The controversy around presidential pay at Western proved to be a flashpoint for taking back control.

There was a powerful moment at the height of last year’s pay scandal at Western University, when president Amit Chakma spoke at Senate for the first time since revelations that he had been paid twice his normal salary in 2014. As Dr. Chakma stood before hundreds of faculty, librarians, staff, and students, many in the audience also rose from their seats and then abruptly turned their backs to the president.

Just as the university itself is many different things to different people, individuals in the audience that day stood in peaceful protest for various reasons. Some were protesting the greed of the president and the arrogance and ignorance displayed by the chair of the Board of Governors, while others were angry about the slow starvation of SSHRC-side disciplines in terms of both resource allocation and research funding. Graduate students lamented the fact that they had to run a food bank on campus for their impoverished colleagues, while many STEM-side faculty and administrative staff were angry about significant cuts to their lab and office personnel. Undergraduate students were concerned about increasing tuition and class sizes, and contract faculty were angry that many of them earned far less than one percent of president Chakma’s salary. Some colleagues felt disheartened by a series of failed initiatives rolled out with minimal consultation by the senior administration, while others felt the current budget model was designed to pick winners and losers from among the faculties.

As the president apologized for his actions, members of the university community held signs with such messages as “Restore Collegial Governance: Reform Senate!” and “Administrators don’t Attract Research Funding: Researchers DO,” which security guards promptly confiscated.

The protests at Western’s Senate meetings last April confirmed that a significant number of students, staff, and professors no longer trusted, or felt respected by, their leaders. The double payment was simply a symptom of much larger issues at the university.

“The salary controversy has been the match that has gone into the bucket of gasoline,” said associate dean of Social Science, Andrew Nelson, quoted in the London Free Press.

The University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA) knew full well that the “bucket of gasoline” was ripe for a conflagration. The tensions precipitated by the imposition of a top-down, corporatized management model; the constant cry of austerity; the use of hybridized activity-based budgeting; and the slow erosion of meaningful collegial governance had been simmering for quite some time.

Those working in Canadian universities today have been told that we’re living in crisis and austerity conditions for the better part of the last decade. While Western was not explicitly subject to the program prioritization exercises experienced by so many of our colleagues at other Ontario universities, the budget model and management decisions were doing the same kind of unilateral prioritizing by stealth; several faculties were withering on the vine, class sizes were increasing, tenured positions diminishing, and contingent faculty and support staff were losing their jobs. Western’s leaders, however, were immune to the warning signs; they were disconnected and generally disdainful of calls for more communication and collegiality. When pressed about the implications of the budget model for those who were losing their jobs, the provost simply declared that the budget was an important exercise in restraint and could not be tampered with. When our president gave his annual report on his priorities in Senate, diversifying revenue streams and building up the endowment were No. 1. There was no mention of investing in the academic mission of the university anywhere on his list.

The truth is that these administrative responses are not unique to Western; they could have come from any campus across the country. They are clear illustrations of the ways in which our public universities have been thoroughly infected by the logic of austerity and practices of perpetual cost cutting, informed by the principles of New Public Management (NPM).

Developed in the US and UK in the 1980s, and now firmly entrenched across the public sectors of countries worldwide, NPM advocates the idea that where service provision in the public sector cannot be privatized, it should be modernized and made to run efficiently on the model of the private sector. NPM explicitly rejects the view that public service might be qualitatively different from the provision of other kinds of goods and services, and assumes that public services—universities, schools, health care systems—are all essentially the same and operate the same way. Under NPM, citizens become customers while politicians or public servants become (ostensibly non-ideologically driven) technocrats, whose job is simply to measure and control operations so as to make them as efficient as possible. A focus on achievable short-term goals; the imposition of league tables; audits and accountability mechanisms; the disaggregation of jobs into component parts; and the perpetual search for new revenue streams and efficiencies also characterize NPM (Lorenz 2012, 601-602).

In our universities, NPM has helped create the scenarios with which we are all now familiar: rising tuition and ancillary fees for students; increasing class sizes and the imposition of more and more technologized labour-saving teaching devices in the classrooms; an emphasis on monetizable research outcomes; the standardization of courses and teaching modules; the reduction of tenure and growing reliance on underpaid and underemployed contingent faculty; the pursuit of alternative revenue streams of any and all kinds; the imposition of disciplinary budget models; and mechanisms of audit and control in the form of narrow research and learning outcome metrics.

In the NPM universe, the job of the university manager is to be a “change agent” by creating perpetual austerity conditions, even when the university coffers say otherwise. The logic is quite ingenious, really; if managers are continually crying poor, reorganizing, reprioritizing, issuing edicts and directives, reassessing, measuring, and auditing, then faculty members and students are forced to live in a state of constant instability and fear, and have little time to protect or fight for collegial self governance or academic freedom. The goal of NPM is to stress the “limits of worker performance” by making workers responsible for their own fate and the fate of the organization (Bousquet 2008, 104), forcing them to do more with less. This creates an environment in which, in Marc Bousquet’s words, “every year is a year of fiscal crisis, and…every year sees ‘new’ pressures on wages, workloads, class sizes, benefits, and autonomy” (2008, 107).

Under NPM, there can be no question as to whether the costs saved are actually worth it, or whether the decisions taken are in the best interest of the institution because the terms “worth” or “best interest” are so narrowly defined; they are simply whatever saves money. Under these conditions efficiency, expediency, and productivity emerge as the public university’s core values, displacing academic values of collegiality, inquiry, debate, and academic freedom. Another contradiction of NPM is that university managers tend to hold themselves outside of assessment altogether. For all their talk of audit and control, no one ever audits the auditors or managers, or asks whether they are rationally and responsibly administering public funds. Nor do people ask whether universities are actually in need of perpetual measurement and austerity in the first place. Whereas faculty members who dare to question administrators are often labeled obstreperous cranks, managers are positioned as unassailable and infallible. And, while university managers are busy cutting jobs and arguing against pay raises, this same logic certainly has not prevented them from awarding themselves hefty salaries (Lorenz 2012, 614).

In the end, the distrust and desire for control on display in the imposition of these forms of NPM only end up undermining the implicit trust and sense of responsibility, reciprocity, and collegiality that the university needs to be successful. Paradoxically, the hypercompetitive habitus fueled by NPM tends to undercut the very innovation and out-of-the-box thinking governments are demanding from universities these days.

Witnessing these managerial strategies over the past decades prompted members of UWOFA to fight back. After years of being told that funds were tight, we decided to challenge the agents of perpetual austerity by taking control of the information flow and completing our own analysis of the university coffers. In the spring of 2014, we published Every Budget is a Choice (available at uwofa.ca), which analyzed the previous four years of Western’s finances. The document showed that the university was repeatedly creating operating surpluses, approximately $40 million a year to a total of $202 million, and then transferring these surpluses to unrestricted or restricted sub-funds, or spending the surplus money on buildings or other capital projects. We showed that the Board of Governors and senior managers were repeatedly putting the accumulation of assets ahead of investing in the university’s core mission, and argued that any shortfall in the operating budget, and by extension a faculty’s budget, was an artificial problem that could easily be rectified by a change of policy at the Board level. In the end, the budget analysis revealed that our supposedly ideologically neutral fiscal managers actually had quite an obvious agenda and a very clear vision about what kind of university they wanted Western to be.

UWOFA’s budget analysis was well received across campus. The senior administration never disputed our numbers. Instead, they continued to defend their budgeting as in the best interests of the university. And then, at the end of March 2015 the Sunshine List came out, revealing that the president had taken two salaries in one year due to a clause in his contract that allowed him to take pay in lieu of administrative leave. After years of austerity budgets and the hardships they had visited on faculty, staff, and students, the harsh truth of the Board and senior managers’ real priorities were laid bare for all to see. The disconnect between Western’s senior leaders and the rest of the university community was too obvious to ignore, and hundreds of people both inside and outside the university gates erupted in anger.

Inexplicably, the administration was caught off guard by the reaction of the university community. They claimed that Dr. Chakma wanted to forgo his administrative leave because the university was facing “many challenges and uncertainties” and he needed to be there to manage them. In the wake of the double-dip revelations, Board of Governors Chair, Chirag Shah, gave an interview where he likened the president’s pay deal to sabbaticals taken by faculty members—a gaffe which further illustrated the lack of understanding of the university’s day-to-day operations at the Board level. In fact, and most crucially, faculty are not afforded extra pay for foregoing an earned sabbatical leave. In spite of the Board chair’s statement, the senior administration dug in, remaining silent for the first week of the crisis.

In the meantime, opposition was gathering speed on the ground. At a UWOFA general meeting held three days after the news broke, a motion came from the floor to hold a non-confidence vote in the president and the Board chair; the result was 94 per cent supporting the non-confidence motion, with the highest voter turnout UWOFA has ever seen. A Change.org petition started by a faculty collective called Noah Confidenze, expressing non-confidence in Dr. Chakma and Chirag Shah, gathered 5800 signatures in just three days. Local NDP MPP Peggy Sattler introduced a Private Members Bill in the legislature to prevent these forms of executive payouts in the future. London Free Press reporter Jonathan Sher exposed the fact that Dr. Chakma had taken pay in lieu of leave from the University of Waterloo when he left to come to Western, earning a double salary that year as well, as had a series of other outgoing university presidents, including our current Governor General and former President of Waterloo, David Johnston.

By the end of the first week, the Board of Governors issued a press release saying that Dr. Chakma would give the money back, likely in an effort to stop the controversy in its tracks. It didn’t. In addition to a scheduled Senate meeting on April 10, a group of 22 senators requested a special meeting on April 17 to consider two separate motions of non-confidence in the president and the Board chair. The administration called in Navigator, a crisis-management firm, and well-heeled alumni took ads out in the local press urging the university community to stop their protests and deal with their problems behind closed doors.

And so we arrive at the Senate meetings where Dr. Chakma made his apology and faculty, students, and staff staged their powerful protests. After hours of heated debate, the motions of non-confidence in Dr. Chakma and the chair of the Board of Governors were eventually defeated. The messages of discontent and broken trust, however, were delivered loud and clear, and it appears as though the Board and the president have heard our collective call to action.

The Board of Governors commissioned a judicial review by retired Justice Stephen Goudge, which was published in the summer of 2015, and, from it, the Board struck a taskforce to review its own governance practices. Dr. Chakma undertook a “100-day listening tour” of the university community, while Noah Confidenze started its own “Alternative Listening Tour” on Tumblr (www.noahconfidenze.tumblr.com). For 100 days, members of the community and outside guests contributed their thoughts about the managerial university, with formats ranging from essays, to open letters, to satirical stories and poems. Senate established three separate committees in the wake of the crisis—one to look at governance, one to examine SSHRC-side research funding, and the other to look at the university budget. Chair of the Board Chirag Shah stepped down from the Board, declining to stand for reappointment. Senate has been revived from its moribund state, with multiple elections for Senate seats this year where previously there were none. And, UWOFA, which played a central role in the crisis, has had many new members become actively involved in the Association.

The lessons of the crisis of Chakmagate show that the contradictions of NPM are open secrets amongst our colleagues, staff, and students, and are more vulnerable to challenge than we might think. People from across campus communities experience the myriad problems of NPM every day, and many are just waiting to be engaged in resistance to these trends. For faculty associations, this can start by taking control of the discourse and the flow of financial and administrative data. Audit the auditors. Produce your own budget analysis. Address your colleagues as colleagues—committed to their professional vocations and their studies and not to being mid-level employees. Work on examining and engaging your Board of Governors. Encourage your senators to participate actively and critically in Senate. Call on your leaders to serve your interests, to communicate, and to explain their decisions.

We at UWOFA firmly believe there is a role for faculty associations to play in pushing back against management strategies that strip us of our autonomy and academic freedom and in strengthening collegial governance at our respective universities. In the words of Kim Solga, associate professor of English and Writing Studies at Western, we urge our colleagues across the university sector to “hold tight to this fight.” AM

Alison Hearn is the past president of UWOFA. Vanessa Brown is UWOFA’s Communications Officer.

Bousquet, Marc, 2008. How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, New York: NYU Press.
Lorenz, Chris, 2012. “If you’re so smart, why are you under surveillance?” Universities, Neoliberalism, and New Public Management”, Critical Inquiry 38: 599-629.