Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Successfully operationalizing Athabasca's third-party report

Last week, Athabasca University released an independent report about the way forward. The report suggests (and the university’s board has promised) a rapid response to the recommendations with a major rethink of operations to be completed by May 2018.

This Thursday, there is a joint meeting of the Board of Governors and the General Faculties Council to discuss the report. Both the Board chair and president are relatively new. They may wish to consider four issues that they will need to navigate if this rethink is going to be successful.

The first is the issue of location. The report recommends moving some staff (including the president) to a new consolidated location in the Edmonton area while retaining registrarial, student support, and specialized services in the town of Athabasca (pp. 29 and 38). Relocation became a real issue last year when seemingly secret plans to relocate portions of the university to St Albert hit the news.

This kind of back-room dealing deeply damaged institutional trust. The university (and its jobs) are very important to the town of Athabasca so the report's relocation recommendations have triggered some angst. Will good jobs be lost to the city? Will AU’s main campus slowly (or quickly) be hollowed out?

The arguments for this shift are (1) transportation is too costly (the evidence of this is thin, especially set against the cost of space in Edmonton) and (2) the local labour pool is small and living in Athabasca is unattractive (again, the evidence is thin and this argument is deeply offensive). Alternate explanations for recruitment difficulties (e.g., a decade of atrocious management leading to high turnover) might suggest different solutions.

A major shift in staff (which will damage the town socially and economically) is unlikely to be politically acceptable to the government. This discussion is distressing to current staff who live in Athabasca. If a major shift is off the table, then making clear the parameters of any change early on will go far to encouraging staff buy-in to the process.

A part of the rethink required by the report is a review of the university’s existing offerings with an eye to closing programs and courses that are “unsustainable” or “incompatible” with some (unknown) institutional standards. This plan needs to be complete by November 1 (p. 35). This rapidity of this seemingly sensible recommendation (which is a part of the institution’s ongoing process of review) raises the spectre of layoffs driven by a sham review process.

These concerns reflect the deep lack of trust created by the last two administrations, which (respectively) said (1) “everything is fine” and the sacked 1 in 7 full-time staff, and (2) forced a student contact model (the “call centre”) on faculties against the wish of many academics. Essentially, previous administrations’ behaviour has demonstrated that the institution can’t be trusted to act in good faith. So why would I, as a staff member, bother to participate in this new process in any way?

Certainly some folks suggest the institution just needs to move forward. I think this view underappreciates the degree of distrust and disengagement among staff and the limited political capital of the administration. While we do have a new chair and a new president, many of the long-term players remain and their wretched behaviour is front of mind. Sweeping the past under the rug (which the report tries to do) isn't going to cut it.

There certainly seems to be little willingness to address past wrongs. For example, the institution cries poverty but won’t consider ditching four former senior administrators who were given tenured full professorships as perks without having to prove their merit through the normal peer-led, academic tenure process. These perks (which also violate the faculty collective agreement), cost the university about $1 million per year until these folks retire or die in harness. But the rest of the staff need to tighten our belts and take wage roll backs?

Whatever review process the institution envisions occurring (very rapidly over the summer when no one is around…), it will need to have a high degree of face legitimacy to avoid staff apathy, resistance, and/or sabotage.

Carrying off a fundamental rethink (and subsequently reorganization) of the university’s operations is going to be labour intensive (unless the process is a complete sham...). I question whether AU has staff capacity to do this after years of hiring freezes and rapid management turnover. Consider the finance portfolio, for example.

Working from top to bottom, in 10 years, we’ve had four VPs (one was acting). All of the directors have turned over (often more than once and with increasing speed). In HR, there is no HR director or labour-relations manager (since the last 8 have each abruptly disappeared after shorter and shorter periods of time on the job). The HR shop itself looks like the Marie Celeste, operating at half staff with no leadership and zero capacity to take on additional work (or even do their current work properly).

This kind of capacity issue—although perhaps to a lesser degree than in HR—exists across virtually the whole institution. Can the institution make (or even plan) major changes in the next year? I’m skeptical. Whatever the plan is going forward, it must recognize the stretched (and, in many cases, burned out and flailing) nature of its workforce. A significant increase in work may cause some operational areas to collapse.

Over the past five years, the university has used the threat of financial collapse as a club to bully its staff into taking wage freezes and accepting other changes. This tool is now yielding negative institutional value for two reasons.

First, staff (being smart people) have noticed that the institution’s projected deficit always turns out to be a surplus. The institution’s explanation that this is the result of “one-time savings that cannot be repeated” is now widely disbelieved and contributes to the lack of political capital among institutional leaders.

While there is actually a wolf at the end of the parable about the boy who cried wolf (as there may well be for AU), the actual lesson of that story is that people don’t fucking like being emotionally manipulated. And, if you do it often enough, they will turn on you and you, in turn, will fail at your job. That is an important lesson for the new president and board chair to pay attention to.

Second, the death-spiral narrative has leaked out into the public and is damaging the institution’s reputation. This narrative poses an existential threat to the report’s suggestion that AU can grow its way to success. Students, employers, and other PSEs are not going to want to sign on to a seemingly sinking ship. There even seems to be some institutional recognition of the problem created by the death-spiral narrative.

Yet, the death-spiral narrative appears in the report (p.44) and was immediately picked up by the media and the staff. The president tried to waive aside this issue during “conversations with the president” last week by noting only three media outlets pick up the death-spiral narrative while 380 didn’t. This bit of spin looked both desperate and amateurish given that the outlets that did go with “death spiral” are the largest media outlets in Alberta.

The presence of the death-spiral narrative in the report is designed to suggest that the institution must change or die (and, indeed, the report (p.40) recommends the government wind down operations if the university’s plan doesn’t meet with the government’s approval). Basically, the report (and the university) seem to find the narrative an irresistible tool to “motivate” staff to do things they don’t want to do (like take contract rollbacks, as hinted at on page 28 and 35-36).

As blogger David Climenhaga notes, the university will only close if the government wants that to happen. The government is unlikely to close the university in the run-up to the 2019 election. And, more broadly, no government is likely to close a rural institution that is the major employer in a town (although the Tories tried to starve AU to death in 1994-1997 and again in 2009-2013).

So the effect of the death-spiral narrative is limited to pissing-off staff, annoying residents of Athabasca, and scaring off students and potential collaborators. The best approach for the institution is to simply stop using the death-spiral narrative internally and hope it goes away. Whether the board and administration can resist the temptation is an open question.

-- Bob Barnetson


  1. What evidence is there that the local labour pool, especially for top positions, is not thinner in a small town, and that, to many, small town living really isn't attractive?

    Does Alberta have some massive statistical anomaly where the best and brightest of Alberta flock to a town of under 3000 people rather than live in larger centres with all of the opportunities those bring?

    As someone who presumably lives in a small town, you may find it deeply offensive to think small-town living is unattractive, but unfortunately, that's the truth for very many people -- that's why small towns remain small towns, after all, and don't become larger towns or cities, because most would rather live in a larger urban area to begin with.

    1. Thank you for your note.

      Have another look at the post above. The arguments advanced by the university for moving to a larger centre have typically been that (1) the local labour pool is small and (2) living in Athabasca is unattractive. These factors together, it is said, make recruitment difficult.

      Not much evidence is ever advanced to support these arguments. Given that the university manages to fill most positions in Athabasca despite having a damaged reputation suggest that the labour pool is adequate.

      I don’t believe that I’ve made the argument that the pool isn’t thinner in a small town. But, at the same time, a thinner pool doesn't necessarily mean the pool is inadequate.

      To clarify, I don't live in a small town. But I would suggest there are many reasons (beyond personal preferences) that small town remain small. For example, a relatively smaller industrial base or a local economy based on industries requiring relatively few workers—such as agriculture or forestry—might shape the job opportunities in a town and, therefore, its size.

    2. Yet your own argument is that part of the problem with AU is the upper management/administration. So sure, they fill the positions, but, by your own argument, generally not with the best people--as their the type of people who advance "death spiral" cry-wolf type of negotiation tactics. Something that the best leaders understand will turn around and bite them in the rear eventually.

      Now, this is either because the people and committees who choose those positions are not terribly competent, or, given that we assume those committees are staffed by the smart people you point out do work at AU, simply don't have a lot of great options to choose from -- a limited talent pool.

    3. I agree that the behaviour of senior administrators has been profoundly problematic and damaging to the institution. But the hiring (and subsequent re-appointment) of senior administrators is an opaque process historically controlled by the Board of Governors.

      Why the Board would select (and retain) bad administrators is an open question. It could be that the Board (which comprises people drawn from across Alberta) defines “good” and “bad” performance profoundly differently than those of employees (representing the differing interesting of employers and employees). It may also be that the Board has limited access to information about how the institution works and what the actual problems are.

      If the Board does face a limited pool of potential candidates, does that reflect the location of the job? Or does it reflect that AU has become known as a university where executive careers go to die? I think the onus is on the person (or group) arguing that location is the problem to provide evidence to support that argument. So far, I haven’t seen a compelling argument that location is the key impediment to hiring competent administrators.

      Do you have any evidence to support the assertion that location is the issue? All I see here is inference that seems to derive from a negative impression of small towns.

    4. A hiring committee decides on a less than ideal/competent applicant. You do that often enough over the course of several decades, and guess what? Who do you think populates subsequent hiring committees? Yes, it's those same incompetent applicants who were hired years before.

      It doesn't take long before the whole cycle becomes self-perpetuating.

  2. The death spiral narrative is also incompatible with the data in Table 4 of the appendix on FLEs in the 4 CARI institutes. In spite of the narrative, Athabasca led all institutions in FLE growth from 2004 to 2016 with 31% followed by U of A at 197%, U of C at 17% and U of L at 2%. Seems to me it is not a supply side issue.