Weingarten speaks

By Chris Beauchamp

Gauntlet: Can you identify the three biggest challenges facing the University of Calgary?

Harvey Weingarten: That’s a good question. The three that maybe face us are really no different I think from the ones that face every other larger research university. I’d say it’s the quality of the student experience overall–—would be one. Students do something very important. They give us four or five years of their lives at very interesting times of their lives. That puts a tremendous obligation on us as a university to attend to what happens to students here, while they are here.

The second is related to that, and that I would say is the issue of curriculum reform: coming up with a set of programs and an organization of those programs that really meets the needs and aspirations of our students, and the way they interact with the world.

One of the examples I gave when I was an undergraduate—it wasn’t that long ago, it wasn’t the middle ages, but it wasn’t yesterday—when we had to write a paper it was not uncommon that you’d walk into the library to whatever section your books and journals for your discipline were in, and you kinda walk around to see whats new. Now, that doesn’t happen that much any more, particularly in some disciplines. You expect to have information available digitally, you expect to be able to search for that information. Students tell us that’s their preferred way and that’s the way they do things. We need to accommodate our facilities, our programs, the way we teach, to take into account that we have students who are much more active participants in the learning process. And that’s why we emphasize things like inquiry, et cetera.

We also can’t teach everything that you’re going to need to know in a career. It’s impossible to teach that much content. The best thing we can do is teach students, and help students develop skills of critical thinking, asking important questions and implementing solutions that they come up with, et cetera. We need our curriculum to reflect that more and better than it does now. Again, it’s a challenge for every university.

The third thing is probably more true of the University of Calgary, and that is a serious infrastructure issue. You know that during the nineties, we, the U of C absorbed the lion’s share of increased enrollment in the province of Alberta. We were incredibly responsible citizens. We responded to the access challenge, but we did that without a commensurate increase in the physical space that we had available. Students see the impact of that every day. They see the 38 trailers on campus. They see crowded classrooms. They see a lack of social space and meeting space where frankly, a lot of interesting education goes on-—places to sit and to discuss and to debate and to engage in discussions with students. That’s what I would identify as the third thing that happens to catch the U of C at this particular time. It’s a serious issue for us.

G: I wanted to talk about budget cuts. What will the province’s renewed commitment to post-secondary education mean for planned budget cuts and reallocations at the U of C?

HW: Sure, let’s say a number of things.

The more accurate way to say what’s happening to our budget is that our increase in expenses has been outstripping our increase in revenues. We haven’t cut, we just haven’t kept up with the rate of expense growth, and so what’s happened is, we had a gap between the rise of expenses and the rise of revenues. Every faculty, every unit in fact, got more money each year. It just wasn’t enough money to keep up and to keep in line with the increased programming and expenditures they had. We had more students. We had more faculty. This has been growing. It’s just we haven’t been able to keep our revenues up to our expenses.

What does that mean? To get to your question, our best read of where we are in the next three to four years is that our increase in revenues will be able to keep up with our increase in expenses. And that means that what we had anticipated–which is finding let’s say, three per cent of our budget to close that gap between our rising expenses and revenues which are not rising quite as fast–that we don’t think is going to happen. So that means that we will not have to do as everyone talks about, that three per cent cut every year.

We don’t believe we’ll be in a position to do that.

G: Are the reallocations going to go ahead?

HW: Absolutely. You have to continue with the reallocation, because otherwise we cannot do some of the things students are asking us to do and faculty are asking us to do at this university. If you don’t have reallocations, then what you essentially are saying is that everything we do now is exactly the way it should be and there can be–there should be–no possibility for changes. That means that when we want to bring in more scholarships for students, if we don’t have reallocations we can’t do that. If we want to bring in programs that students are asking for, hire certain professors that people are asking for, if we don’t have reallocations we can’t do that.

If we don’t have reallocations, we cannot meet some of the infrastructure issues–classroom upgrades, more technology, a wireless campus–that people are asking for. We have to have reallocations because that’s the way an organization uses its money to achieve those goals and aspirations people have identified for the institution. And so we intend to continue with a reallocation pool of about two per cent a year.

Now recognize something very important about that. I know there are some people out there that say ‘Oh my god, that’s terrible. That’s revolutionary.’ I would say this: If we do a reallocation pool of two per cent each year, what that means is that 98 per cent of our dollars next year will be spent exactly the way we spent it this year. You know that there are people who would say that we should have reallocation pools far larger than two per cent. Okay, we think a reasonable balance is a two per cent point.

G: How much are the proposed increases to base operating grants–the six per cent–how much of that is going to be simply playing catch up now for damage that’s been done over the past ten years?

HW: I don’t think about it in terms of catch up. What I do think about it is our expenses go up each year, and we have to fashion a budget that makes sure that our increase in revenues matches that. The increased revenue–the base operating budget–helps, absolutely. But we’ve done other things to help close that gap between revenue and expenses.

As you’ve seen, we’ve been much more successful in fundraising than we’ve been. That helps. We’ve been much more successful and much more vigorous in terms of how we run the businesses of the university. We’re a huge organization.

We are the largest single-point user of electricity­. We spend close to $20 million a year in electricity and gas bills. If we can decrease that, as we have through the Direct Energy contract, by several million dollars a year, that’s money that goes directly, instead of paying the electrical bill, into academic programs and programming. That’s been an important part. So you’re seeing the renewal of our business systems and the computer systems that run this university is a critical element of what we had to do.

We’re now running a place with 30,000 people, not 12,000 or 15,000, which is when those systems came into place. And we’re far more complicated. So I would say to you that the combination of the increased provincial investment–which is there and which we acknowledge and which is important–and the other things we have done, such as fundraising, such as renewal of business systems, such as better use of our assets, all the things that I talked about last Thursday. That combination of things has allowed us to close the gap between the increasing expenses and our increased revenue.

G: You mentioned fundraising. In your presentation the proposed increase in fundraising over the next three years is practically double what it was this year. How is that going to happen?

HW: First of all, it’s not quite double. We raised $60 million this year, in terms of cash, which was about $40 million, and then pledges, which was about another $20 million. Our target next year is to raise in cash and pledges $70 million. But it’s an interesting question: How did this happen?

We were a place that was chugging along at about 15 million bucks a year. How did we get here? We got here because three years ago as part of the budgeting process the board made an investment in fundraising. What it said is that we could do better. And so we made an investment of about a million dollars a year to enhance our fundraising effort. And it’s that investment, and the people we’ve hired and the things we’re able to do with that money that have returned handsomely to the university through increased fundraising.

The budget committees endorse that and in fact, feel quite good about that. They made an investment. There is a risk associated with any investment, but they made that investment–it’s worked out well. Chris, that’s the way we do everything. We think of things that we must do or should be doing. We are reasonable in terms of investing in them–we’re not crazy about spending–but we figure out what we need to invest. We set targets and we monitor whether we’re meeting our targets or not. And I have to tell you, in the great majority of cases the targets we set, we meet. And in the case of fundraising we have exceeded quite rapidly.

Let me also be clear about something. That also means that we move and do things at the university before every penny is in the bank. We would have virtually no new programs in the last three years at the U of C–let me say it a positive way.

The reason we have new programs at the U of C is because we knew they were important. They were areas where students were telling us it was important, and we moved on those things before we knew where every penny was coming from. We took a risk. That’s the way it works now.

The flip side of this is there are some risks we will take that will not succeed. It’s part of the dynamic, but that’s why when you start the project, you articulate what your targets are, what you’re hoping to achieve by when. So you know if you’re not making your objectives, and if you don’t make your objectives, you can either modulate the plan or fix it, or you figure it was a mistake and you drop it. Fortunately, we’ve had remarkably few instances like that.

G: The faculty association has noted three major concerns with your leadership and the direction the U of C is heading. We’ve already touched upon budget cuts, but could you please tell me how the decline of collegial governance processes is being addressed?

HW: What I would appreciate is someone to articulate for me what collegial governance means. I know it’s a term, but it has very different definitions to very different people. Collegial governance doesn’t mean you don’t make decisions. Collegial governance means that you talk to people, you consult with them, and you inform yourself before you make decisions. And there are people at this university, because of the position they hold, are expected to make decisions and to be held accountable to them. So the truth is–and I’m not trying to be slippery here–I actually can’t answer that because I don’t really know what the faculty association means by collegial governance.

G: How would you respond to their concern that too many non-academics are in decision-making processes?

HW: I just don’t know–I don’t agree with them.

G: You just don’t agree?

HW: I just don’t agree.

G: I’ve also heard it expressed by faculty and students that there is an agenda driving senior administration to slowly convert the U of C into a health and technology based research institution, at the expense of undergrad programs in the arts and sciences. How would you respond to that?

HW: I think it’s wrong and I think people who express that opinion should actually look at some data. Because the real question is that if you want to do something there are resources that are needed. So one of the questions is: Where does money go?

When we allocate money through budgets, where does that money go? If you look at the kind of allocations we’ve made for example, to address the undergrad experience, the lion’s share of that money went to social sciences and science. Now, I know what people are responding to. There have been some very significant fundraising successes in places like medicine, in places like engineering, in places like the Haskayne School of Business. And so people have concluded based upon that, that somehow that’s all that we’re interested in.

I would say a number of things. First of all, actually look at the money flows at the university before you come to a conclusion like that. I don’t think the data support that conclusion. The second thing I would say is this: In the world of fundraising, and that seems to get so many people’s attention, I find it interesting, we reallocate far more each year than we raise in fundraising. When you look at fundraising, it is certainly the case that we are likely–it’s true for every university I know–to raise more money in some areas of the university than others. It is the case that medicine, engineering, the business school, are likely to attract more fundraising philanthropic dollars than other places.

It’s not the case that you can’t raise significant philanthropic dollars for the arts and sciences or undergraduate education. You can. People forget that we got a $5 million donation from the O’Briens for the bachelor of health sciences program. They didn’t give us that donation because it was the Faculty of Medicine, they gave us that donation because they saw an undergraduate program that was based to the core and from the first day students come in, on inquiry, critical thinking, research experiences for students. That’s why they were motivated to give that money. And that money’s had an impact on that program. We can do that for other places as well, but you need to engage the community and tell that story.

The second thing is: that’s why reallocation pools are so important, because if we raise more money in certain areas through philanthropy, for engineering or medicine, we need the opportunity to keep the right balance at the U of C.

In the absence of a reallocation pool what we would look like would be governed to too large an extent, simply by philanthropy. That’s inappropriate. We need to control what we look like, what the balance between the disciplines is. And the reallocation pool allows us to do exactly that.

No reallocation pool and you can’t rebalance the university.

G: Speaking, again to faculty and staff, I’ve heard it expressed a lot in the last year that morale is at an all time low. What’s being done to pick that up?

HW: First of all morale is low. No one likes to be in a position where they anticipate five per cent or three per cent cuts for X amount of time. Especially when you’ve been through it before. That’s number one.

Number two, may I respectfully suggest to you and to your media colleagues that you don’t get a full sample of people. Yes, you do hear from people whose morale is low. But there are people out there whose morale is high, because they’re doing interesting things, their being better supported than they ever have been at the university, their work is flourishing, their programs are flourishing. Their morale is high.

So I would suggest that you get a more balanced review of what the view of the faculty is than simply things you get out of, for example, surveys or people who might call you. Because we know samples who respond to that.

That said, I’m not dismissing the issue of morale. It is an issue. How do you reverse it? One of the ways I know to do that is to do things and do positive things and be sure to talk about them.

I’m not a Pollyanna. I’m not a guy who says we should dismiss, you know, not talk about our challenges, or sweep them under the rug. I don’t say that at all. In fact, one of the things that I’m criticized for, and one of the things that might have contributed to the morale issue we have, is that I have been incredibly open to the university about the challenges we have. I don’t hide anything from this university.

How do you reverse it? You a) put a little balance into the discussion. Let’s talk about some of the good things that are going on, and there are a fair number of good things. And I’m encouraged by the fact that we have more people beginning to talk about those issues.

The second thing is, if you can fix your challenges, that’s good for morale. In a crazy world we live in, if you were expecting in each of the next few years a five per cent cut, and we have now through hard work and advocacy engineered a set of circumstances where that’s not going to happen, that’s positive.

And so we have to start, again, not minimizing the challenges, but we have to face our challenges, overcome them, and boy that’s remarkably satisfying and positive.

G: How accessible do you think you are to students?

HW: I have no idea, you tell me.

G: I don’t know. I don’t see your face through Mac Hall too often. That would be nice.

HW: Here’s my dilemma. And I admit that it’s an interesting one. The job of a university president is an interesting job. You’re supposed to be the internal advocate, cheerleader, head of strategic management, planning, et cetera.

So you’re supposed to spend time inside the shop. But then again, you’re also supposed to be the chief fundraiser, the chief government relations officer, you’re supposed to represent the university in front of the community.

Getting the balance right between those two things is a struggle. I admit to that, and I’m not sure I have it right.

At the beginning you spend more time in the shop than you do outside. I can tell you that when you look at my job, half the days that I’m in Calgary, I’m both at the university and downtown. The other half I’m just at the university.

Do I have the balance right? I’m not sure. I think I understand the job better now than I did before. There is a rule of thumb that says that when the inside people and the outside people are both complaining that you don’t spend enough time with them, you’ve probably hit the balance just right. And I think I may be getting there.

But I do understand the motivation behind your question and I do understand the occupational hazard of being a senior administrator, which is a distancing from a group of people–the students–who are the most important group that I’m here to serve.

So, I’m going to ask you a question. When I was at a former university and I was a dean, one of the things that I did was every week or every two weeks, there would be, in this case, it was ‘Lunch with the Dean.’ People brought their lunch. I supplied the coffee and donuts. It was a Hamilton thing, you always provided donuts. And people could just say they were coming and it was no agenda, just sit and talk about anything you wanted. We did that for about three quarters of the year. One of my disappointments is that very few students actually showed up. People did show up, from the community, faculty and staff, but far too few students for my tastes.

You tell me if there is an appetite among students for doing that kind of thing here. If there is I’ll do it.

G: That’s a very fair question. If you look at the town hall that you guys were going to hold last year to announce the budget, the fact that it was cancelled due to a complete lack of interest speaks for itself. But, I think that there might be a market to start something like that.

HW: Okay, then I’m willing to give it a shot. What I will do for organizing, starting in September, is be sure that on a regular basis, I reserve time–it’s easier over lunch–for people simply to come. But I’m going to do this, I’m going to reserve it for students, and we’ll see how it goes.

G: We started by talking about the three biggest challenges facing the U of C, what would you say are the biggest strengths of this institution?

HW: Good question. There’s a number of them. I hope I come to three by the end. Number one is simply the vitality of Calgary and the history of this university.

Let’s face it. If you look outside here and you look to see what’s here, and you think that 30 years ago this was nothing. This place, you know, 40 years ago this place didn’t exist. My god, something tremendous has happened here. Again, part of the incredible growth, as one of our challenges, is creating some challenges for us.

But the first thing I would say as our strength is a sense of vitality, a sense of connect to the community, that I think has served this university well and will continue to serve us well in the future.

There’s something very exciting about being in the fastest growing city in Canada. It’s an enormous headache, but it’s a wonderful headache to have. That’s one.

The second thing is there are wonderful people here. I work on an everyday basis with some outstanding people who are incredibly dedicated to this institution, who provide service to our students and to the research cause of this university, who are smart and talented and dedicated, and frankly that’s wonderful.

The third thing that I think is a strength of our institution is frankly, our student leaders. I actually think there is an interesting dynamic around student leaders. Typically they come for a year and they’re around and then they disappear. But look, we’ve done something incredibly unusual with our students. As part of the budgeting process this year and last year, we’ve allocated a significant amount of money to students for them to figure out how to allocate. We’re not disappointed in what students are coming back with.

They come back with smart, clever initiatives and investments. We can do that because we have a relationship with our students and our student leaders that is a good one, that is productive. It doesn’t mean that we don’t sometimes disagree, and you know we do disagree on some things. You know that every year we will get into some contentious debates about tuition. You know there will be other things that’ll be contentious issues, but for the most part there is a productive, harmonious, supportive working relationship between the university administration and the student leaders that I think serves this university incredibly well. That’s a good thing.

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