Western President Amit Chakma finds himself in the midst of the most trying weeks of his administration – facing criticism about his contract and pay, and now hearing larger questions about his ability to lead the university. Just yesterday, a handful of Senate members called for a special meeting to discuss a motion of non-confidence in the president.
Outside a prepared statement, Chakma’s voice has been absent from the growing debate, which has played out for nearly two weeks. But now, on the eve of what may be his most contentious Senate meeting to date, Chakma is answering questions about the pay controversy, his reaction to the criticism and how to move forward.
“The last two weeks have been very difficult for me and for my family,” Chakma said Wednesday morning. “We could understand the criticism of the payment, but we were not prepared for the personal attacks. It caused us to reflect on our priorities as a family.”
On March 27, Western figures showed the university president was paid $924,000 (plus $43,244.88 in taxable benefits) in 2014. That number made him the fourth-highest paid public servant in Ontario, and highest paid university president. That number sparked an almost immediate reaction from the campus community.
“I did anticipate some criticism, which is typical when the ‘Sunshine List’ comes out,” Chakma said. “But I did not anticipate the intensity, or the extent of the criticism.”
As the days went on, the outrage seemed to gain momentum. It spanned the gamut – from simple social media snark, to official statements from university bargaining bodies, to an anonymously started online petition of non-confidence in the president and Board of Governors Chair Chirag Shah, which has garnered more than 5,700 signatures in two weeks.
“Once I understood why people were reacting, I was no longer surprised that it was gaining momentum,” Chakma said.
Soon afterward, the criticism went beyond pay – critics were now using the pay situation as a springboard for complains about other subjects, like public administration salaries, Chakma’s leadership style, university priorities and budgets, etc. The president noticed the shift in tone almost immediately.
“Yes, it became clear to me that the anger people felt was not only about the money,” he continued. “It was as much, or more, about a number of other issues people have about my leadership, and the direction in which the university is headed. It caused other issues to surface.”
Chakma’s number was somewhat deceiving as his annual base salary remained at $440,000. However, Western made a ‘double-payment’ to the president in lieu of a one-year administrative leave included in his first five-year contract, which concluded June 2014. The board re-appointed Chakma to a second five-year term extending to June 30, 2019. That contract also called for a year administrative leave or payment in lieu of that leave.
In a statement issued April 1, the president announced he was voluntarily refunding his in lieu payment for 2014, as well as foregoing his contractually specified payment in lieu of administrative leave at the end of his second term. The move, the president wrote, was “as a demonstration of my commitment to Western and to address the concerns that many have expressed.”
Some critics have admitted Chakma’s pay was contractually specified and that anger should be directed, at least somewhat, at the Board for offering such a deal. In brief, Chakma was entitled to the money. But returning the money was the only option, the president said.
In fact, the president stressed, he should have never taken it in the first place.
“Under the circumstances, my wife and I felt that giving the money back was the right – the only – thing for us to do. But I need to make many more changes, if I am to win back the trust of the campus community,” he said. “In retrospect, I should not have taken the money, but carried forward my administrative leave to the end of my term, which is the way administrative leaves of this nature are usually taken.”
Despite the refund, pressure from two of Western’s largest bargaining units continues to mount.
On April 2, the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA), which represents more than 1,600 faculty members, voted 94 per cent in favour of a non-confidence resolution concerning Chakma and Shah. Today, the University of Western Ontario Staff Association (UWOSA), which represents 1,000 staff working in faculties and administrative units across campus, is conducting a non-confidence vote at its Annual General Meeting.
Alison Hearn, UWOFA president, said the president’s “decision to forgo the extra money doesn’t change the underlying problems.”
And Chakma, perhaps surprisingly, agrees with Hearn.
“Those critics are right,” he said. “There are competing demands on any university president, from issues that are externally focused, and those that are internally focused. I became so focused on those external matters – fundraising, for example – that I was not staying on top of concerns being raised on our campus.
“I was disconnected. I need to focus much more of my time on understanding the issues our campus community is facing.”
On Friday, Chakma will stand before the Senate, as he usually does as chair, but under maybe the most trying circumstance of his tenure as president. The president plans to make a statement regarding his administrative leave during the Report of the President (Agenda Item 3). Following that, Health Sciences Dean Jim Weese, who serves as Senate vice-chair, will lead a question-and-answer session around the statement.
Senators should expect a contrite president, if his answers were any indication.
“First and foremost, I want to take the opportunity to apologize to the Western community for the difficulties my decision has created for the community,” Chakma said. “It is difficult to express how truly sorry I am for the lack of judgement I showed. I also want to acknowledge the many concerns that have surfaced during the past week, and outline actions I intend to take to address some of these concerns. It will be equally important for me to listen and take to heart what my critics have to say.”
On April 1, Board announced an “independent and impartial review of the university’s presidential compensation practices,” led by the Honourable Stephen T. Goudge, former Justice of the Court of Appeal of Ontario. Chakma welcomed the move.
“It was important to me the inquiry into my contract be independent, impartial and transparent,” he said. “So, I was pleased someone as respected as Honorable Goudge has agreed to take on the review.”
The president was concerned how the last few weeks will impact fundraising. Will donors be swayed by the trying events in the moment, or will they separate one man in one moment from the entire legacy of the university?
“Anytime there is instability and turmoil, it has to impact fundraising in the near term,” Chakma said. “If we can come out of this as a community united with a strong sense of purpose and direction, over time we’ll overcome any fundraising challenge.”
In his statement last week, Chakma talked about “moving forward,” a process that, at least currently, seems monumental. But, the president said, “moving forward” is imperative to the future of the university.
“The process of ‘moving forward’ from this moment begins with broad level consultation and engagement with the Western community,” he said. “In my President’s Report to Senate on Friday, I’ll be sharing some ideas I have on how I can do a better job of focusing my attention on the priorities of the campus community. I will plan to truly listen to what our campus community has to say.”
With his new contract, Chakma is only halfway through his tenure – plenty of time to shape a legacy. But when he thinks about legacy, and how these last few weeks reflect on it, what concerns does the president have?
“When I was appointed in 2009, I promised to give my heart and soul and all of my energy to serve Western. I’ll continue to do so until my tenure ends,” he said. “We’ll have achieved many things by then; many will remain works in progress to be picked up by my successor. I remain very optimistic about Western’s future and what our faculty, students and staff can accomplish.”