May 10, 2017

Exposing the culture of entitlement among campus administrators

In recent years, we’ve seen an outbreak of absurdity among college and university leaders in Canada. Why? Because they expect others to shoulder fee hikes and cutbacks while executives earn lavish salaries and perks at public expense. And somehow, given the tight bubble that surrounds upper administration, this culture of entitlement continues.

The latest case happened at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). On April 27, MUN’s President and Provost and Vice-President Academic told a packed town hall that a 30 percent student fee hike (including tuition and ancillary fees) was forthcoming, along with cuts to staff benefits. The catalyst, MUN’s senior administration said, were cuts from the provincial government to the institution’s operating budget.

The audience wasn’t buying it. Almost immediately, a related Twitter exchange pointed out the apparent hypocrisy in the MUN admin’s claims:

Tweet_MUNSU

Responding to the dinner bills uncovered in an access-to-information request, Noreen Golfman, MUN’s Provost, had this to say: “We have candidates, high-level researchers who come here … we’re not feeding them peanut butter sandwiches, we are doing what professionals do.”

Yikes. John Hutton, a Nova Scotian currently studying in Montreal, took a unique action to challenge Golfman’s peanut butter and jelly defense. He mailed her a PB and J with a picture of Marie Antoinette (i.e.: “let them eat cake”), and offered her some fun history about PB and J’s in Newfoundland and Labrador (which were once quite popular with working class kids, who traded their lobster lunches for them).

Marie_AntoinetteLetter_to_Golfman

This was a clever use of reductio ad absurdum, which is not Harry Potter lore, but a debate tactic studied by philosophy majors. It involves disputing the merits of an argument by raising the absurdity of its conclusions. Hutton, along with students who recently organized a PB and J picnic outside of senior administrators’ offices, did precisely this in order to expose the culture of entitlement among MUN’s executive branch.

Sadly, this problem is not unique to MUN. There is no shortage of related campus absurdities occurring across Canada.

Consider former Red River College President Stephanie Forsyth, who from 2010-2014 expensed $200 golf shoes, accessories for her BMW, and a $11,500 culinary course for herself and two staff in France. Prior to firing several staff, Forsyth also saw fit to utilize marble from a campus construction in her own home (which, among other things, led to her ouster in 2014).

In 2015, we learned that Amit Chakma, President of the University of Western Ontario, drew a double-salary in 2014 given provisions in his own contract, for grand total of $967,000. Amidst howls of outrage, Chakma gave the top-up back.

That same year, the University of Alberta spent $919,000 compensating two Presidents: $580,000 for the outgoing Indira Samarasekera and $339,000 to incoming David Turpin for his first six months on the job. We also learned $3 million was spent compensating Alberta’s six university presidents at a time when tuition hikes and staff reductions are commonplace.

Most recently, Ontario’s college presidents proposed salary increases in January 2017 that ranged from 9 to 54 percent. For Cheryl Jenson, President of Algonquin College, it meant a $124,000 boost in yearly pay (to $445,000). Thankfully in this case, the proposal was rejected.

Of course, some object to raising these absurdities at all. “Salary-shaming”, writes David Reevely of the Ottawa Citizen, “isn’t the path to prosperity”, but a way to recruit “second-rate leaders.” To that, Alex Usher adds two points: 1) average compensation for college and university executives in Canada is below their American, British and Australian counterparts; and 2) trimming administrative bloat would not fill the holes left by government cutbacks.

Such arguments, however, miss a key point: lavishing campus executives reflects the state of our politics in general. The embrace of tax cuts, funding cuts and privatization have contributed to an ever-widening gap in wealth inequality, and a startling decline in our public services. But it has also meant fantastic wealth for a select few, including top campus administrators.

To set a better course, we need better priorities. As a first step towards renewal in post-secondary education, pay limits must be set on all campus executives. How do we get there?

Reductio ad absurdism, or salary-shaming, has been an effective strategy so far. Next time a campus executive near you pushes austerity, tell them it comes with a PB and J rider. Then pull your research together, inspired by many local access-to-information requests.

But don’t stop there. Demand a more progressive system of income tax, so resources that are currently hoarded are shared. To those who laugh, offer these two words: Panama Papers.

Sunlight, as they say, is a useful disinfectant.

To support the Fight the Fees campaign in Newfoundland and Labrador, join MUN students at a rally to stop tuition hikes.

Date and time: Thursday, May 11, 2 p.m. – 4 p.m.

Location: Clock Tower, MUN

For details or to attend, go to https://www.facebook.com/events/1964631067098112/