Consultants say cuts warranted at Queen’s, but doomsday rhetoric is unhelpful

Photo by Dave Makepeace.

Toronto based consultant firm Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA) has spoken out over recent remarks by Queen’s Provost Matthew Evans on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023, during a contentious town hall.

The firm was involved in developing the university’s strategic plans in 2021.

The December 11 town hall saw Evans allegedly claim that he is concerned about the survival of the institution.

“Unless we sort this out, we will go under,” Evans was quoted at the town hall.

In the blog post, the firm criticized the claims of both QCAA (Queen’s Coalition Against Austerity) and the university itself. Queen’s Coalition Against Austerity describes itself as a coalition of staff, faculty, and students at Queen’s University opposed to the recent budget cuts mandated by the Board of Trustees and the Provost. It has also published a report detailing why the university’s cuts are not warranted.

Taken as a whole, HESA President Alex Usher wrote that Queen’s isn’t necessarily overreacting to the institution’s current financial situation and the need for cost saving measures.

Usher pointed out that the university’s operational budget has faced losses in excess of $322 million.

Despite this, Usher said that the university’s “unusual reliance” on donations has allowed it to quickly recover any of the losses it has incurred over the decade. Queen’s has also been able to post over $608 million in surpluses over the past ten years, primarily due to a combination of investment returns and donations – other forms of funding are restricted for specific purposes.

“What looks to QCAA like overly conservative budgeting is in fact simply the fact that parts of the university are doing just fine. Just not the operating budget,” Usher wrote.

“The operating budget needs to come back into balance.”

Usher did admit that whether or not that needs to happen in the time frame that Queen’s administration is proposing can be fairly argued.

Mary Louise Adams, a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, said she doesn’t necessarily see Usher’s analysis as at odds with QCAA claims, and said it acknowledges their complaint that the changes don’t have to be made with such haste.

She said the university also hasn’t talked about how big of an impact these cuts will have outside of Queen’s on the greater Kingston economy.

“One of our main arguments is that we could avoid a lot of the pain and a lot of the damage to the quality of education,” Adams said.

“We could avoid some job loss if we had a little bit more time to actually discuss and plan for this and Alex Usher certainly agrees with that position… from one of the biggest deficits we have ever had we have to balance the budget in two years, there’s going to be tremendous job losses… what is that going to mean for the economy of the city of Kingston?”

Adams said that while Usher’s statistical analyses are very useful in evaluating economic matters, in this case, it’s sort of looking at the numbers in a vacuum.

“You will notice that he doesn’t talk at all about what some of the implications are that people are trying to stall or that people are trying to avoid,” Adams said.

“Some of the dangerous and damaging implications of the kinds of cuts that that Queen’s is suggesting and the speed at which they’re suggesting them… a reduction in the quality of education that we’re going to be able to offer.”

Ultimately, Adams and QCAA say there are other financial choices the university could make that would lessen the blow to the university caused by drastic cuts.

Adams pointed to ideas like putting more money from the university’s unrestricted endowment fund or investment fund into the operating budget as ways to cut down the deficit to a more manageable number.

“Queen’s has more financial resources available to it than many other universities do,” Adams said.

“The university could be making financial decisions that could provide a bit of a cushion or a buffer in what they’re presenting to us as this extremely serious financial crisis period.”

Usher notes however that most of those resources, almost three-quarters of a billion in “expendable assets” available to Queen’s, are in use or set aside for other expenditures, and that it’s not fair to say all or even most of those assets can safely be spent on immediate uses without damaging the institution.

The report from HESA ultimately says while intervention is needed, the university could potentially explore ways to lighten the cuts, and improved communication and transparency from administrators is necessary.

“Talk that the institution is ‘going bust’ is probably unhelpful: deliberate or not, it conjures up images of what happened at Laurentian, and however bad the current operating deficit is, Queen’s simply is not facing the kind of disastrous liquidity position that Laurentian was,” Usher concludes.

“Cooler rhetoric from the administration is therefore called for, but so too is a better public exposition of institutional finances.”

Owen Fullerton is a Kingston-based reporter with the Local Journalism Initiative (LJI). The LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.

2 thoughts on “Consultants say cuts warranted at Queen’s, but doomsday rhetoric is unhelpful

  • Is Queen’s University still the biggest land owner in Kingston? Is all this land/buildings free from Municipal taxation? Just asking.

  • Very good questions, Barrie. I’ve wondered why that is for a long time.

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