Editor’s note: The following is a submitted op/ed article regarding the financial situation at Queen’s University. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.
Queen’s University is currently consumed with the dire implications of the near $50-million deficit being proclaimed by institutional leaders.
Or at least that was the preoccupation until the student-run Queen’s Journal published a story last week under the headline ‘Queen’s faces imminent closure if cuts not made.’ The news story arose from a recent Town Hall with the university Provost and the Faculty of Arts and Science (FAS).
If things weren’t bad enough, they got worse when social media spread the news and members of the Queen’s community now had to respond to alarmed calls and emails from colleagues across the country. Within a couple of days, the Journal had replaced the inaccurate headline with one directly quoting the Provost Matthew Evans’ words from the meeting: ‘Queen’s could cease to exist if we don’t deal with this issue.’
It wasn’t the only reference Evans made to the sorry state of the university’s finances in that Town Hall meeting. Noting that he shared with his audience concern about the impact of austerity cuts on some Queen’s employees, “I am also concerned,” he said, “about the survival of this institution, because unless we sort this out, we will go under.”
The Journal‘s original headline was an unfortunate extrapolation by a rookie editor. But the tone of Evans’ remarks, in his attempt to create a sense of urgency and get buy-in from the university community for planned cuts, seemed oddly naïve. Such inflammatory comments would inevitably travel beyond the Q&A session, billed as for faculty and staff only.
Questions about just how serious Queen’s deficit situation really is dominated much of the meeting, with Evans fending off hostile speculation that it’s a manufactured crisis.
The university administration’s case isn’t helped by the fact that it has consistently overestimated the size of its deficit by an average of $44 million over the past six years. Dubious faculty and staff also point to the institution’s latest bond ratings reports as evidence of Queen’s financial strength.
“Two bond rating agencies have said that Queen’s is in great financial shape. One [DBRS Morningstar] just a few months ago said that Queen’s could weather the current provincial situation without making drastic cuts,” noted Professor Mary Louise Adams of the School of Kinesiology. “You can see why there is a lot of distrust in this room that the cuts we face need to be so drastic. Why should we assume that this particular budget deficit isn’t also an overestimation?”
The deficit, originally announced to be $62.8 million, is now pegged at $48 million.
This FAS Town Hall was one stop on Provost Evans’ Q&A tour across campus addressing concerns and questions from the university population. Today, he is speaking to the Arts and Science Undergraduate Society (ASUS) Assembly, and on January 23 he will meet with the Alma Mater Society (AMS) Assembly, the latter being the university’s largest student government.
A sudden and ongoing flurry of national media coverage about Queen’s future has led its communications department to reach out directly to students, staff, alumni, major donors and parents and, according to an internal memo, to respond to media inquiries “with messaging pushing back directly on questions of our viability and reaffirming our commitment to a strong future.”
Eighty-five per cent of the university’s revenue comes from tuition fees paid by students and the operating grant received from the Ontario government. The Provost’s FAS audience also questioned why cuts to staff, courses, and services couldn’t be made over a longer period than the proposed austerity plan. Evans, former Vice-Provost at the United Arab Emirates University and appointed to Queen’s in August 2021, said the timeline had been imposed by Queen’s Board of Trustees, the university’s overall governing body.
Queen’s isn’t alone in experiencing oppressive budgeting issues. Universities across Ontario have loudly complained about the effect of the provincial government’s move to reduce tuition by 10 per cent in 2019 and to keep it frozen at that level. Another major loss of revenue is attributed to a reduction in international students since the pandemic. Across Queen’s, there are about 100 fewer international students than anticipated this year or, as Evans put it, “five million down in one go.” Queen’s is especially hard-pressed given its confined community footprint in Kingston and, unlike other universities, an inability to grow its student population to generate more tuition revenue.
Evans dismissed the notion that the university could count on renewed support from the Ontario government in light of recommendations from its Blue-Ribbon panel that include moderate tuition increases. The government has yet to respond. “No one is very optimistic about it,” he said.
The current budget process at Queen’s has been a source of controversy since it was introduced in 2012 by a former Provost. It devolved budget decision-making to the individual Faculties and units that generate the revenue. The costs for shared services such as library, human resources, and senior administrative offices are proportionately absorbed across the university. Under this decentralized approach, the university has lost the ability to allocate resources across the university in keeping with a guiding set of values or overall mission, and to avoid pitting Faculties against one another.
Discrepancies amongst Faculties have been brought into sharp relief with the recent $100 million donation to the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, which has now changed its name to Smith Engineering, acknowledging benefactor Stephen JR Smith. Queen’s School of Business also bears Smith’s name in recognition of a $50 million donation in 2015. Meanwhile, the FAS’s share of Queen’s $48 million deficit is expected to soon rise to $37 million.
Evans said values-based decision making would come into play during “university wide conversations” about cross-subsidizations of Faculties. That may leave the fate of smaller academic units, such as Classics and Archaeology, or Languages, Literatures and Cultures, largely in the hands of rich Faculties.
Universities reflect a world where technology now dominates all aspects of life and students are increasingly shunning liberal arts studies in favour of disciplines they think will guarantee a job. In Ontario, where the provincial government pays 57 per cent of what other provinces do per student, universities invest heavily in courting private donors.
It’s not news that benefactors prefer to steer their dollars toward more applied programs like engineering, business, and medicine. Also true is that these disciplines are now routinely integrating social sciences and humanities knowledge into their curricula. So, while Arts and Science Faculties find themselves financially vulnerable, what they have traditionally offered higher education students is in as much demand as ever.
There has been growing recognition by employers and government that our fraught and complex world needs the critical thinking, adaptability and compassionate lens that develop through the intersection of ideas and disciplines. Scientists and engineers are essential for solving many of the globe’s most pressing challenges, particularly those related to climate change, renewable energy, water shortages and sustainability. But their success depends on an ability to navigate and accommodate multicultural, political, and economic complexities. And as the current and coming generations grapple with the radical societal upheaval posed by artificial intelligence, we need them to be well versed in the astonishing history of humanity and the triumphs of the human mind.
It’s time for universities to stop following the money and for all of us to support them in reclaiming their once-extolled standing as uncompromised, values-driven institutions. Queen’s current decentralized budget model and allocation of resources appear to be obstacles to any such aspiration.
Kingston writer and former communications director at Queen’s University
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