Strategic Plan heads to Board after Senate debate

Despite a silent protest from dozens of sign-waving undergraduate and graduate students, the university Senate approved Western’s new four-year strategic plan at its Friday meeting. The plan, Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, heads to the Board of Governors today for final approval.

At its core, the plan charts a four-year course based on four strategic priorities that will drive Western’s academic planning and activity during this period:

  • Raising Our Expectations: Create a world‐class research and scholarship culture;
  • Leading in Learning: Provide Canada’s best education for tomorrow’s global leaders;
  • Reaching Beyond Campus: Engage alumni, community, institutional and international partners; and
  • Taking Charge of Our Destiny: Generate and invest new resources in support of excellence.

Some senators, including University of Western Ontario Faculty Association President Jeff Tennant, raised concerns about the details contained within these priorities. Tennant questioned the process by which the university will chose its areas of strength.

“The drive to bring in research money should not be overshadowed. But I feel we should recognize the work of those faculty members whose work does not require the support of the large Tri-Council grants, but is determined by internal control,” Tennant said. “With selectivity in research clusters, the concern is that fundamental learning and fundamental knowledge will be marginalized in the planning process, which could mean loss of programs and loss of jobs.”

Faculty of Information & Media Studies professor Amanda Grzyb agreed.

“I am troubled by a plan that will endanger student experience, that will endanger strong pedagogical practices by increasing class sizes, in favour of a narrowly targeted investment of our limited funding at this university,” she said.

While she doesn’t need huge amounts of money for her research, English professor Jane Toswell admitted she had a “hard time” finding herself in the new Strategic Plan.

“We don’t build large groups of people around us to help us with our work,” she said. “When I supervise a (graduate) student, their work is going in a totally different direction than mine, which is the idea, so I’m having to learn something new … which is a huge extra commitment of my work.

“My concern is this is a Strategic Plan that goes heavily in the direction of research, that goes heavily in the direction of putting more eggs in particular baskets in going after the big research. It also goes in the direction of internationalization. These are all things that seem like they are going in very broad directions. I want to see us all, actually, coming together and deciding.”

Janice Deakin, provost and vice-president (academic), said Tri-Council funding (Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) plays a major role in keeping research moving forward at Western.

“I have every dean asking me about CRCs (Canadian Research Chairs). Where do CRCs come from? They come from our take of Tri-Council money,” Deakin said. “What about our CFI (Canadian Foundation for Innovation) envelope? That is based on our Tri-Council funding. Tri-Council funding, at a university like this, is imperative. We are simply trying to create more opportunities, so that those who are after these kinds of grants are more successful.

“Scholarship is really about changing the world, outputs, great performances – and so money is but one of the important matters on the research front. The (Strategic Plan) does call for support for emerging areas of strength, in the interdisciplinary clusters. We will try and create tools to assist in the development of emerging areas, areas of strength and individual scholarship. Each cluster area is but one tool; the endowed chairs are another tool; the budget process is another tool. Different tools are appropriate for different research initiatives we have on campus.”

Another concern, surrounding the articulation of learning outcomes and its potential infringement on academic freedom, was quelled by Deakin. With the creation of the Ontario Council on Quality Assurance, she said, Western is compelled to develop learning outputs.

In 2010, Ontario universities approved the quality council, an organization that operates at arm’s length from publicly funded universities and government to oversee the quality of all programs leading to degrees and graduate diplomas. The organization also conducts a regular audit of each university’s quality assurance processes.

“There is nothing in the (Strategic Plan) that sets out as to how these learning outputs have to be derived,” Deakin said. “Faculty members are absolutely free to decide what it is they want to teach in their course, and how they’re going to teach it. But I equally commit to you, and I think the students deserve it, is to know what they can expect as an outcome from the course.

“I don’t see asking faculty members to articulate what it is students can expect to learn from a course in anyway jeopardizes their academic freedom. Teach what you want, how you want to teach it, but the students have a right to then call on us, as faculty members, if we’re not delivering what we told them.”

Kevin Godbout, Society of Graduate Students president, understands government funding is down tremendously from previous years (currently 45 per cent). But, he contended, an ‘oh well’ attitude from the university community is not a sufficient response.

“There is a duty either being imposed from within, or from without, upon the universities in Ontario to decide what it is they’re good at and what it is they’re not good at, and the things you’re good at will receive more funding,” Godbout said. “This would mean identifying which programs are areas of strength and, perhaps, which need to be left behind in an era of so-called austerity.”

He added it’s not Western’s fault the federal government doesn’t have a postsecondary education act, or that there were massive cuts made to transfers back in the 1990s, or that the province has allowed tuition fees to become the highest in the country. But passively standing by while all this happens is not constructive.

“They (Western) have responded to chronic underfunding, and have done so on an ad hoc basis, by whatever means are necessary. What concerns me about the Strategic Plan is this is somehow OK. It’s not OK to accept that governments – both provincial and federal – don’t make postsecondary education a priority. Because public funding is so low, simply saying we are going to have to come up with all these other sources of private funding, that is a defeatist position to me.

“We expect our leaders from within administration, from within our faculties and from ourselves as students to take more of an advocacy position on behalf of behalf of postsecondary education in this country.”