Monday, March 21, 2011

A Clarification-Letter to the Editor

Note: This letter was sent to the Edmonton Journal on March 15 as an official correction on the record. It has yet to appear in the Journal; therefore, we are publishing it here on the blog for all to see.

We agree wholeheartedly with Dr. G.E. Swaters’ assessment in his March 15 letter that University of Alberta faculty are among the best and most sought-after academics in the world. Our academics are a genuine point of pride for the entire community, and are the reason the university has an excellent reputation at home and around the world. We further agree that as the province’s flagship university we need adequate funding to provide the superior education that Albertans expect and deserve.

I must correct, however, several errors in Dr. Swaters’ letter and clarify other misperceptions in his simplified presentation of complex issues. We at the university highly value our academic staff. Indeed, we value all of our people, including support staff. Negotiations are not simply about salary, but about total compensation that includes salary, merit pay and benefits in a province with very low taxes.

I would like to clarify the following points raised by Dr. Swaters:

• When citing salary settlements of at least 1.5 per cent taking effect at other Alberta universities on July 1, 2011, he neglected to mention that those universities’ faculty received a zero percent increase in ’10-11 when U of A faculty received a 4.75 per cent increase. Academic staff at the U of A subsequently agreed to reduce this pay increase to 2.45 per cent for 2010-11 by taking furlough days (days off without pay), but the remaining 2.3 percent will be restored this April 1. So in fact, all U of A academic staff will see their salaries increase April 1 by 2.3 per cent, regardless of the outcome of the current negotiations and arbitration.

• The university does have a performance-based compensation system beyond the negotiated across-the-board increases. These merit raises average an additional 2.3 per cent across the academic staff.

• Budgets are indeed about priorities and there is no larger component of the U of A budget than that spent on salaries and benefits. Dr. Swaters has claimed that the amount spent on academic salaries as a proportion of the operating grant has gone down, when in reality it has remained constant. In fact, actual dollars spent on academic salaries and benefits as a percentage of total operating expenditures increased from about 46 per cent in ’06 to 48 percent in ’10, a significant real dollar increase from $281 million to $399 million over that same period.

Finally, it would be irresponsible to reach a settlement with one staff group that may have disastrous results for our other employees. Avoiding layoffs is one of the key goals at this time as it was last year.

Chris Cheeseman, PhD
Vice-provost and associate vice-president, Human Resource Services
Professor of physiology, University of Alberta

**Update** The Letter to the Editor appears in today's Edmonton Journal.


  1. I spent the furlough days, which you are defining as "days off without pay" grading final exams, prepping a new course for winter term, and finishing an article. And I know I wasn't the only faculty member working during the furlough days because although we gave up 6 days pay, the amount of work required did not decrease.

  2. I would like to thank Dr. Cheesman for his comments. Dr. Cheeseman asserts his Blog entry corrects errors in my Edmonton Journal letter. I respectfully disagree and here offer a rebuttal.
    • The reason that AASUA was successful in bargaining a 4.75% across-the-board increase in academic salaries in 2010-11 is immaterial to the current salary negotiations. First, since the annual percentage increases in unrestricted operating funds allocated to the University of Alberta from the provincial government have been, in recent years, substantially larger than those received by our competitor universities in other provinces, it is unsurprising that our salary increases have also been larger. Second, and more importantly, after many years of deliberate neglect, annual academic salary increases at the UofA need to be significantly higher than at our competitor universities in order to achieve appropriate national salary competitiveness. Accordingly, the 4.75% increase in 2010-11 must be seen as a one-year chapter in the long saga of restoring our academic salaries to national competiveness. Dr. Cheesman's remarks seem to begrudge our past collegial and, frankly, fiscally responsible efforts to address this serious recruitment and retention issue. And I emphasize our efforts have been fiscally responsible. For example, since 1990-2000 there has been an approximately 96.90% increase, according to the annual financial statements, in total unrestricted government operating grants awarded to the UofA. Over the same period, the cumulative across the board salary increases for academic staff have been approximately 45.65%, or less than half the percentage increase in unrestricted government funding.
    • Dr. Cheesman's assertion that merit increments are equivalent to about a 2.3% across the board increase is misleading in at least three respects. First, what is relevant about merit increments with respect to their budgetary impact is that they are, predominately and historically, paid for out of the turnover savings associated with the aggregated salary differential between those that are retiring and those that are newly hired. This is the budgetary basis upon which they were introduced many decades ago in the first place and is the normative budgetary basis for "career" salary progression in all workplaces. True, in any given year, this offset is not perfect. Higher starting salaries is one factor as is hiring more people in a given year than the number of staff actually retiring. In any event, the data shows quite clearly without contradiction that turnover savings offsets a significant fraction of the costs associated with merit incrementation. Second, all our competitor university have merit incrementation of one sort or another. The value of the individual merit increments at the UofA are , in fact, rather diminutive compared to our national competitors. Comparing apples to apples means comparing our across the board increases to other's across the board increases, and not our across the board increases plus merit increments to others across the board increases without reference to other's merit or analogous performance-based increases. Third, merit incrementation is about a salary increase commensurate with individual academic performance in a given year. It is not about across the board increases, which are meant to provide salary indexing for all staff to ensure broad-based national and international salary competitiveness.

  3. my response continued ......

    • Dr. Cheesman's comment about the relevance of taxes in relation to compensation is without merit. If senior university administrators at the University of Alberta (and dare I say Albertan police, nurses, medical doctors, firefighters, judges, MLAs, teachers, etc.) can be the best paid in Canada without regard to local taxes, so can rank and file university academics.
    • Dr. Cheesman also misleads when commenting on the percentage of the operating budget spent on academic salaries and benefits. Here are the facts. While it is true that the fraction of the operating budget allocated to academic salaries has increased from '06 to '10, this increase is solely the result of the fact that many more academics were working in '10 than in '06. In fact, since 2004-05 (the earliest year I can get complete data for), there has been an approximately 20% decline in the fraction of the operating budget allocated to each academic FTE. Although Dr. Cheesman has cherry-picked the most advantageous years from which to present his data, the long term trend tells the real story. Whereas in 2001-02 approximately 52.4% of the operating budget was spent on academic salaries and benefits, in 2009-10 this had dropped to about 47.6%. And our relative competitiveness in academic salaries as suffered as a result. The university administration would rather spend, it appears, the available resources on other things rather than on those rank and file academics genuinely responsible for the broad teaching and research excellence that does exist at the University of Alberta.

    Yes, budgets are about priorities!

  4. I personally enjoyed how VP Cheeseman is framing the end of the furlough days as a 2.3% pay increase. What spin!

    Go Swaters!

  5. Mr. Swaters,
    I wish that I could say that I was able to read through your rebuttal, but I find that when proving ones point conciseness usually correlates to validity. The more that one must say to convince others that their view point is correct the less likely that it is. Yes I realize that this has not been “mathematically” proven.
    That said you have forgotten the privileged position, that as a professor, you hold. It appears that you have a sheltered outlook and a sense of entitlement. Were one to work in the private sector and have to rely on the proceeds gained from selling your research, textbooks, or courses taught I suspect that most professors might find it challenging to earn their present compensation. Of course if one feels that they are under compensated then they are free to try the private sector or other institutions. Lucky for you the taxpayers/government recognize the intangible merits and value gained from supporting post secondary institutions.
    Your views do not represent all us and I believe that your confrontational approach is painting us in a negative light.

  6. Dr. Cheeseman, if you want to use Alberta university salaries as a comparison, and if you figure it is valid to make academics take a deduction for perceived inflated increments in previous years, does this mean that Indira will now have a salary reduced to that paid to the Presidents at the U of C and U of L?

  7. To Anon@11:46am,

    From your salutation, let alone the content of your remark, it is clear that you are not an academic. Stop pretending to be so, as the "us" in your last sentence implies. As for me, Swaters most definitely speaks for me!

  8. Wow. If explaining one's position is considered confrontational we all might as well give up on even having a university.

  9. I find that when proving ones point conciseness usually correlates to validity


  10. That said you have forgotten the privileged position, that as a professor, you hold... Lucky for you the taxpayers/government recognize the intangible merits and value gained from supporting post secondary institutions. Your views do not represent all us and I believe that your confrontational approach is painting us in a negative light.


    Or is that too many words for you?

  11. The Ghost of Jane JacobsMarch 23, 2011 at 8:26 PM

    To Anonymous@11:46: It's probably not a great idea to criticize someone else's writing with a comment that contains several grammatical errors. But regardless of that, I wonder if you can clarify your point, which seems obscure. Are you suggesting that, as a professor occupying a "privileged position," Dr. Swaters (he does have a PhD, after all) and his colleagues are not entitled to receive the salary stipulated in the legally binding contract to which they are party? Do you think that would fly in "the private sector?"

    Also, I am eager to learn more about this interesting logical hypothesis that you present, that is, a concise answer is more likely to be valid than a lengthy one. You seem to suggest that the content of Dr. Swaters' comments is invalid, and hence supports your generalization about an inverse correlation between length and validity. Yet, you begin by stating that you did not read through Dr. Swaters' comment--so, I'm not sure what your data set is. Could you please refer me to some books or web pages that offer some support for this? (By the way, you could probably criticize the perceived verbosity of Dr. Swaters' comments more _concisely_, using the standard internet jargon, "tldnr.")

  12. In response to Anonymous 11:46am (Mar 23), the private sector provides opportunity for advancement using monetary instruments such as annual bonuses that a University or Government organization cannot - the more you work, the more rewards you get. However, in the public sector, including Universities, that isn't the case. We must rely on negotiated agreements to allow us to receive an increase each year to cover increases in cost of living, inflation, etc. If I was in the private sector, I would negotiate with my management team for reasonable increases as well.

    Although I do not always agree with Mr. Swaters' approach either, there is already a lot of negativity on campus because the previous agreement and the subsequent furlough MOU were not honoured - at least in my opinion. AASUA members fulfilled their side of the agreements, why didn't Administration?

  13. Sockpuppetry!

    Or is that too many words for you?

    Let's refrain from the ad hominem attacks, please. Thank you.

  14. Unfortunate that some of the faculty members commenting here seem to believe that "us" refers exclusively to the professoriate. AASUA has a diverse membership.

  15. Anaon@12:47 could you get any vaguer in your accusation? It was only after 11:46's comment singling out Dr. Swater's title that the discussion of profs came up. When I read Dr. Swater's reference to "academics" I assumed her meant, well, academics, as in members of the AASUA. That said, I find it interesting that people are expressing disdain for him and his professorial ilk, but not refuting any of the facts he quoted.

  16. Given the settlements announced on Whither at Athabasca and for AUPE members, the words of Cheeseman ring very hollow indeed. We have an Administration/BoG completely out-of-touch with reality. They are not engaged in tough bargaining. They are engaged in an out-and-out attempt to smash AASUA. Indira should fire Carl and get directly involved.


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