over the past decade, most departments have become reliant on so-called "soft money", from annual interest on the endowment fund, to mount the extra courses needed to fill out programmes and help keep class sizes manageable. But the current market has virtually eliminated this source of funding, and since BIUs are not indexed to inflation and tuition increases are strictly regulated, that financial cushion has vanished. Last year, each department in the Faculty of Arts and Science was handed a 5 per cent cut, with similar reductions forecast for each of the next two years.

And so the battle has begun. In an attempt to maximise income, the administration has raised admission numbers next year, and in a counter-attempt to preserve class sizes both for pedagogical reasons and the protection of working conditions, many departments (including my own) are declining to admit more students. To maximise teaching potential, administrators are considering suspending admission to programmes that are under-enrolled, in order to move instructors out of very small classes and into larger "service" courses. Faculty members in those programmes are outraged, for idealistic and self-interested reasons. Yes, suspending a minor in a foreign language seems counter-intuitive in an institution that claims to value globalisation; yes, student choice would be more limited. Still, it is also difficult not to recognise that some of the outrage might arise, not because anyone would be losing a job (we are well protected by our collective agreement), but because the teaching load would shift to higher enrolment service courses, previously staffed by the soft money sessionals, instead of the smaller seminars currently offered.

As for me, I sit, as the saying goes, between a rock and a hard place. I watch my administrator spouse lie awake night after night wrestling to find solutions to the impossible task of maintaining quality programmes for students in the face of vanishing resources and faculty resistance to change; by day, I listen to my colleagues rail against administrators they believe are creating panic over an imaginary financial crisis. I have stopped attending faculty association meetings, where the rhetoric of worker solidarity inevitably involves vilifying administrators as greedy, stupid, and unethical, and where sweeping and inaccurate statements about administrator compensation fly thick and fast. But what concerns me more is that I think I might have started talking less to my husband about his work, as his frustration with the refusal of faculty members, including some of my colleagues, to accept the seriousness of the financial situation grows more bitter. In a climate rendered increasingly adversarial by financial strain, it may be the personal cost that is the hardest to bear.

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