We are in unprecedented times. The combination of historic budget cuts and the global pandemic means that change at the University of Alberta is inevitable. There’s no doubt that the university will look very different a year from now, and that the number of NASA members who keep the university running will, sadly, be smaller.
This reality leads us to ask how NASA can best represent our members as we navigate through this period of unsettling change. We believe that to be good advocates we must listen to our members on the ground, align our messages and questions with their interests, and push for outcomes that will be positive for NASA members and, by extension, the university.
President-elect Flanagan presented the university’s plan at the June 2 virtual town hall. Many of you likely watched it live, and the recording is available here. While there are many details still to be developed, two of the key points are that the current 18 faculties will be reduced by 50% or more, and many functions will be centralized. The proposed plan aims to cut $120 million over two years.
We still have only the big picture of the plan, and it will take some time to understand all of the impacts of this new vision for the university. Nevertheless, there are important questions that need to be raised. Here are some key questions that NASA is seeking answers to. As things progress, we will develop more questions and advocacy areas based on your feedback to us about your priorities.
Communication – Any amount of change, even under the best of circumstances, is stressful. Given what the university is going through, the level of stress and anxiety across our campuses right now is understandably very high. Transparent communication is imperative if university leadership wants front-line staff to buy into this new plan, and their support is essential for its success. We have emphasized to president-elect Flanagan that meaningful two-way communication with NASA and its members throughout this process is a must and they must work to ensure that information is flowing within the whole university. If information only flows down one level and not all the way to the people doing the work on the front line, stress levels and resistance will increase. Likewise, the perspectives and opinions of front-line workers must flow up to the senior leadership—and be listened to—if those leaders want to understand the real impacts and potential barriers to achieving their goals. Front-line workers also need to feel safe sharing these perspectives and opinions without fear of reprisals.
Layoffs – We have asked about the impact this new plan will have on job numbers. Will the already-announced job losses of over 600 in this fiscal year (in addition to 400 last year) be translated into different jobs lost or will those layoff numbers be increased? We haven’t been able to get any straight answers to this question so far, but president-elect Flanagan has stated in media coverage that layoff numbers could increase. During the town hall, president-elect Flanagan stated the university faced a choice between having cuts sprinkled across the institution or making strategic decisions about where cuts would be made. There are currently more NASA positions being eliminated each week, which indicates that there has not yet been a shift from sprinkled cuts to a cohesive strategy supporting the proposed vision for the future.
Restructuring – We have many concerns around the restructuring plans, so it’s important that NASA be part of the conversation about how the restructuring will proceed. At the top of our restructuring concerns are the impacts to employment of current staff. If work is being centralized, then people should follow the work. It is NASA’s position that no new job should be externally posted if there are internal staff who could fill that role, either immediately or with some basic training or upgrading. Secondly, we have heard member concerns that moving from “generalist” to “specialist” jobs could result in an assembly-line mentality with serious impacts to job satisfaction and mental health. We will continue to raise these concerns and push for answers on how they will be addressed.
Workload – This is an ongoing concern for many NASA members. The town hall presentation acknowledged the danger of the already-announced job cuts resulting in “unsustainable load for remaining staff; potential negative impacts on student experience, teaching and research.” Many NASA members rightly feel that their workloads are already unsustainable. This issue is a major concern for NASA members, and we will continue to push for answers from the university about both managing current workloads and workloads under the proposed new structure.
Student Experience and Supports – NASA staff who work face to face with students are concerned that larger numbers of students, combined with reduced numbers of support staff, will result in longer wait times and a decreased ability to respond to student needs. There are many areas where students depend on support from NASA members as they work their way through their programs of study—from academic advising, to getting them registered in the courses they need, to mental health supports, and much more. NASA members are committed to student success and are deeply worried that current and future students will lack the support they need in order to be successful at the university. As one member put it, “What's more valuable to a student than being able to find a friendly, knowledgeable person when they're struggling?”
Like everyone in the university community, NASA and its members want the university to succeed and thrive. The current circumstances created by the government’s deep cuts and the COVID-19 pandemic are a barrier to that success and we support working to find ways to navigate those barriers. The work of support staff is an absolutely indispensable element of the university fulfilling its mission of teaching, learning, and research. Simply put, the university only works because we do, and any plan to solve the university’s fiscal challenges by disproportionately cutting support staff cannot succeed.
NASA and its members have long advocated for improvements to the university’s operations to make them more effective, and for changes that address complicating and unnecessary layers in a variety of university processes. Staff participation, input, and buy-in to this proposed plan is vital to its success, so it is deeply concerning to us that NASA has not yet been included in any of the planning groups or committees, and we trust the university’s leadership will correct this oversight. We recognize that although change is always difficult the incoming president is attempting to present a vision which he believes will build a resilient institution for the future. As we move forward, NASA will continue to listen to our members and bring forward their concerns, priorities, and ideas.
NASA is committed to uplifting the voices of support staff throughout this process, emphasizing the vital work that NASA members do across our campuses, and advocating for each and every one of you. The value that support staff bring to the university is profound, and the university’s ability to be successful is tightly woven into the work that you do.
I welcome your concerns, reaction, and feedback on the university's plan. Please don't hesitate to email me to share your thoughts.