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alberta education

In March, Alberta Premier Alison Redford's provincial budget stunned Alberta's postsecondary institutions. A promised 2 per cent increase in funding was jettisoned; instead postsecondary spending was cut by more than 7 per cent.

"Horrified" – that was University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera's reaction. Five months later, "horrified" remains an apt descriptor, although now it's best applied to how government and university alike are muddling through the budget process.

Since the shock of March, the government has behaved cavalierly when it comes to helping the UofA find a path for coping with its radically altered fiscal world. In April, president Samarasekera announced how she proposed to deal with the cuts. She wouldn't panic and wouldn't try to absorb the government's cuts in one year. Instead, she proposed a three-year horizon for dealing with the $43-million reduction in its government grant; 20 per cent of that reduction would be budgeted for in 2013/14 and the remaining 80 per cent would be absorbed equally over the next two fiscal years.

The province and Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk have yet to respond to the university's plan. The university's nearly 40,000 students and more than 10,000 academic/non-academic staff deserve much better from him. They deserved a response a long time ago to the president's timeline. More than four months into the first year of spending cuts they are still waiting for that decision. The Minister's delay is unconscionable.

Minister Lukaszuk's dithering may help explain University Hall's floundering. Since the president's speech in April, her administration has lurched from one cost-cutting suggestion to another. These approaches have become more and more desperate.

In April, the president rejected the Minister's idea of trying to reopen collective agreements to claw back minimal salary increases. "We value our collective agreements," she said, "and have every intention of honouring them."

Horizontal, across-the-board, cuts were out; vertical restructuring (cutting programs) was in. The university's vision and mandate would inform cost-cutting. Would the university consider voluntary retirement incentives or voluntary severance programs for faculty? No, incentives to retire would not be considered – yes, voluntary buyouts would be considered if they were part of vertical restructuring.

These springtime commitments, like that season in Edmonton, didn't last long. Less than four months after her promise to honour contracts, President Samarasekera's senior leadership team asked the academic staff association to re-open faculty contracts to cut salaries. Three weeks later, the UofA administration approached non-academic staff with the same request. Both staff associations have so far refused .

Now the Chairs of the university's science departments have jumped on the bandwagon to reopen faculty contracts. They think faculty should cut their salaries in order to save the university. We've seen this logic before and all it does is set a dangerous precedent and reward the poor performance and decisions of government and administration alike.

Earlier this month, the administration announced a university-wide voluntary buyout program for professors. This last approach also is the most desperate, ill-considered move the administration has made. The timelines and terms for applying for a voluntary severance are such that the professors most likely to consider it are likely already contemplating retirement. It's like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose.

The UofA advertises its governance system as "collegial" and made up of "highly consultative decision-making processes depending heavily upon the participation of stakeholders ." And yet, during this extraordinary time, consultation and participation have been through very occasional campus forums and blog postings. Secrecy is the norm. For example, the administration refuses to disclose publicly the cuts it has meted out to different faculties (my freedom of information request for these data has been rejected).

The Acting Provost justified this silence paternalistically. He argued "the data might be oversimplified or incorrectly compared and analyzed" and "that in a time of struggle for the institution, it would be best to avoid unnecessary practices that would result in additional confusion and strife among Faculties and members of the community." The record to this point in time doesn't suggest his approach is doing a good job of saving us from ourselves.

President Samarasekera is fond of quoting the UofA's founding president H.M. Tory's remark that the role of the public university is "the uplifting of the whole people." Both her leadership and that of the Redford government is failing that noble commitment today.

Ian Urquhart is an associate professor in the political science department at the University of Alberta.