Academic Agenda Addresses
The Academic Agenda: Progress and Prospects
March 3, 1999
A year ago I could look back on no more than a few months at the U of S. At that time we were awaiting a provincial budget whose dimensions were feared, but unknown, an assisted early retirement plan whose dimensions were guessed at, but unknown, and a presidential search whose outcome was anticipated, but unknown. We know a lot more now than we did a year ago. And while not all of it is good, I want to argue today that the last year has seen some very positive developments and the University.
My purpose is not just to review these developments, but to interpret them. I know that there are a lot of people who, every once in a while, or maybe a bit more often than that, ask themselves "What is going on here?" I ask that question myself. I would like, today, to try to offer a partial answer.
But before I turn to what I consider to be some of the major developments of the past year, and because I would like to try to interpret, not just describe, I am going to ask that you be patient for a little excursion into sociological theorizing. I hope to persuade you that this excursion is worth it because it will provide a couple of conceptual tools that I think are useful in understanding our current situation.
And what is our current situation? During the last year, there have been some obvious good news stories. We have major grant applications to CFI in the final stages, the largest of which is the Synchrotron, and hopes here continue to be high. Our medical school is the only one in the country to match all their graduates to residency programs, a indication of the high regard in which all of our students are held. Our researchers continue to win major awards: George Khachatourians leads a research team that has received $750K in federal government support to develop insect resistant canola. And our faculty continue to be recognized: Del Fredlund, in Engineering, has just been named a recipient of one of the AUCC-ScotiaBank's Awards for Excellence in Internationalization. From one end of the campus to the other, our students, faculty and staff continue to do us great honour.
Notwithstanding these accomplishments, our situation is still one of incredible stress. As the first graph indicates, the enormously important budgetary lift provided by last year's operating grant increase did little more than bring us back to our 1995-96 level of funding, 18.6% below what we received in 1990, and 23.4% less than we received in 1987. Over the past ten years, from 1987-88 until 1996-97, the university lost 123 faculty members. This year in the College of Arts and Science we will lose 10 more. At the same time our undergraduate student population has increased by approximately 1,250 FTE students and our graduate population by 400. Fewer faculty cope with more students. Not a recipe for success, let alone excellence, and not something that a one time increase in the provincial budget could address.
But these numbers do not convey the total story. I'm concerned that this erosion of resources, which has taken place in such an inexorable way during the past decade, has also eroded our confidence in our institution and, to some degree, in ourselves. Administrators have become hardened to cutback strategies, faculty members have taken on more work without much recognition, and, most important of all, our sense of collective purpose has been tested.
It is this sense of collective purpose that I believe we have to work on. I know it's a rather vaporous idea. It's not the same as money in the bank, or a post-doc in the lab, or books on the shelf. But it is critical for our future. Let me suggest why.
Several generations ago academic economists studying education began to discuss a new concept, "human capital." The textbooks had clearly established the meaning and importance of physical capital, the resources embodied in machines, tools and other forms of productive equipment. Economists were now focusing on the resources inherent in individuals.
The term "human capital" has a certain unpleasant ring to it, but it does convey the idea that wealth is not simply measured in terms of our physical possessions; it is also a function of our knowledge and our skills. For economists, this was a breakthrough of sorts. Just as physical capital could be transformed and made more productive, so human capital could be created by giving people skills and capabilities that could be used in new, innovative ways.
Over the next five years we are going to lose a lot of human capital. From 1998-2003, 153 faculty will be retiring from the University, 99 of whom will be taking early retirement. The second graph shows the pattern over the next couple of years. Clearly our major recruitment challenge will be in 2000 and 2001, where most of our assisted early retirements will be replaced. The third graph shows that losses will occur across the campus, but some Colleges–Agriculture, Education, Nursing, and Veterinary Medicine–are going to be harder hit than others.
These data, moreover, almost certainly understate the exodus. There will be resignations and, regrettably, there will be deaths. And while we have grown accustomed to talking about this exodus in terms of "renewal" the fact is that a great deal of knowledge and experience will be leaving the University and we will be the poorer for it. Our new recruits will bring enthusiasm and promise, but they cannot step into and fill the shoes of the many accomplished faculty members who will be leaving. Our overall stock of human capital will diminish.
We must set about restoring it, and our recent focus, found particularly in the Deans' Agenda, has been on how we are going about that task. And while much of what we are doing is aimed at enhancing human capital, I want to talk about another form of capital, social capital.
Social capital is created when relations among people change in a manner that allows them to accomplish goals in concert that they were unable to accomplish on their own. Like other forms of capital, social capital is productive. But unlike physical capital, which is wholly tangible, or human capital which is embodied in individuals, social capital arises from relations among people. Not just any "relations." Social capital is produced when relations are of a type that foster a commitment to a jointly produced good or outcome. Commitments of this type are not based on contracts or on compulsion. Social capital is created when people voluntarily contribute to the production of a public good which they cannot use exclusively themselves.
Trust is the key ingredient in the production of social capital. Without it people will either defect on the first possible occasion, leaving someone else to hold the bag, or refuse to cooperate in the first place. Where people believe their personal sacrifice will be repaid, that others will make a similar commitment, and that they will not be taken advantage of, then social capital can be produced, sometimes in abundance.
How does social capital manifest itself at the University? Consider the departmental assignment of duties. There is always that course that everyone wants to have offered, but no one wants to give; that time slot that everyone agrees should be used, but no one wants to teach in; that troublesome student that no one wants to supervise, but is nonetheless in the program. The Head of the department can simply assign duties, and I'm sure some do, without much concern for the reactions. But many others, the lucky ones, draw on the social capital that has been created over time to persuade faculty members to make a sacrifice in the interests of the whole in the reasonable expectation that others will make a similar sacrifice and that the Department, collectively, will be the better for it.
It is almost impossible to estimate how much social capital we have or how much we might have lost during the budgetary crunch of the last several years. I doubt, however, that many people would argue that we have an abundance of social capital, or more of it than we need. In fact, my sense is that at the University of Saskatchewan we may have allowed our store of social capital to run a bit low.
Social capital doesn't disappear because of one person's actions or inactions, or because of a single episode or even a series of events. It doesn't even disappear simply because of an eroding financial situation. It slips away over time when all of these things are happening. And it erodes with a vengeance if we don't actually use the social capital that we've got.
I think that there is evidence all around us that we could use more social capital than we presently have. You can see it in the difficulties we have in recruiting people to serve on collegial committees. You can see it in the number of times the University Council cannot muster quorum. You can see it in the unwillingness of capable faculty members to take on the job of Head of their department. And you can see it in the unfortunate tendency of people to blame other members of the community–poorly prepared students, greedy faculty, proliferating administrators–for whatever ills beset us at the moment.
I realize, of course, that there are many counterinstances, times when people adopt a good faith model and a generous interpretation of situations and motivations. I intend to cite some myself and to argue that we are starting to learn the importance of creating social capital. But I do want to make the point, without pointing any fingers or laying any blame, that we have run our stores of social capital down about as far as we can afford.
The rather depressing thing about social capital is that it is very hard to generate. Deep distrust is not something that goes away quickly, even with experience of reciprocal commitment and personal sacrifice. Once distrust has set in people are constantly on the lookout for defections. Suspicion is rampant. And unfortunately, you can't go back and ask whether this distrust ever was, or continues to be, justified. It just is. Or, as the economist Douglas North puts it in describing economic development, at a certain point it becomes path dependent. You are on a path and no matter how much you dislike where it's taking you, you can't get off.
Now it must be said that universities are not exactly social capital factories. Faculty and students have well developed critical skills which they bring to bear on all manner of collective action. The media, irrepressible admirers of the cutting phrase and the savaging soundbite, are quite naturally in thrall. And if criticism is rewarded by a story in the newspaper or a spot on TV, how tempting it must be to do little more than criticize. Thankfully, contributions are rewarded as well, with gratitude and admiration. At the University of Saskatchewan there are many people whose contributions we need to recognize. They take on the task of restoring social capital on a daily basis and this institution couldn't operate without them..
I am by no means suggesting that we refrain from using our critical skills, suspend disbelief, and place all faith in our colleagues, let alone our administrators. What I am suggesting is that we should acknowledge that social capital is being created by the work of faculty, staff and students at this university. And it is vital for our well being. When we ask for understanding or support whether from our alumni, the government, or the citizens of the province, they quite reasonably want to know how much of an institutional commitment we are making ourselves.
Since I gave this talk last year, the university has embarked on a number of projects and processes that I believe will ultimately increase our store of social capital. I want to make special mention of three of these: priority determination, college plans, and systematic program review. They have one thing in common: they put resources at risk. And risk is a necessary part of the creation of social capital. No one gains unless there is a general recognition that others have legitimate aspirations, and that those aspirations may, in the end, be of great benefit to the institution. Everyone is risk averse, but at some point we have to acknowledge that it is worthwhile risking what one has if it can contribute to the realization of collective goals.
Both priority determination and systematic program review were mentioned in A Framework for Planning at the University of Saskatchewan, a document which itself has created social capital. Priority determination requires all of the Colleges to put one percent of their budgets toward the identification of priorities that are university-wide. Do all the Deans think their Colleges will be winners in this business? Maybe. Maybe they're like the lottery players who make a pilgrimage to the 7-11 every week to play their lucky numbers. Maybe they're betting they've got the talent to retrieve what they're putting at risk. Or maybe, and I think this is much closer to the truth, they just think that whatever the outcome, the identification of university priorities is good for the institution and that alone makes it worthwhile.
Council supported priority determination as a program in February of 1998 and in December confirmed the Planning Committee's recommendation that biotechnology be the first priority area. I confess that I was nervous going into that discussion. There were still a lot of unanswered questions, no program details, and considerable concern expressed about where the faculty positions would end up going. But in spite of these uncertainties, Council voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposal and in doing so expressed its faith in the Planning Committee's judgement and, of particular importance to me, its faith in the entire process.
It would have been easy to be critical, to delay, to rethink the whole business. Frankly, if I had been assigned the task of undermining priority determination, it would not have been that difficult. The status quo has an enormous tug on our hearts. And after years of underfunding there are a long list of deficiencies in every College. With all these wounds inflicted from the outside, why should we be inflicting them on ourselves? And who will benefit? If biotechnology is any indication, maybe it will be "the rich," those who already have resources. Robin Hood in reverse.
Council wanted details, they wanted timelines, but members of Council did not opt to delay and discuss. Part of the reason lies with the biotechnology proposal itself. Although championed by the Dean of Agriculture, it is the product of extensive cross-College collaboration. And the proposal was itself an investment in social capital. Rather than rewarding the College of Agriculture, the proposal will return resources to Arts and Science, Medicine, and Commerce. If biotechnology is to be a genuine priority for the University, it can't be limited to one College or to a small group of isolated researchers.
As for those supposed beneficiaries, they too have sacrifices to make. Departments that belong to the biotechnology initiative are biting off yet another program, another set of responsibilities. Not only will they have to make room for this new child inside their own homes, but they will have to share custody of this child with other departments. I have stressed all along that priority determination means doing things differently, but it also means doing things outside the comfort of one's own department. Priority determination is not simply about redistributing resources; it is about creating something that belongs to all of us, which is what the creation of social capital is all about.
The same basic points can be made about the College Plans. As most of you know, at their June retreat the Deans agreed that no appointments should be reauthorized in the absence of an acceptable College Plan. The Plan was not to be a soup-to-nuts plan, aimed at all aspects of a College's existence; it was to be a plan for hiring new faculty, a plan which would connect decisions about positions to decisions about priorities.
Once again, something is at risk. A Plan endorsed by the Vice-President Academic means the opportunity to consider hiring over the next several years, prepare advertisements well in advance, and achieve a measure of predictability with respect to the central administration. Only a measure of predictability, of course. We live in an unpredictable world and the next budget cut may be just around the corner. Nonetheless, an endorsed Plan means a commitment on my part not to second guess Colleges in terms of their academic needs or priorities.
Some Plans are not yet endorsed, and in these cases Colleges have had to reconsider either their priorities, their positions, or both. This means that Colleges have to work harder at explaining their ambitions and I have to work harder at understanding them. And while that is taking time in some cases, the important point is that Deans and their colleagues accept the need for improved communication, and trust that this enterprise is not some elaborate con game in which the cards have already been stacked against them. Every College has had to undertake this task, over a fairly short period of time. There are no exemptions. And that is why there have been no defections and very little special pleading.
Finally, let me mention in the same vein, Systematic Program Review. The University of Saskatchewan made a commitment to program review years ago; last month Council made good on that commitment by supporting a process of review that will see us examine the academic soundness of all of our graduate and undergraduate programs. This examination, like the College Plans, will involve everyone and the rules will be the same for everyone. And, like the College Plans and Priority Determination, there will be some considerable risks.
Most reviews are departmental in focus and almost entirely formative in character, that is they are aimed at improving the quality of research and education, but not at providing an assessment of how units–Colleges and departments in particular–are using the resources they have been given. Our program review will have a strong summative element. We will ask reviewers to evaluate and categorize programs and we will oblige ourselves to do the same thing. Not only that, ours is a program review and we will ask our students what they think of the quality of education that they are getting in the programs they have chosen. If this process works, there will almost certainly be programs whose reviews are unflattering and whose prospects are correspondingly poor. They will be targets for reorganization or the withdrawal of resources.
Reviews like these, it must be emphasized, are not driven by budgetary considerations; they are driven by considerations of academic integrity. We cannot afford to harbour or protect weak programs, not because of the opportunity costs they impose, even though these are likely to be substantial, but because an institution that aspires to be among the best in the country must have competitive programs. And competitive programs means that we don't judge ourselves against Saskatchewan standards, but against national and international standards. What's the point of striving to be the best University in the province of Saskatchewan? That's a goal we achieved long ago.
None of these three initiatives was launched with the purpose of creating social capital. In fact, they were premised on the idea that whatever our collective state, there is at least enough trust left to create a renewal agenda. And that agenda has been advanced in other ways.
We have set aside $500K of capital funding for start-up funds aimed at those being recruited right now for positions starting in July, 1999. We have agreed on some workable rules to govern the distribution of these funds and I firmly expect these funds to assist us in the recruitment competition. But these funds will not be enough to do the whole job. We need to increase this sum during the next two years to match the increase in recruitment prompted by assisted early retirement.
We also need to ensure that we are using best practices and following our own policies when it comes to the recruitment process. The Deans' agenda identified the development of a recruitment guide as a priority and the Associate Vice-President Academic, Sylvia Wallace, has been leading a team in the creation of this guide. Later this month both Deans and Department Heads will have a chance to review the work, ask questions and suggest improvements.
We have also set aside $70K annually for a teaching and learning centre which will improve the pedagogical skills of faculty and help them manage the new learning technologies. Gwenna Moss and the Instructional Development Committee of Council are working on a plan which will draw on the significant skills of our faculty to assist in preparing others, including those beginning their careers, for the rising expectations of our undergraduate students.
There is a lot more to do. Having begun the process of replenishing our stock of social capital, we need to ask ourselves how we can go about it in a more systematic manner. I have one proposal, namely to restructure or, more accurately, decentralize, our budgetary processes in a manner that will place more day-to-day authority in the hands of Deans.
At the moment Deans must ask permission to hire at more than four above the floor, to hold positions open to secure funds for start-up, or to replace faculty who are on sick leave. Whatever the reasons behind these regulations, they are part of a command and control policy that I believe works at cross-purposes to the development of social capital. This policy really says that the Deans have to ask permission to make a judgement; they can't be trusted on their own.
I don't think we can afford this kind of thinking. I would like to establish clear budgetary envelopes for each Dean and let them decide on the trade-offs that best serve the interests of each College. As it is, there is no incentive on the part of Deans to exercise restraint when it comes to making financial commitments that the University as a whole must honour. The Deans and their colleagues are close to the action. They should decide whether someone gets more than four above the floor and they should live with the budgetary consequences. My job, and that of the Associate Vice-President, should be to monitor these decisions on an annual basis at the level of strategy, the same level at which the College Plans have been devised.
In partnership with the Vice-President Finance, a review of our budgetary arrangements will be launched in the next couple of weeks. I have high hopes that it will produce a decentralized system that is more responsive to the needs of the Colleges and more transparent with regard to how people are managing the resources they've been given.
As for the Colleges themselves, I think it is a good sign that Deans are encouraging their colleagues to seriously consider the amalgamation of departments. In Education and Agriculture we have recent examples of administrative mergers, and in Medicine and Veterinary Medicine faculty are seriously considering the option. This kind of move requires trust. It is hard to give up the security of department status for some uncertain future in a larger unit, but this is precisely the kind of thinking we require to overcome some of the self-imposed rigidities that have made the sharing of resources more difficult. And where we cannot, and should not, amalgamate departments, I hope that we can make greater use of the opportunities we have to create joint or shared appointments. The willingness of departments to consider this kind of initiative is a clear indication that we are in the process of generating, not simply consuming, social capital.
Let me bring this talk to a close by observing that social capital aids us in the provision of public goods. Public goods, as their name suggests, involve the collective provision of something that you can't supply yourself. The textbook example is national defence. It is both supplied and consumed jointly.
Much of our experience in creating public goods at the university has been in creating that class of public goods known as convergent goods. They are "convergent" because we come together, produce these goods and then, independent of one another, we benefit from them. Our libraries, art galleries, and public buildings are all convergent public goods. We have created them together, but we don't need to be in one anothers company to benefit from, or enjoy, them.
Some say that convergent public goods have their roots in enlightened self interest. There's nothing wrong with that. We can do a lot of great things together on this basis. But is it enough to confront all our challenges? The philosopher Charles Taylor tells us that there is another class of public goods. He calls these "mediated goods," goods we produce together and enjoy together. He gives the example of listening to Mozart. I can listen to Mozart by myself and enjoy it. But listening to it with you is a different experience. My enjoyment is mediated by yours. We hear it together.
Mediated public goods move us from the for-me-for-you logic of convergent goods, to the for-us logic that is the foundation of social capital. The first few steps aren't too difficult. Conversations are mediated public goods: they're not too hard to start, except maybe in an elevator. Friendships are mediated goods. They require us to be in a public space creating situations, contexts, experiences for one another.
Beyond that, it gets difficult. Creating mediated goods in a department is hard. We can agree to buy that fax machine or that photocopier, but can we agree on a set of hiring priorities? It is easy to care about yourself, and those close to you; it is much harder to care about people you don't know as well, people you might even dislike.
If we can't manage the task of creating medicated public goods we can always go back to creating just convergent goods. As complicated as the pension plan is, we can, using enlightened self-interest, work out a for-you-for-me solution.. This doesn't demand too much of us and some people love this kind of work.
Of course we do pay a price for setting our sights this low. At the individual level, we concede that the university is essentially an accidental aggregation of individuals. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. The fact is, we could use a lot of talented individuals. At the College or University level, the institution becomes a kind of complicated utility company, producing hard goods and soft services. There's nothing wrong with that either. The fact is, we can't get along without the heat, light, payroll, and other essential services.
What convergent goods cannot produce, however, is the deeper sense of solidarity that generates social capital. If all we are producing is convergent goods, then triumphs and achievements by someone else, in some other College or department, will be cause for concern, not celebration. Enlightened self-interest will be our only guiding principle, and we will use it for all it's worth, even if it produces anxiety or even paranoia.
We can get by with that, but I don't think it will be enough. I don't think it will create the kind of social capital we require to see us through difficult times. The initiatives I have discussed today, and others that I hope will come, are based on the idea that it is worthwhile taking some risks if the result is a stronger sense of community. If you strike up a conversation in an elevator, you're taking a chance. If you say that together we will invest in some initiatives that will belong to all of us, you're taking a chance. Not every initiative will work, and those that do may not benefit you personally. In fact, you may be a net loser, at least as an individual department or College. But those initiatives that do work will contribute to the generation of social capital at this university, and I suspect that social capital, just as much as physical and human capital, will be what distinguishes universities from one another in the years ahead.
For further information, contact Pauline Melis at (306) 966-8488 or email@example.com.