Task force findings say budget model adds up

A task force organized to examine the university’s budget model, in light of criticism last year, returned findings in support of the current model, while acknowledging its reasoning and methodologies could be better communicated to the larger university community.

Presented Feb. 12, the Report of the Provost’s Task Force on University Budget Models was largely uncritical of the current model, instead finding its key flaw was its “complexity” and how that “presents many inherent and significant communication challenges that need to be addressed in order to better respond to concerns related to the perceived and/or real deficiencies in transparency, community engagement, understanding and trust in the university’s financial processes.”

The report provided an Origin of the Species for the budget model by taking the reader through its various stages of evolution, as well as reviewing its current “hybrid” structure. The report also credited the model, in part, for the university maintaining high student quality and retention/graduation rates.

Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Janice Deakin answered question on the findings to university Senate at its last regular meeting. There was no formal presentation of the findings.

The budget model became a lightning rod of controversy during many stops on the president’s listening tour following last spring’s unsuccessful no-confidence vote in his leadership. Described as broken and unfair, the model came under its loudest attack when the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA) released Every Budget Is A Choice, a critical looks at the university’s financial decisions and resulting priorities.

Despite those criticisms, public outcry was not sustained. The task force received only 12 written submissions during its consultation period, and approximately 75 people, in total, attended two town halls held in October.

Last April, some critics wondered if the university should adopt a responsibility centre management (RCM) model, where revenue is allocated to the unit that generates it and the unit therefore assumes responsibility for all direct and indirect expenses. That ‘make-it-take-it’ system has grown in popularity in the United States. In Canada, Toronto, McMaster and Queen’s use the RCM model.

At Western, only the Ivey Business School operates via RCM. All other faculties use a hybrid model, involving some incremental (the most traditional form of budgeting), performance-based and RCM components.

When Senators questioned the Ivey exception, Deakin attributed it to a $15-million debt load the faculty was carrying at the time of the decision (and just retired last year), rising costs for faculty and infrastructure to compete in that marketplace, as well as the opportunities provided by tuition exceptions for MBA programs.

When pressed about bringing Ivey into the budget fold, Deakin said there was no taste for it.

“The current dean (Robert Kennedy) would be standing up and screaming at me if we were to go that way,” she told Senate. “Ivey has not asked for their budget model to change nor have we contemplated it.”

The report said a full RCM model across campus would have “disastrous consequences for certain faculties unable to meet their financial requirements on an independent basis.”

The report stated, “The task force believes that the risks associated with applying an RCM model across all faculties and schools would run counter to Western’s identity as a comprehensive university committed to achieving excellence in the full range of academic disciplines.”

At its heart, the report stressed communication and understanding of the budget and its process was key going forward. It stated:

Increasing understanding and creating trust in the budget model will take time, thought and involvement by academic and administrative leaders across campus to improve and more actively participate in budget communications. This holds particularly true for deans, chairs and other budget unit heads who play essential roles in Western’s annual budgeting processes and related communications. It will also require the interest and engagement of all members of the broader campus community.”

Also at Senate, one additional committee presented an interim report.

The consultation and activities of the University Research Board Task Force are ongoing, particularly as they relate to the faculties of Social Science and Arts & Humanities. The update provided no recommendations, but simply an overview of the committee’s activities thus far.

This task force sprang from concerns expressed by both Social Science and Arts & Humanities communities about how internal research funding was distributed, and the perceived bias against their work in favour of STEM disciplines. To address those concerns, this task force has divided into three working groups:

  • One to examine primary funding agencies for this work with an eye toward understanding the stated goals of those institutions;
  • One to consult with Social Science / Arts & Humanities researchers on campus to summaritize their perspectives; and
  • One to review how Social Science / Arts & Humanities research is supported at Western and how that support might be improved.

History professor Jonathan Vance, a member of the six-person task force, stressed researchers are encouraged to offer their thoughts on the report via email to urb-task-force@uwo.ca or writing the committee c/o University Secretariat, Stevenson Hall, Room 4101, Western University, London, ON  N6A 5B8.

“While we cannot speak to every colleague, every colleague has an invitation to come and submit their positions on these issues,” he said. “We are confident when the consultation process is finished we will have provided all colleagues with multiple opportunities to make their point – whether they chose to avail themselves of those opportunities, or not, is another matter.”

The final report of this task force will be completed in April with deliver to Senate in May/June.

Officially, four committees are addressing issues that arose from the presidential leave controversy, and its ensuing fallout. The Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal, the University Research Board Task Force, Provost’s Task Force on University Budget Models and Board Governance Review Task Force are charged with examining the operations of both governing bodies. The Board and Provost have returned their findings in full.