Looking ahead to 2009

Perhaps the first resolution for 2009 should be to prepare for just about anything.

 

There’s plenty of excitement ahead based on what we already know is coming in the new year – never mind what we don’t yet know.

 

On that note let’s get right to the financial picture.

 

Tight budgets

The elephant in the classroom these days is the world economy.

 

The pain at Western has been minimized for the current financial year, ending in April, but most unit budgets will be tighter in 2009-10. A clearer picture should emerge next week following an economic statement from the university’s administration.

 

Provost & Vice President (Academic) Fred Longstaffe says the university is assembling a summary of the economic and budgetary information provided at recent Leaders’ Forum, Senate and Senate Committee on University Planning (SCUP) meetings, as well as several other meetings across the university.

 

Already, some proposed construction has been “paused”. As well, units must trim an additional few percentage points from next year’s anticipated budgets.

 

Based on the outcomes of 15 or more faculty and school planning and budgeting meetings held in November and December, university officials will make formal recommendations to SCUP early in the year, and to Senate in February.

 

Recommendations about critical aspects of budgeting for 2009-10, such as endowment payouts and approaches to new hiring, will be announced as they are determined, says Longstaffe.

 

One unknown is the level of support from the Ontario government, which is experiencing a downturn in tax revenues.

 

A federal budget this month could include significant stimulus – particularly for new construction. However, the minority Conservatives will be under intense pressure and the government could fall after presenting the budget. The Association of Colleges and Universities of Canada is angling for so-called infrastructure money, saying most universities have new projects ready to proceed almost immediately.

 

One saving grace in the current turmoil is that, after years of expansion, Western had been planning for a spending plateau of sorts this year and in the near future.

 

Universities around the world are in the same boat. The University of Waterloo announced a six-month postponement of hiring and major spending. York University reported a 19-per-cent drop this fall in the value of endowments.

New buildings 

On a more positive note, prepare for a lot of ribbon cutting in 2009. Campus renewal will be the order of the day this year.

 

The Student Services building, attached to the University Community Centre, is scheduled to open in the summer. The high-traffic facility will bring most student services under one roof as Western seeks to attract and support a more diverse student body.

 

The Western Student Recreation Centre (WSRC) opened this week and will continue to add services and programming as last-minute construction winds down. With thousands of visitors enrolled in rec programs, the some of the focus of campus life – now largely in the UCC-Weldon-Social Sciences core – may shift somewhat to the south because of this new high-energy hub.

 

The Canada Foundation for Innovation-funded Advanced Facility for Avian Research, tucked away in the Medway Valley west of the new Services building, is creating a stir among international researchers – and it doesn’t open until the summer. The facility will include a chamber that allows scientists to simulate environmental and atmospheric conditions for migrating birds.

 

The Claudette MacKay-Lassonde Pavilion, also known as the ‘Green’ building, is an innovative energy-saving Engineering building that will house a major CFI initiative as well as undergraduate and graduate student space. Completion is projected in the fall.

 

While not a new building, two phases of the long-running and major renovation of the Biological & Geological Sciences building are expected to be completed this year.

 

A new president

President Paul Davenport’s tenure ends in June and we can expect his calendar to be full right up to the final day. Davenport, who has long maintained a hectic schedule of appointments and travel, is unlikely to ease up as he ensures the university’s house is in good order for incoming president Amit Chakma.

 

An economist by discipline, Davenport has guided a remarkable turnaround in the university’s fortunes since arriving in 1994.

 

He came at a time when average entering grades were falling, the university was largely regional in outlook and influence, and deep provincial cutbacks were adding to a general malaise.

 

Three terms later he leaves on a high note. Entering grades are among the highest in the country, students have anointed Western as Canada’s top university for seven years running in the Globe’s annual report card, and a commitment to strategic planning has created a clear sense of direction on key priorities.

 

Chakma arrives with strong credentials and a commitment to build on Western’s turnaround, even in the face of difficult economic circumstances. Effectively holding the position of chief operating officer at the University of Waterloo, Chakma is no stranger to university budgets. And there’s the bonus of a strong international teaching and research presence in his background.

 

Graduate students

Over the past year Western came in over its target for masters students and slightly under for PhDs, a strong result in a competitive market.

 

Canada has a shortage of highly trained workers, lagging behind nations such as the United States in developing its knowledge industry. The provincial government, in particular, has identified graduate education as a priority.

 

Economic turmoil or not, expansion of graduate education has become part of Western’s DNA.  Administrators say growth is essential to the evolution of Western as a national and international university.

 

A great deal of energy has gone into re-invigorating graduate education – including creation of the six-month-old School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies – and pressure will remain high in 2009 to build on the momentum.

 

Fundraising

The university is in the midst of the so-called “quiet phase” of a $500-million fundraising campaign running from 2007-14.

 

With the appointment last month of a volunteer campaign chair, law grad Geoff Beattie, expect fundraising to take on a higher profile on campus, including increased efforts to reach out to faculty and staff.

 

With provincial and federal governments looking at deficits and tighter budgets, fundraising takes on more profile in Western’s plans to build a higher academic profile. Every faculty has identified key projects and new facilities dependent on the success of this campaign.

 

Labour contracts

On Dec. 15, the university reached a settlement with power plant workers just hours before they were in a position to strike. The contract must still be ratified by the Board of Governors.

 

The coming year will feature several more negotiations, as well as preparation for at least two key contract renewals in 2010.

 

An agreement with Professional and Managerial Association employees is set to expire in May. Unlike most labour groups on campus, PMA is an association and not a union.

 

The contract for librarians and archivists expires June 30. The current contract was the first for this group, which has already indicated publicly it has its eye on salary catch-up and benefits. The group is represented by UWOFA, the faculty union.

 

Also in June, the contract with Food Services workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees is set to expire.

 

On the horizon are collective agreements with UWOFA and the Staff Association set to expire in June 2010.