The University of Alberta is undergoing a massive structural change — but for better or worse?

The University of Alberta has undertaken a massive restructuring to deal with financial shortfalls — but the changes could threaten the institution's cherished culture of collaboration, some academics warn.

Academics, others concerned about future direction of province's largest university

The University of Alberta is undergoing a massive restructuring dubbed "U of A for Tomorrow" that will see its academic and administrative functions transformed. (David Bajer/CBC)

The University of Alberta has undertaken a massive restructuring to deal with financial shortfalls — but the changes could threaten the institution's cherished culture of collaboration, some academics warn.

The new academic structure has been in place since July 1 under the name "U of A for Tomorrow."

Medicine, engineering, arts, law and other existing faculties have been grouped into three colleges: Health Sciences, Natural and Applied Sciences, and Social Sciences and Humanities.

Native Studies, Campus Saint-Jean and Augustana Campus remain independent faculties.

"The very structure itself is going to diminish the power or the potential for faculty meaningfully to contribute to collegial governance," said Carolyn Sale, an associate professor of English and arts faculty representative on the U of A's general faculties council.

The new college model reinforces a more corporate hierarchy rather than the traditional community of academics, Sale said.

The changes are part of an effort by the U of A to cope with massive cuts to provincial funding — an estimated 33 per cent of its operating grant or $216 million over three years starting in 2020.

Accounting for projected growth in tuition income, the institution has set a target to reduce spending by $120 million over the same time period.

The restructuring involves major revamps for the university's academic and administrative framework.

Many administrative services are being centralized alongside a reduction of more than 1,000 employees, meaning certain functions are being moved out of individual faculties.

The model is being touted as fostering interdisciplinary research and teaching that reaches across faculty lines while also eliminating sometimes duplicative program offerings.

New college model

The college structure includes the creation of a new position, the college dean, who is responsible for the coordination and performance of the college and faculties.

The college dean is "first among equals" but reports to a council of deans from the faculties. Decisions are made by the council but are elevated to provost should no consensus be met.

Sale said the new structure supports the ability for higher administration like the provost — administrative head of academic matters at the university — to push decisions down rather than work with frontline faculty. 

"This is an institution that's supposed to be run by academic staff — it's supposed to be run by decisions that are in the first instance taken by academics," she said.

"It's fundamental to the academy that it's academics who understand what the institution needs to support."

The college model puts 13 faculties within three colleges. (University of Alberta)

The official line that the college groupings will support interdisciplinary work rings hollow for Sale. True interdisciplinary work requires dedicated research centres and funding, she said.

"It is not achieved simply by bundling faculties into a new house called a college."

Nelson Amaral, a computer science professor and science representative on the general faculties council, does not see the structure itself as an inherent problem — but the process getting there has not given him confidence for the future of collegial governance.

"There was a consultation process that was not a true consultation process," Amaral said. "Clearly, the decisions were made early on in the process."

The creation of the college dean position has been a major point of contention.

Although the general faculties council recommended the creation of colleges out of three proposed restructuring models, it also wanted to remove the position of the college dean and instead rely solely on the council of deans backed by a service manager.

As The Gateway student newspaper reported, the U of A's board of governors rejected the modification but amended the position to report to the council and be filled by a seconded faculty dean on a rotating basis.

"At that point, collegial governance was broken," Amaral said. "And that had an extremely negative effect on the morale on campus amongst faculty."

Interdisciplinary research

In an interview with CBC News, U of A president Bill Flanagan said the university has a deep commitment to collegial governance.

"The future of the university rests in that commitment to collegial governance," he said. 

The college level is meant to foster interdisciplinary research, according to Flanagan. He said while all 18 faculties do great work, the university wants to drive interdisciplinary collaboration across them to better address societal issues.

New student offerings would also be possible underneath the new system, Flanagan said, using the example of a possible health sciences degree made possible through the Health Sciences college.

"The challenge with the pre-existing structures [was] that we didn't really have any senior administration who were tasked with driving that interdisciplinary teaching and research."

Flanagan said the board was of the view that accountable leadership was needed to realize that vision.

"I recognize, of course in university, there's always diversity of views," he said. "And there are others who took a different view."

U of A president Bill Flanagan says the new college structure will foster interdisciplinary research and teaching. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Centralized services

The other major aspect of restructuring is the centralization of services and the creation of both a staff service centre and a student service centre to triage requests on issues from finance to information technology.

The process is ongoing as new positions are created and filled.

Ricardo Acuña, president of the U of A's academic staff association, said the new administrative framework removes support staff from much-needed context.

"If these academics are going to receive any support, they're now going to get it from some faceless hub that doesn't know anything about the research," Acuña said.

Although the restructuring is purported to create less administrative work for faculty, Acuña predicts it will have the opposite effect with academics having to do more administrative work themselves.

Acuña said the university has already dropped in world rankings and expects that decline to continue with restructuring, creating a vicious cycle where top tier talent becomes more difficult to attract.

He rejects the position put forward by the university that the restructuring will operate more efficiently.

"I don't care how nice your flow charts are and how fancy your operational diagrams are," Acuña  said. "If you're taking that many people out of a system, you're going to have way fewer people trying to do the same amount of work, and that's going to slow things down."

Under the new service model, two service centres will act as go-between points for students and staff. (University of Alberta)

Abner Monteiro, vice-president academic with the students' union, said whether restructuring will be able to achieve its goals is up for debate.

"Many students are concerned about the actual delivery of a lot of the students services that are being impacted," Monteiro said. The quality of services has already seen a decrease through the job losses on campus, he said.

With students returning in the fall, Monteiro said the union will be paying attention to the potential impacts of academic restructuring as well.

Talia Dixon, vice-president of student life with the students' union, said academic restructuring "shouldn't really change the way that people interact with their degrees too much."

She said there are worries, however, about how the restructuring could affect the university culture — including lowered engagement if students feel they're not able to get the resources they need.

Job reductions 'very challenging'

Flanagan said the previous system was unsustainable given the financial pressures the university is now under.

He said the U of A may be the first university to undergo such a centralization in Canada but it has been done in British and Australian universities.

"The job reductions have been very challenging for the university community, I don't want to diminish that in any way," Flanagan said. 

"But at the same time I am confident that … we can maintain a high level of service at a significantly reduced cost [and] continue to meet our budget targets."

A detailed review of the management structure will be conducted in 2022.