Chakma: What I have heard will lead to action

Paul Mayne // Western News

Released today by Western president Amit Chakma, the 'Engaging the Campus Community – Progress Report' highlights actions underway to address the concerns, ideas and suggestions the president heard from the university community, during formal and informal discussions, over the last several weeks.

Western President Amit Chakma wants you to understand this process has been more than an exercise in listening.

“I want to send a clear signal that the consultations we are undertaking will lead to actions. This is not a review for the sake of a review,” Chakma said. “What I have heard will lead to action.”

Released today by the president, the Engaging the Campus Community – Progress Report highlights actions underway to address the concerns, ideas and suggestions Chakma heard from the university community, during formal and informal discussions, over the last several weeks. Five main areas are highlighted – resources, research, governance, communications and administration/support services.

The nine-page report is less prescriptive and more so a roadmap, outlining the people and/or committees responsible for studying the issues and reporting back findings that will inform future actions.

“I’m looking at this report as an action-oriented document, a progress report indicating to the community they’ve been listened to, and actions will be – and already have been – undertaken,” Chakma said. “We are not going to sit idle and wait for the committees to report.”

Already, the president has targeted some “low-hanging fruit,” namely areas where he can move quickly toward alleviating concerns. He cited management style and communications between the administration and campus community as areas where he could push change immediately.

“I was surprised by the perception there was a lack of transparency, a top-down management style. I didn’t see our team as acting in that manner. But I have been persuaded by people who have pointed out specific actions that have given rise to this perception,” Chakma said. “I see now how that perception came through. There are some corrective actions required; they aren’t that difficult to implement.”

To facilitate better communication, the president will develop a regular e-newsletter to inform the community about his activities; his vice-presidents are also examining their internal channels of communication to see how they may be strengthened.

Chakma also pledged to look at concerns over staffing levels of workloads in the face of constrained resources. In addition, he heard there was a need for process changes to the university’s human resources practices and timelines around recruitment, staffing, position evaluations and compensation.

“These aren’t going to be fixed overnight. But at least these are things that are under our control – we decide how we do things. From that point of view, these are easy to fix,” Chakma said. “But there are other issues that are more difficult. Take funding issues.

“Much of those issues are externally influenced – lack of resources here, lack of resources there. They are more difficult to deal with. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a plan to deal with them, but it’s a long-term strategy. While there are no quick fixes, I hope they are long-term fixes.”

Financial resources availability constituted a majority of the concerns raised. As such, those issues top the report, which discusses not only declines in external funding, but also concerns about how resources are allocated internally, and questions about the nearly two decade-old budget model employed by the university.

While some sit outside Western’s direct control, and others may require longer-term solutions, the president said there are some smaller, faster steps that can be taken to demystify the budgeting process.

“For example, our budget is too complicated – not that if you didn’t spend time with it, you couldn’t understand it. But people don’t have that sort of interest, to go through pages and pages in order to make sense of it,” Chakma said. “So, what do you do?

“I will be encouraging my colleagues to produce a summary document of the budget, highlighting the key numbers and key issues, so in a short document, the average member of our community can have a fairly good grasp of the budget. That’s just one reflection.”

In response to the desire to examine the university’s budget model and processes, Janice Deakin, Provost and Vice-President (Academic), convened the Provost’s Task Force on University Budget Models “to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our current budget model, including graduate student support, alternative budget models and an assessment of the effectiveness of our model in supporting our academic mission.”

The first of those findings are expected by the end of this year.

When it came to research, the report addresses not only concerns about inadequate funding via external agencies, but also changes to internal funding allocation models, a lack of non-STEM discipline support as well as the length of time required in the university’s ethics review process.

The University Research Board Task Force, a Senate committee co-chaired by Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson and Philosophy professor Charles Weijer, will explore these concerns. The first of those findings are expected by the end of this year.

Officially, four committees are addressing some of the issues highlighted within the report. In addition to the Research Board and University Budget Models committees, the Board Governance Review Task Force and Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal are charged with examining the operations of both governing bodies.

All committees are expected to have some findings available this year.

When you add in the independent Goudge Review investigation into the university’s presidential compensation practices, the process seems awash in committees. But there is a method amongst the mass, Chakma assured.

“We could have set up a few more committees,” the president said, citing the possibility of establishing committees to explore topics like the administration and graduate student funding. “That doesn’t mean you don’t do anything on these (issues); we may eventually contemplate setting up a committee or committees. But if you can get the job done without setting up a committee, then move on.

“At this time, I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to have any more committees. I want to see the progress these committees make, and then, based on the outcomes of their work, we’ll look at what needs to be done. My hope is we won’t need any more ad hoc committees. After we have addressed some of the pressing issues, we can rely more and more on our existing, standing committee structures of Senate and the Board.”

The president may be the face of this report, but he stressed the action behind the scenes requires the help of many.

“There are very few items here that I can do on my own. That is the nature of the job,” the president said. “From the get-go, my colleagues have been engaged in this process. As I have been visiting with units, meeting with people, I am sharing whatever I am learning with my colleagues – they are in the loop. Some of the action items that have been proposed are really their action items. We are working together.”

And it is the committee structure he sees as key to generating necessary solutions.

“Nobody has a monopoly on great ideas. More importantly, we are a very complex organization with a wide number of different disciplines. And the needs from discipline to discipline, department to department, vary significantly,” he said. “The bottom line is, one size doesn’t fit all. So, the problem with any central decision-making, with any central planning is that the farther you are from the rock face, the more there is a tendency for you to come up with one-size-fits all solutions because you lose capacity to come up with specific solution to specific problems.

“How do you bridge the gap? First, you hear from the grassroots.”

Engaging the Campus Community – Progress Report comes three months after Western figures showed the university president was paid $924,000 (plus $43,244.88 in taxable benefits) in 2014 as a result of invoking a clause in his contract.

That number sparked almost immediate outrage from the campus community, and culminated in the university Senate conducting an unprecedented pair of non-confidence votes on the leadership of both the president and Board chair on April 17. Neither vote passed, however both the president and Board chair committed to taking action on a series of concerns.

On April 10, the president outlined to Senate a listening tour, promising widespread engagement and he has since been meetings with faculty, staff, students and alumni.

“This is still a work in progress. But as we continue to make progress, I am pretty sure some of those doubters – and you’ll always have doubters – will start disappearing,” the president said. “There has been progress in this; I look forward to making more progress.

“I am focusing on what needs to be done. I am confident we will continue to make progress.”

Change is not an easy – or speedy – process for universities. Chakma said he would not see the culmination of today’s efforts before the end of his tenure.

“The slowest part of any change is the cultural change. How do we create a culture of engagement? It goes both ways,” he said. “A limelight has been shone on leaders, administrators. But there is also the other side – and that is engaging committee members. We know from experience – those of us not only on the administrative side, but colleagues who serve on committees – most members (of the campus community) are not engaged, for whatever reason. This is not a blame game, but we need to change that. How you do it is a big question.

“My immediate focus is on what we can do as an administration to make it easy for community members to engage.”

He referred back to the budget, as an example. Without changing the way the information is delivered to the campus community, the president fears there will be no widespread meaningful engagement.

“It will take time. But as long as we continue to make progress, we don’t need to change overnight,” he continued. “You lay the foundation.”

Even as he prepared to issue this report, Chakma knew he wouldn’t be discussing it in a vacuum. Recent headlines have seen to that.

Last week, an investigation by the student Gazette revealed Western paid nearly $100,000 to lawyers and a public relations firm to guide the institution through the controversy. According to documents released by the university to the newspaper, Western paid $65,026 to Navigator Ltd., a Toronto crisis management firm; $24,584 to Hicks Morley, a London law firm; and $6,572 to Filion, Wakely, Thorup & Angeletti, another London law firm that boasts Frank Angeletti, a former Board of Governors chair (2009-11), as a partner.

Western’s legal counsel – not Chakma – obtained outside communications expertise on behalf of the university. Despite that, the negative publicity did not stop.

“There are things I can do and things I cannot do. I cannot worry about those things beyond my control,” Chakma said of the headlines. “At the end of the day, sensible people look at the facts. Noises can have some impact for awhile, but I don’t believe noises have a lasting impact.”

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COMMITTEE MAKEUPS

Officially, four committees are addressing some of the issues highlighted within the Engaging the Campus Community – Progress Report. According to the University Secretariat’s Office, membership of those committees is comprised of the following university community members.

  • Board Governance Review Task Force. Chaired by Matt Wilson, city appointee, and Brian Timney, faculty appointee, the membership includes Rick Konrad, Board appointee; Michael Lerner, city appointee; Jeremy Adams and Paul Jenkins, alumni appointees; Hanny Hassan, Vice-Chair of the Board; Susan Grindrod, staff appointee; and Jonathan English and Brendan Power, student appointees;
  • Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal. Chaired by Betsy Skarakis-Doyle, Health Sciences, membership includes Steven Lupker, Social Science; Alison Hearn, Information and Media Studies; Lorelei Lingard, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry; Sheila Macfie, Science; Heather Bishop, staff; Greg Kopp, Engineering; Tom McMurrough, graduate student;  and Arjun Singh, undergraduate student;
  • University Research Board Task Force. Co-chaired by Andrew Nelson and Charles Weijer, membership includes Jacquie Burkell, Information and Media Studies; Cathy Benedict, Music; Jonathan Vance, Social Science; Julia Emberley, Arts & Humanities; and John Capone, Vice-President (Research); and
  • Provost’s Task Force on University Budget Models. Chaired by Janice Deakin, Provost and Vice-President (Academic), membership includes Bob Andersen, Dean, Social Science; Margaret Steele, Acting Dean, Schulich; Stephen Jarrett, Legal Counsel; Glen Tigert, University Registrar; Matt Davison, Science; Helen Fielding, Arts & Humanities; Ashraf El Damatty, Engineering; Angie Mandich, Health Sciences; Krys Chelchowski, Health Sciences; Tom Sutherland, graduate student; and Craig Dunbar, Ivey.