It has been the talk of the town. Not that UBC is addressing past gender inequity in professors’ pay, but by the way it is doing it. Other Canadian universities have distributed salary adjustments to female faculty, but UBC was unique in its move to give an across-the-board pay hike to all: a “2 per cent salary increase to base academic salary retroactive to July 1st 2010, for all current full-time female faculty members, after discovering “a pay differential of 2% … that could only be explained by gender.” This decision, which will cost UBC an additional $1.8M annually, never went through the Board of Governors. Some of my colleagues on the Board learned about it from the Globe and Mail. Some are still unaware of it. Most are ignorant of the way it was implemented and of its consequences. Yet, this financial decision goes to the heart of the Board’s fiduciary responsibilities. What gives?
Whether the decision is right or wrong and whether its implementation has been ideal or flawed, are important topics in their own right. My focus here is on what they reveal about our current university governance.
I did ask and I was told that this (recurrent) expenditure does not concern the Board of Governors, since the compensation will be coming from the Deans’ budgets “through savings obtained by appropriate cuts and efficiencies.” Ditto for the general salary increase that is being negotiated (or not) with the Faculty Association … if they ever converge to a settlement.
This brought to the forefront an important governance issue that had been bothering me for a while, and that the Board (and probably the administration) had neglected to foresee and to address. About 3 years ago, the UBC administration devised and implemented a new decentralized budget model, whereas every fiscal year, Faculties are assigned their budgets according to a certain formula. After that, the Deans are supposed to have total autonomy over their revenues and their expenditures. So, whatever they do –and whatever the central administration does through them– becomes de-facto one step removed from the Board’s oversight and fiduciary responsibilities.
In other words, UBC may now be resorting –knowingly or not– to financial deals, which are negotiated and implemented by the central administration, executed and paid for by/through the Faculties, all under the radar screen of a Board of Governors that is too far removed from the transactions. And the equity deal came to exemplify the governance implications of this decentralization to the Dean’s level.
To better understand the ramifications of such a state and its impact on the accountability chain, imagine you are sitting in a Board meeting listening to how rosy the UBC finances are (hearing one more time the good debt vs. bad debt lecture) and how we are looking good and ready for yet another expenditure on capital projects and the likes. On the other hand, you are a faculty member being subjected through your Faculty to budget cutting exercises by Deans who are struggling to find savings and efficiencies to pay for the 3-year retroactive annual 2% increase for our female colleagues, for an inescapable forthcoming general wage increase for the faculty (very likely another 2% solution, which will cost $5.8M per year), not to mention other funds needed to uphold those centrally skimmed CRC salaries, or to match another one of government’s largesse such as a CERC or two. How can you then make up your mind and how would you vote on a given expenditure if you had a choice?
Needless to say, the externally appointed Governors, who are less likely to know about the second part of the equation, and are unaware of all competing priorities, often end up basing their decisions on an incomplete set of information. I have written before on the danger of dropping our guard and treating as small change our governance processes. The Board is currently conducting a self-review on governance, and I am committed to spend my last year on the Board working on maintaining and strengthening the integrity of the oversight mechanisms.
As to the 2% solution, no one can argue, in view of the evidence, as to why a correction is needed. The real question is how much, and how. There surely must have been fairer ways than to opt for an across-the-board distribution. I have heard that even within the administration, there was no consensus as to the best way to proceed. A good argument against the case-by-case approach came from my friend, SFU computer scientist, Veronica Dahl, who commented on the SFU experience with such a process. “The review became a burden for the professor and the administration … and for many cases it was an exercise in justifying the original salary decisions.”
I, for one, would have argued for a hybrid model, where the distribution could still be across-the-board, but only after having removed from the pool various subgroups, which may have not suffered to the same extent –at least financially– from gender inequity. These groups may include women faculty whose salary is above a certain cut, those with CRC positions, those whose partners were hired through a spousal appointment, and those who have had hikes in their base salary for holding administrative positions (Are we the only university that still does this?) Individuals in these groups can then be looked at on a case-by-case basis. This would have been a fairer process and may have channeled more cash to those colleagues who had suffered most from gender inequity in their compensation.
Some say that the administration chose the easy and least controversial way. One colleague wrote: “I wonder why the committee declined to deploy the full suite of readily available statistical techniques.” Outsiders keep saying that UBC is rich anyway, forgetting that thousands of our faculty members are still without a contract since July, 1 2012. One colleague wrote, “I think they were sloppy/lazy/scared/whatever.”
All what I can vouch for is that the “they” were not the Governors of the University of British Columbia.