UAT roundtables: Five questions answered

President and Vice-Chancellor Bill Flanagan, Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Steven Dew, SET Executive Lead Rob Munro - 15 October 2020

Over the last two weeks, we have been meeting with faculty, staff and students in faculties across the university, engaging in a robust dialogue on plans for U of A for Tomorrow. To date, we have met with nine faculties: Business, KSR, FOMD, ALES, Engineering, CSJ, Augustana, Arts, and Pharmacy. We have very much appreciated everyone’s willingness to engage with important questions and share ideas and perspectives that will shape both academic and administrative restructuring planning as it continues.

Although there are many roundtables still to come, we wanted to give you a sense of what we’ve been hearing so far. On academic restructuring, we’ve heard a number of interesting proposals for alternative groupings. For example, several people have wanted a deeper discussion of bringing Arts and Sciences together; we have also heard that Business may find a better fit with the Natural and Applied Sciences rather than Social Sciences and Humanities in a Division model, and that nutritionists and dietitians might be better aligned with Health Sciences rather than the Natural and Applied Sciences. If you have thoughts on these or others groupings, please share them with us at uat@ualberta.ca.

While faculty, staff, and students in every faculty have expressed questions and concerns particular to their own situation, a number of common questions have been raised in the sessions. Here is a quick look at the top five questions:

1. Scenario B, in particular, seems to create silos aligned with the tri-councils. How will any of the proposed new academic structures encourage interdisciplinarity?

Increasing interdisciplinary collaborations in both programming and research is a key goal of academic restructuring. It is certainly not the intention of the Academic Restructuring Working Group to create new silos. Instead, the hope is that by bringing together small units within a larger umbrella, we can remove some organizational barriers to collaboration, and make it easier to form other structures that bring together educators and researchers from across disciplines - such as cross-disciplinary teams, shared program groups, institutes, or other novel structures. While that is the aim, the ARWG recognizes that reorganizing our faculties will not accomplish these goals on its own. Any new academic structure will also need to promote new, and sustain current, collaborations that do (or could) occur across any new divisions or faculties. In the next phase of the academic restructuring process, we will review opportunities to enhance the effectiveness of cross-disciplinary structures like centres and institutes.

2. How will the addition of a new divisional layer result in cost savings?

Creating the divisional level will allow us to create larger units and economies of scale especially for support functions in which a consistent and high level of service can be delivered by proportionately fewer people. We know that larger units are more cost efficient. This is because in a larger unit you can build a specialized team and more standardized, streamlined processes.

In addition, the divisions provide an opportunity to rethink how we deliver certain functions to reduce the amount of administrative work that directly requires an academic leader to perform. At a divisional level, services that are currently being delivered by one individual at the local level within a small unit could be managed by one leader supported by an expert team. If we do this, we can significantly reduce the number (and cost) of academic leaders and ensure that the leaders we have in place are focused on strategy and policy.

Much leadership time is also currently taken up by committees that need a representative from each unit. Elevating the level of representation directly reduces the size of the committee without creating a workload or representation gap. Reducing the number of units involved in delivering services and function will also make it easier to make institution-wide decisions around operations and processes. Careful reexamination and standardization of our processes should be able to reduce total workload and reduce the bureaucracy of the organization with little negative impact.

For more complete description of the potential savings of consolidating faculties into larger units, please see pages 15-19 of the Interim Report of the ARWG. Please note that saving calculations at this point are estimates. The cost of executive dean positions has factored into the savings estimates included in the report. Detailed costing will be completed as we refine scenarios and develop the final proposal for the community’s consideration in November.

3. How will the Executive Dean role differ from Faculty Deans?

Executive deans would be responsible for high level strategy for the division, building interdisciplinary bridges and major research initiatives. They would lead and resource strategic divisional initiatives, determine cross-faculty priorities, and ensure alignment between faculty goals and strategic divisional objectives. In addition to setting faculty budgets in conjunction with the provost and in consultation with faculty deans, executive deans would hire, supervise, and evaluate academic deans in the faculties in consultation with the provost and would be responsible for divisional administration functions.

Faculty or academic deans would handle all academic functions, including program curricula, program quality, accreditation, and faculty/individual research initiatives. They would control the faculty budget, subject to limits on creating any administrative functions that belong at a different organizational level, and would oversee all matters relating to appointments and FECs.

4. I am concerned that the proposed centralization of student services will not serve the students in our faculty well—advisors need to be close to the programs and students. How will this enhance student services?

We recognize that local, face-to-face contact with students is valued by all of our faculties. We know that some student services will continue to be best delivered at the faculty level--and they will. At the same time, it’s important to note that many of our current student services are common across faculties, and delivering them through a service centre will ensure all our students can access consistent high levels of support. This does not necessarily mean that the service will be generic for all students. We expect the student centre will support different pathways – for example, undergraduate, graduate and international experiences. Also the Student Centre won’t be impersonal – students will still be able to talk to staff members or have personalized service.

The intention is that students can easily find services, get the advice they need at the time they need it, from one location, whether in-person, by phone, chat, text or through self service. We need to provide students an omni-channel experience to fit with their preferred mode of engagement, and once they are connected, provide pathways to where they can find the specific support they need. As with any change, we know that there may be a period of disruption as we adjust to the new system but data from other institutions who have gone through similar transition shows that this period is temporary. As we navigate through the transition, we will deploy a student engagement plan which will involve monitoring student satisfaction with service delivery, identifying gaps and issues, and ensuring continuous improvement.

5. How will any of the proposed scenarios promote diversity, equity, and inclusion within our campuses going forward?

The U of A has a strong commitment to EDI, and the academic restructuring process must support and reflect our Strategic Plan for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity. The decision to preserve the identity and autonomy of the Faculty of Native Studies and Campus St. Jean reflects the university’s continuing commitment to Indigenous and French-language teaching, research, and community engagement. Scenarios B and C also provide options for strengthening EDI leadership, policy, and programming across campus with the creation of an Associate Dean EDI. Currently, only three faculties have the resources for this position, but with the economies of scale provided by the divisional model, it becomes possible to provide leadership across all faculties. We have also been asked how we will reduce harm to historically marginalized groups as academic leadership positions are reduced. This is an issue that we know we must keep in the foreground. Recent changes to recruitment and appointments policy will aid us there. In addition, the ARWG continues to work with the university’s EDI team and Senior Advisor, Equity and Human Rights to apply an EDI lens to its work and evaluate EDI impacts. We hosted a town hall for equity-seeking groups and established an ad hoc advisory group made up of members of equity seeking groups. We will continue to invite input and engagement throughout our process.

Our thanks to everyone who has participated in the roundtables, sent us emails, and submitted feedback online. We look forward to continuing this discussion at GFC on Monday and more roundtables in the coming few weeks.

Bill Flanagan, President and Vice-Chancellor
Steven Dew, Provost and Vice-President (Academic)
Rob Munro, Executive Lead, SET

To see answers to other questions, please see the FAQ page on the UAT website.