Salary arbitration: Is the UBC Administration putting its respectable legacy on the line?

Thousands of UBC faculty members are without a contract since July 1, 2012 even though negotiations between the Administration and the Faculty Association (FA) started back in February 2012. After several failed attempts at direct bargaining, the parties have now decided to resort to arbitration. On May 8th, they exchanged their formal submissions to the arbitrator, and yesterday they disclosed their reply submissions. The actual arbitration will take place on June 3-5, 2013, but the decision may not come before the fall of 2013, almost 20 months after the start of the bargaining process. Regardless of what the arbitrator’s decision will be, I see at least one major loser emerging out of this whole affair: The outgoing UBC administration, which may be unwisely putting its –otherwise very respectable– legacy on the line.

The most obvious reason for why University Administrations should avoid leaving the bargaining process to fester until arbitration, is because the latter is a highly asymmetrical process. Only one party is really under examination: The Administration, which de-facto becomes subjected to a scrutiny that is the equivalent of a highly publicized audit, a public colonoscopy if you will. And this is exactly what is now happening at UBC. Aided by PwC experts and various FOIs requests, the FA has made its case not only to the Arbitrator but also to the general public. We are suddenly informed of certain special privileges of senior administrators (such as in the interest-free loan’s department), of the meteoric increase in the number of senior managers relative to those of research faculty, and of the mushrooming bill for professional and consulting fees –among many other things. None of these are particularly pleasant subjects for those in charge of a public purse.

Add to this the special context under which these negotiations are happening. UBC is being universally hailed as a university on the move, mainly because of the remarkable (too remarkable perhaps) construction boom happening on both of its campuses. The administration may have all the right technical arguments regarding why it could find billions of dollars to pay for all those highly visible construction sites, but not a few millions for faculty wage increases. It may be able to convince the arbitrator of its inability to pay. It may even win the arbitration decision. But the administration will never be able to win the perception/communication contest, definitely not through the unforgiving lenses of the academic world. Never mind that the University’s book of evidence is over 500 pages, the “brick and mortar vs. people” image will stick to its legacy for years to come.

The position of the administration is shaky even with those who know more about the process. Let’s first review the rules of the game. On one hand, the Faculty Association (FA) has to show that the faculty are underpaid compared to –at least some of– their counterparts in other institutions and that the university has “the ability to pay”. On the other, the Administration has to show that the faculty are already well remunerated and that the university does not have the capacity to pay more than it had already committed to. So, you would think the game is easily decidable since it is all about checking a few numbers, right?

Wrong! Even the numbers are in the eyes of the beholder. For the parties to prove their positions on the adequacies or not of faculty salaries, they will have to compare them to other universities, but which ones? Will they use medians, averages or averages of averages? Will the comparison be across the whole faculty or within each rank? Will UBC be only UBC or two separate campuses? How to compare cost of living, housing,  CPIs, etc?

But you already can see the impossible situation of the administration. In order to prove that the faculty are well taken care off, they have to:

  • Keep a straight face while trying to justify why –at least according to MacLean’s– the faculty in this top ranked institution should settle for salaries less than their counterparts in 18 other Canadian universities many of whom are below the radar screen of most international ranking systems.
  • Not look too tricky, while using the most advantageous numerical indicators (average vs. median vs. average of averages!!!) to improve ever so slightly the salary rankings of UBC within Canadian universities.
  • Not be insulting to our colleagues at UBC-O while trying to reason that they are the ones bringing the UBC salary averages down, without of course acknowledging that the University of Toronto scales do not differentiate between its 3 campuses.
  • Not be too insensitive, while seen as ignoring the fact that the general increase for UBC faculty had been 0% in each of the previous two years, while their counterparts at lesser universities were averaging more than 2%.
  • Not look too unfair, when the FA claims that UBC has one of the lowest professional development reimbursement funds in the entire country.
  • Not look too petty, when seen as having rejected a demand that a faculty member’s dependent child continues to be eligible to the maximum Tuition waiver credits in the event that the faculty member passes away while the child is enrolled in UBC.

It is even trickier to establish whether the university has a capacity to pay or not. It is surely not based on what’s left in the administration’s coffers or on what they haven’t already committed to spend. That would be too easy. Instead, the parties need to show the arbitrator that the percentage of the General Purpose Operating Fund (GPOF) that is earmarked for faculty’s wages is –or is not –in line with previous years. Here again, the administration’s best bet is to resort to lowering the value of the GPOF (should it include the tuition fees from international students?) in order to increase the proportion used for faculty wages. But again its most difficult task is to try to justify that its other priorities were more relevant than the university’s support of its heart and soul, i.e., its faculty –at least in my opinion.

You never know of course what’s going on in a negotiation and many other factors could have stalled it, including clumsy tactics (from both sides), too many demands (from the FA), even bad chemistry between the two sides. In any case, a Board of Governors with the depth and the ability to keep a finger on the campus pulse, should be expected to advise the administration to try everything in its power to avoid reaching this sorry state of affairs. But of course, it is always much easier said than done!

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One Response to Salary arbitration: Is the UBC Administration putting its respectable legacy on the line?

  1. A. says:

    Interesting and worrisome read. For a related take that raises the concern of where university budgets are increasingly going (not faculty salaries)

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