July 18, 2023
Sent via email
Dr. Michael Benarroch
President, University of Manitoba
202 Administration Building
Fort Garry Campus
Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2
Dear President Benarroch,
RE: Response to “What We Heard” report as part of UM Strategic Plan
We have reviewed the President’s Task Force’s “What We Heard” report and have several concerns about the document to articulate before the strategic planning process continues. Our concerns centre on the non-academic form the plan appears to be taking, and issues of academic freedom.
Key Information and Sources Not Included in the Report
The “What We Heard” report is presented as if it were without author, does not detail who produced it or who participated in the process of submitting ideas and opinions, presents contentious issues that are surely matters of debate as if there were consensus, and closes with the logo of the external consulting firm that was hired to help write the report and guide the strategic planning process. From an academic perspective, the report lacks the markers that one would expect to find in a document intended to present a university’s strengths and weaknesses and prepare the way to plotting a path forward.
Further, the report claims to be based on input from members of the university community, yet it is impossible to determine to what extent the assertions made in the report accurately reflect what was said to the Task Force’s facilitators in their consultation sessions. In the “What We Heard” report’s introduction, it is noted that in phase one of the strategic planning exercise 650 faculty, 560 staff, 70 students, and 70 others were consulted, and that in phase 2 approximately 500 students and 500 faculty and staff were consulted (p. 3). Beyond these basic descriptive statistics there is little to no backing for the claims made in the report. From the Association’s perspective, the document lacks any grounding that would inspire confidence that it accurately reflects what was said to the administration about the current and future needs of the University.
While not without its flaws, the University’s May 1997 lead-up to its September 1997 Strategic Plan (entitled “Taking Stock: What the Task Force Heard”) provides an important contrast to what the University has recently released: the 1997 document was written in the voice of the University Task Force that produced it; it includes a three-and-a-half page list of the names of everyone who made a submission to the task force; it is 40 pages long, and contains academic references along with a list of the members of the Task Force that were responsible for the report’s drafting; it provides relatively detailed options for what might be done to improve the UM’s graduate and undergraduate learning opportunities, its technology and computing facilities, the libraries, the efficiency of its administrative processes, issues with the operating and capital budgets, the recruitment and retention of faculty, and more; it notes where there are competing ideas on certain issues and that certain choices will have to be made and priorities chosen; and, lastly, the Task Force’s external advisor was not a private-sector consultant, but a Professor Emeritus and former Vice-President (Academic) of another university. It is this level of detail that we deem appropriate for such a pivotal academic work.
Since 1997, academia, including the UM, has adopted and encouraged open data, and the sharing of raw data. With large open data repositories, including the UM’s Institutional Repository, MSPace, it is not only appropriate to share such pivotal academic work, but the infrastructure now exists to share it, in ways that were not available in 1997. Before the current process proceeds any further, we request that the administration release a formal report of the information it has collected, along the lines of the 1997 report. Without such an assessment, the strategic plan that follows risks resembling a corporate public relations press release more than a self-assessment undertaken by an academic institution.
Survey as an Opinion Poll, Not Formal Assessment
Our concerns about the current report are reinforced by the fact that the survey on the University’s website, which will form part of phase three of the strategic planning process, asks if the five priority areas identified in the report “resonate” with the survey respondent, and further asks what “aspirational goals” the respondent would like added to those outlined in the current report. These types of questions undermine any imperative by those most familiar with the University (i.e. its faculty, students, and staff) to critically assess the institution’s current strengths and weaknesses. These survey questions make clear that the survey is an opinion poll rather than a formal assessment of the current state of the institution. The strategic plan should be the latter and not the former.
Academic Freedom is Missing from the Report
The principles of academic freedom – as they appear both in the UMFA/UM Collective Agreement and the University’s policy on academic freedom – demand the critical assessment of any and all received doctrines. We are concerned that the “What We Heard” report does not once reference academic freedom, nor reflect it as a core principle, and instead presents matters of debate as matters of consensus or neutral administrative policy. The ability to have frank, open discussions that are deliberative and substantive in their outcome is central to the learning, teaching, and research done by the University’s community. The “What We Heard” report, and the Strategic Plan that will follow, must be explicit of the centrality, importance, and role of academic freedom. The continued further strategic planning process must be explicit about the principles of academic freedom, and in addition to releasing the data upon which the current report is based, the President’s task force should revise and resubmit the current “What We Heard” report with the principle of academic freedom in mind.
Corporatization of Strategic Planning Process
The process used to develop the “What We Heard” report is one of the sources of the larger trends plaguing our university. As described in the report, the UM struggles to “expand upon avenues for progress and innovation” and there is “a decrease in public buy-in for, or at the very least the questioning of, the value of university-level education and other universities activities” (p. 4). This is not only an external problem, but also one internal to our University, one that is in part a product of the administration’s tendency to keep its processes and deliberations confidential and rely on highly paid external consultants in place of open deliberation and decision making in the University’s collegial bodies. This top-down, secretive, private-sector style approach is a barrier to students’ and faculty members’ ability to properly engage in processes to which they would otherwise naturally gravitate. This is true of the Board of Governors general reliance on closed meetings and the University’s by-and-large opaque budgeting and financial reporting processes. This style of governance also in part explains attendance levels of faculty members at formal meetings of department and faculty councils: when such meetings are largely “consultative” and top down they displace collegial self-governance and drive people away, rather than bring them closer.
The University of Manitoba should get Back to the Basics
During our consultation session, UMFA representatives conveyed the importance of returning to the basic principles of the university: emphasising the importance of academic freedom in all aspects of academic life; investing in students and faculty to improve student outcomes and experiences; re-investing in existing core infrastructure (e.g. modernizing ventilation in buildings on all campuses; improving teaching and research facilities; etc.). Though some elements of the “What We Heard” report reflect this in abstract ways (e.g. “developing life-long learners skilled in creative, critical, and adaptive thought”), others completely miss the mark of core academic principles (e.g. “UM graduates are the university’s brand” or an emphasis on “specific fields” of research). The most productive way forward is through the reaffirmation of core academic principles, including collegial governance, academic freedom, basic research, and excellence in teaching.
We look forward to the administration releasing the information collected during its consultations, and that moving forward the process will emphasize and rely on academic principles.
President, University of Manitoba Faculty Association