By Jessica Lovell
A group of University of Guelph students, faculty and staff, who gathered for an alternative town hall meeting at the University Centre on Monday night, were united in their concerns about the negative impacts of a new approach to cost cutting at the university.
“We are very concerned that the budget cuts will impact the quality of education,” said William Cormack of the University of Guelph Faculty Association.
It was a concern that was echoed repeatedly throughout the two-hour meeting, which was held to discuss the Program Prioritization Process or PPP.
The controversial process, imported from the U.S., has seen 492 university departments – both academic and non-academic – ranked in an effort to help inform budget cuts to deal with a projected $32.4-million deficit over the next three years.
“From the beginning, the faculty association questioned the validity of a process that ranked academic programs against non-academic programs,” Cormack told the roughly 45 people at Monday’s meeting. “We feared that this process was weighted against academic programs.”
Cormack spoke as part of a panel that also included Janice Folk-Dawson of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1334, Central Student Association external affairs commissioner Dominica McPherson, and Patrick O’Brien of the Guelph Student Mobilization Committee.
The panel discussion followed some brief words from Western University professor James Compton, who also serves on the executive of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and Kate Lawson, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.
Compton suggested the PPP is part of a trend toward rating academic programs on utilitarian values and profitability.
Along with this trend, “there’s been a shift away from basic research funding,” he said, noting more research funding is being earmarked toward for-profit or business uses.
He also noted how governments have been stacking research councils, such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, with more corporate representatives.
“They’re also promoting an undue corporate interest on campus,” said Compton.
A cost-cutting system that takes into account not program quality, but profitability, favours programs that have external funding, he said.
“There’s a bias built into this system,” Compton said, noting it’s not a bias that favours arts and humanities programs.
Lawson attempted to give more context to the issue by pointing out that while program prioritization processes are not mandatory, they fit in with a provincial government push for more differentiated, specialized universities.
“Ontario universities are already differentiated,” she said, highlighting the differences between the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier and U of G as an example. They have grown to meet the needs of their communities, she said.
Program prioritization processes, which are currently being undertaken by multiple universities, have the potential to lead to drastic cuts and program closures that would undermine the quality of education in Ontario, she said.
“Will any university, at the end of this process, differentiate itself as a small liberal arts university?” she said.
In speaking of the impact of the process on students, McPherson talked about program cuts that have already been felt at U of G, such as the elimination of the women’s studies program in 2009.
More with less
She quoted university provost Maureen Mancuso, from a memo attached to the PPP report, saying “faced with government requirements to do more with less, we must do better what we do well, and leave to others what we cannot sustain at a level of quality we can be proud to associate with the Guelph name.”
McPherson then questioned why U of G would have programs it is not proud of, suggesting that underfunding could be the cause.
“We’ve been actively making choices to underfund certain areas over others,” she said.
Now, cutting these programs has the potential to hurt the U of G’s reputation as one of Canada’s most comprehensive universities, she said.
“It’s not only having an impact for our quality of education, it’s also having implications for our reputation across the country,” she said.
Lawson encouraged those present to fight such processes.
“The only bad action is inaction,” she said.
With a new university president taking over in August, there is some hope that he will be sympathetic to members of the university community opposed to the PPP.
So far, students have been active participants in the university’s town hall meetings regarding the process, said McPherson. “The hope is very much that a new president would take that into consideration and listen to the members of the university community,” she said.
But a statement from assistant vice-president of communications and public affairs Chuck Cunningham suggests a new president will not change the process.
“The current administration and the president-elect are in agreement that we must create a sustainable financial position for our university,” he said in an email. “That includes meeting our budget reduction targets. The PPP is one of several mechanisms being used to achieve this important goal, which will allow our university to be stronger over the long term. This challenging but important process is moving ahead, with the best long-term interests of the university in mind.”