Senate Strategic Planning Update

David Porreca, FAUW President

This week’s post addresses issues and concerns relating to the November Senate meeting, when UW’s Strategic Plan was voted upon and approved. The UW Imprint and Daily Bulletin have already published news items relating to these events.

The discussion of the strategic plan generated a lively and vibrant debate, one which demonstrated Senate not to be a sleepy rubber-stamping body.  That said, there is some sense of disappointment in the end results. Let me explain.

The vote

Senate actually got to vote on the final version of the wording of the Strategic Plan, which had been called for at the October meeting of Senate.


  1. The fact that the Strategic Plan was printed, published and released as a public document prior to final Senate approval is, to me, the most unsettling portion of the events relating to this topic.
  2. The impact of emphasizing three specific research areas above others in the Strategic Plan is bound to colour perceptions of what research gets done at UW, including what donors see as our principal activities (e.g., will someone wanting to endow a research chair in a non-identified research area still want to send their monies to UW?)


Concerns concentrated around the changes in wording of the Strategic Plan (detailed in our November 4 and November 11 posts) between the version Senate had approved by electronic vote in May and the one that was actually put forward at this November meeting. A friendly amendment was added to the motion to approve the Strategic Plan directing the team in charge of the implementation of the “Transformational Research” portion to refer to and take into account the university’s Strategic Research Plan, which is a much more inclusive document in terms of recognizing the broad range of research that happens on our campus. Hopefully this amendment functions to ensure the multi-million dollar internal CFI grant competition decisions are not influenced solely by the Strategic Plan statement.


Water Institute Newsletter
Water Institute Newsletter, v. 4 issue 1, p. 5
  1. It has not taken long for evidence to arise that confirms some of our fears in relation to identifying these three research areas.  See page 5 of the Water Institute’s Fall 2013 Newsletter (pdf).
  2. After the vote was completed on the Strategic Plan itself, a motion was put forward by a colleague aiming to proclaim Senate’s own authority to govern the academic aspects of any future strategic planning at UW.  Here is the language of the motion, with amendments noted (deletions that passed during debate are struck through):


    Whereas the University of Waterloo Act 1972 grants the Board of Governors the power to conduct the university’s business and affairs “… save with respect to such matters as are assigned by this Act to the Senate, …”, and

    Whereas the same Act, in section 18, states that “The Senate has the power to establish the educational policies of the University … this includes the power … j. to undertake, consider and co-ordinate long-range academic planning”, and

    Whereas research and teaching are both fundamental components of the educational and academic functions of the University, and

    Whereas any strategic plan for the University will address the strategies and approaches to be taken to further education and research at the University, and will identify potential areas of opportunity or importance,

    Be it resolved that

    a. Senate asserts the powers granted to it under the Act which give Senate the final authority over all academic aspects of any Strategic Plan, including those to do with research and education.
    b. No Strategic Plan for the University shall be regarded as being in effect until an explicit motion to that effect is discussed and approved by Senate.

Debate revolved around the specifics of the wording of the motion, to the point that the eventual vote went (quite surprisingly, in my humble opinion) against the motion 30-28, with votes going along non-partisan lines. Of course, Senate does not have the authority to vote away its own authority over academic matters, which is enshrined in the UW Act. Plans are afoot with student Senators to craft a more acceptably worded motion for the January meeting of Senate to address the concerns of Senate’s role in governing the academic aspects of any future strategic planning that happens at our university.

In Support of the Strategic Plan

George Freeman, FAUW Past President

Since I am on both Senate and Board of Governors and have been involved in discussions of Ontario university politics for five years, I do support the strategic plan in its present form and suggest another approach for Senate and individuals who don’t like the wording of the ‘over the next five years’ paragraph in the ‘transformational research’ section of the plan.

George Freeman
George Freeman

My understanding of history would be that top-down direction of research (not development) has ultimately failed every time it has been tried (excluding some serendipitous fall-out which can come from any research activity). Having not seen much inclination from Waterloo administration to make that mistake, I wouldn’t worry that the strategic plan is a surreptitious move in that direction. I have been around Waterloo for a long time. I was at one of the first meetings, perhaps fifteen years ago, of the thing which ultimately became the nanotechnology piece of what is called quantum science in the plan. I participated in research discussions with the Research Institute on Aging back in 2006. I feel like water research has been amorphously congealing at Waterloo since my time as an undergraduate student in the 1970s (perhaps deriving from the puddles of 1957). My point is that these research areas became strengths from the ground up – because of Waterloo faculty interests and abilities and pursuits. It would be a fool’s game to strategically move into a research area without significant prior faculty buy-in and engagement and expertise. Thus, I would say the ‘transformational research’ section of the strategic plan, where it mentions specific research, is highlighting and celebrating a few current strengths from the thousands of research agendas we follow. In a time frame as short as five years, significant resources already have been, or are being, directed to those areas, plan or no plan. Everything else in that section is about supporting research generally and came from consultations with all stakeholders at a scale I would say has never before been seen on this campus. Fifteen years from now, I believe the highlighted research will look quite different.

My understanding of publicity would be that the plan is out there, has made its primary impact, and is now yesterday’s news as far as the public is concerned. If Senate wants to change the word ‘including’ to ‘including, but not limited to’ or some longer version of that – or to delete the paragraph – the only public news is the conflict between our Senate and our Board. That kind of exposure will not help us as faculty in anything we wish to accomplish and I would go so far as to call it a conflict based more on circumstances than overt actions.

Nothing is perfect. Waterloo is a big complex place in an environment of constant change trying to preserve proven academic principles which are under vicious attack in the public sphere. Meetings of Board and of Senate are costly, important events and people have other lives, especially in the summer. An administrative upheaval occurred, during the plan preparation, with the resignation of Sallie Keller, our previous Vice-President, Academic and Provost (VPAP). I believe Geoff McBoyle, our present VPAP, even put Waterloo ahead of his own well being (through lack of sleep) getting the plan out in time. If you want to understand the urgency, and the political risk, subscribe to the OCUFA news feed or spend some time reading the HEQCO website. If you have a particularly strong stomach, check out the Ontario government’s Productivity and Innovation Fund to which the university had to respond in September. The attacks and misunderstandings seem to come daily, some well planned and well funded, and some seeking essentially to dismantle the structures which make universities work to the benefit of society and change them to the benefit of other interests. I don’t think we have much political space for generic arguments. Had it been noticed in time, I’m convinced that the paragraph which bothers people would have been altered without a second thought by the Board or administration. The political goal, I think, is to look tremendously successful in things to which the public can easily relate and project our confidence that this will only get better in the future, ensuring their prosperity. Our story has to be as simple and immediately absorbable as the almost-completely-false but intuitively comfortable stories of some of the influential people attacking us.

Anything said in the document can, of course, be picked up by someone with an intent to push their own interests over yours. This happens sometimes with the faculty-level strategic plan in my faculty, for example. That’s where our full participation as faculty members in collegial governance comes in. FAUW has worked with the administration to become a permanent part of the Senate Long-range Planning Committee. Keeping that committee active is a good place to be involved in actual strategy.

“Get involved with FAUW activities. If someone in the public misinterprets the plan, set them straight or direct them to someone who can.”

Speak up in your department, faculty, or university committees. Regardless of what any plan says, most resultant actions need approvals before they can happen. Get involved with FAUW activities. If someone in the public misinterprets the plan, set them straight or direct them to someone who can. Most of what happens at Waterloo passes through public meetings in open session (or should). You could have attended, for example, every significant discussion of the strategic plan by the Board and heard first hand what each governor said (nothing about specific research directions in my recollection). My advice for Senate on the plan would be that we come to a understanding (recorded in the minutes) with the administration about the meaning of the one controversial paragraph. As a senator, I can be rightly upset about how the plan traversed its Senate approvals, but at some point I believe I have to look for the best solution in the context of what actually happened rather than a worst-case interpretation or an idealistic stance for its own sake.

As a public document, I believe the plan serves us well in this time and place. It makes us unique to the point of being anomalous in Ontario (on yet another front for Waterloo). As an internal document, it captures what people said they wanted, plus or minus. Internally, I consider the planning process much more important than the resultant plan.  How about externally?  What I believe we want to do, ideally, is load up our external Board members and other supporters with enough ammunition on Waterloo’s beliefs, and accomplishments under those beliefs, that they can sell our case in the corridors of power and money where they operate. If they are successful, this aids the case that Waterloo is a worthwhile investment and that it is not a target needing political meddling. When we go asking for support, it won’t matter so much that
they remember how successful we are in water, quantum science, or aging – it will only matter that they remember we are successful on a certain scale.  I believe this is the ‘branding’ for Waterloo which people are seeking.  It’s hard to make such an impact on outsiders without specific good examples.

The Senate needs to worry mostly about academic credibility, academic planning, and the motivations of faculty and students.

As always, I think the Board and Senate are voting on somewhat different things. The Board needs to worry mostly about risks of various kinds and about garnering support for the university. This is a high-level oversight role, not day-to-day management.  The Senate needs to worry mostly about academic credibility, academic planning, and the motivations of faculty and students. When a big resource movement is contemplated, these worlds mix a bit but mostly they seem to move along somewhat separately at the university level (unless you are a president or other high-level administrator). Where you really want a sharp eye out, I think, is your department and faculty and how the plan is interpreted into specific actions.

There’s also a bit of talking past each other going on between the Board of Governors and the Senate, I believe.  When the Board talks about a strategic focus on three areas, it is talking about the first three sections of the plan, namely ‘experiential education for all,’ ‘a uniquely entrepreneurial university,’ and ‘transformational research.’  These are the areas where Waterloo stands out on the Ontario and international stages.  The other five are in great shape at Waterloo but don’t represent as much of a competitive advantage in promoting this university. The government is serious about universities needing to understand and promote their strengths (differentiation), although we don’t know as yet exactly how that translates into funding decisions. Nevertheless, I think it is prudent for Waterloo to be in the game and ready.

I just got back from a meeting of Ontario members of boards of governors of universities, on the topic of what universities will look like in ten years, at which we heard from the Governor General of Canada, the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (both the Minister and Deputy Minister, separately), and several speakers and panels comprised of people experienced as university presidents, university board chairs, employers of university graduates, students, and education trend watchers or reporters. I would call it the most intense discussion of Ontario universities that I have ever participated in outside of a conflict environment. Based on my understanding of what was said, what is misunderstood, and what needs to be done, Waterloo’s strategic plan positions us extremely well (in fact, all three of Waterloo’s targeted areas, namely experiential education, entrepreneurial focus, and truly transformational research, were specifically mentioned as urgent priorities by many participants). There are real changes afoot and Waterloo looks well placed to be agile.

Bottom line is that I support the plan and urge Senate to take a non-confrontational route to reaching an understanding of its meaning.

Changes to UW’s Strategic Plan: Up for Approval at Senate

David Porreca, FAUW president

This week’s blog post outlines a series of serious concerns a number of Senators have expressed concerning the version of UW’s Strategic Plan that is intended to be discussed for approval at the next UW Senate meeting on November 18.

University of Waterloo Strategic Plan Header

First, it is important to outline the principal differences between the latter and the version of the Strategic Plan that Senate voted on electronically in the wake of the 21 May 2013 meeting of Senate. The two versions are set out in the table below, both taken from the “Research” section of the Plan [changes are boldfaced]:

21 May Strategic Plan language 18 November Strategic Plan language
Increase the worldwide impact and recognition of University of Waterloo research


  • Enable conditions which support research excellence and impact
  • Identify and seize opportunities to lead in new/emerging areas
  • Increase interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research at the global, national and local scale
  • Strengthen the relationship between research and teaching at the undergraduate level
  • Build wider awareness and understanding of Waterloo’s research productivity and impact
Increase the worldwide impact and recognition of University of Waterloo research

Over the next five years:
Waterloo will allocate current resources and align future resources to support areas of research where we have the greatest potential for world leadership, including quantum science, water and aging.

Primary Objectives:

  • Be recognized internationally for excellence and innovation in education, research and scholarship
  • Enable conditions which support research excellence and impact
  • Identify and seize opportunities to lead in new/emerging areas
  • Increase interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research at the global, national and local scale
  • Strengthen the relationship between research and teaching at the undergraduate level
  • Build wider awareness and understanding of Waterloo’s research productivity and impact
  • Seek global awareness of Waterloo’s research and teaching expertise

The motion that was voted on electronically by senators after the 21 May meeting reads as follows:

“You will be asked to vote on the following motion:
Resolved that Senate support the adoption of the strategic plan in the version posted at the following link [link to 21 May version no longer functions], and that Senate recommend to the Board of Governors that it adopt the strategic plan in that version.
Do you support this motion? Choose yes or no. “

Would the latter version have been resisted strongly at the electronic vote had it been included in the original?  It would seem so, considering how much reaction the new version is getting now that attention has been drawn to it, and Senators are becoming alert to the implications of the new language on several levels:

  1. The quoted passage from the new plan is not harmless language, where the key word is “including.”  Here are a couple of passages from the KW Record article “UW to focus on research as it strives for international recognition”

    “Hamdullahpur said there are many researchers at Waterloo whose work does not fall into the three research areas of special focus: quantum science, aging and water. There won’t be any threat of taking resources away from one scientist to give to another, he said. Rather, projects that fall within the priority areas will get preferential treatment with any new money that is raised.”  [emphasis added]

    “A new strategic plan for the university calls for it to develop internationally renowned and “world-changing” research, with special focus on the three key areas of quantum science, aging and water.”

    Conclusion: the suggestion heard at Senate that these three areas are only “examples chosen from many” is not consistent with the statements attributed to UW’s President in these press reports. So, is the intention to pour resources into these three areas at the expense of other world-class research on campus, was the President misquoted, or was a false impression given to Senate?

  2. The implication of  “world leadership” in the new version is itself troubling on at least two levels:

    a) The simple fact of singling out three areas in particular inevitably invites the reaction that “there are other, lesser fields.”  Anyone with links to a not-named field may feel that UW is not interested in what they do.  This has an effect not only on the morale of researchers, but also on potential donors interested in contributing to the not-named fields: would they still choose to support UW’s endeavours?

    b) There are numerous fields of extremely worthwhile inquiry to which “world leadership” cannot logically apply.  Examples include local history, the study of local ecosystems, the safety of local water supplies and local climatic conditions. The best possible research in these fields cannot conceivably be supported by the new language in the Strategic Plan.  Will scholars in these fields find themselves at a disadvantage in the resource allocation game as a result of the new version of the Strategic Plan?

  3. Focusing on a small number of things that one does well may well work in other realms of human endeavour (e.g., running a business, or playing a musical instrument), but it is a recipe for significant harm to an institution whose very name – a university – implies that it studies “the sum of all things,” or the “whole community”.

Therefore, it would behoove Senators to take their jobs seriously as guardians of the academic integrity of our institution.  If harmful ideas at the strategic planning stage are not resisted, how will we be in a position to stand up against them when the time comes for implementation?  The only reason that Senators are getting to vote on this new version of the Strategic Plan is thanks to the diligent attention – and serious concern – of a number of faculty and student Senators.  Otherwise, UW would be saddled with a plan that was modified at the urging of the Board of Governors, without the rest of our academic community’s knowledge or consent.

Consequently, an amendment to the motion for approval of the Strategic Plan will be put forward at the next Senate meeting to change significantly or delete entirely the paragraph beginning “Over the next five years…”, and Senators are invited to consider their votes carefully.

Unless, of course, the Strategic Plan is a document not to be taken too seriously at the day-to-day operations level….

Go Forth and Differentiate?

George Freeman, FAUW Past President

The Senate meeting of Monday, April 15 will live in my memory under the heading “kill two birds with one stone.” Unfortunately the two birds seem to have been institutional autonomy and collegial governance. Also, curiously, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more examples of the prisoner’s dilemma or tragedy of the commons illustrated in a single meeting. That’s because we had a great talk by Prof. Keith Hipel of Systems Design Engineering on methods to analyse problems which otherwise might go down those unfortunate paths. Then we went down them.

The story actually starts a long way back with a peculiar organization known as the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario or HEQCO. In early April, it produced a report entitled “Quality: Shifting the Focus – A Report from the Expert Panel to Assess the Strategic Mandate Agreement Submissions.

Anyone wanting to understand the shortcomings of education and business leadership in Ontario must read this report, keeping in mind the credentials of the people whose names are attached to it. I promise you will be shocked, by the naked self-interest and by the lack of sound evidence-based reasoning.

The strategic mandate agreements were a bait-and-switch game foisted on university and college presidents. Under the hint of some new money, they were asked to summarize the strengths and goals of their institutions. As you might expect, there’s a strong similarity among the submissions and also a bunch of points of differentiation, such as cooperative education at Waterloo. The new money seems to have morphed into new cuts. However, differences can be amplified and marketed and that appears to excite both government and industry.

The apparent shift in “shifting the focus” is to an explicitly two-tiered system of university education (like that bastion of social equity, the United States). The big lie in “quality” is twofold in my opinion:

  1. That quality can improve under this kind of differentiation, except for a few of the privileged or lucky, and 
  2. That costs can go down.

The HEQCO report gives no evidence for any quality increase or cost decrease. What the report does indicate is that Ontario’s universities are already differentiated on everything the panel cared to measure. Yet, they repeat over and over a call to differentiate. Thus, maybe it’s useful to contemplate where the problems with university differentiation might exist, or be perceived to exist.

The main ones I could think of, off-hand, are location and faculty pay.

Location is important because Ontario has built huge settlements ringing Toronto over the past few decades but not sited enough universities within them. Also, the present universities, being close to uniformly good and close to uniformly diverse in program offerings, attract many students from their local areas. This saves a lot of money for a lot of parents (except in the huge new settlements). A recent proposal from government had three distinctly second-tier campuses being built to serve these areas. However, such a direct approach to making quality lumpy has obvious and negative bang-for-the-buck optics. In any case, Ontario’s universities are clearly too uniformly good even when badly funded.

Faculty pay is important because it’s the supposed key to a two-tiered system. The dream seems to be to have large numbers of students educated by less expensive non-research-active faculty teaching more courses per year. Let’s say on average one of these people costs $100k and teaches eight courses in comparison with a present-day faculty member who costs $130k and teaches four courses. Then, three faculty members costing $390k and teaching twelve courses could be replaced by one faculty member and one non-research-active faculty member costing $230k and teaching twelve courses.

On the surface, this would save about 40% of the 30% of the university budget which goes to faculty salaries, say twelve percent. In the university system, that’s about three to four years of inflation covered at the cost of both research diversity (including graduate courses) and research resilience dropping by 67 percent. About one third of the approximately 10% of space used for academic offices might be freed up (half a building or so at Waterloo).

This might buy enough time to fund the construction of a cheap campus or two (12% of the system budget is about $800m). It would be to the great benefit of any politicians who could announce it.
Of course, I doubt one could come anywhere near this level of transformation, so the actual potential savings must be much smaller. In any case, a system which gives a viable research opportunity to all faculty is, again, too good and too uniform to market effectively as sound bites.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

HEQCO’s financial survival depends on telling the government what it wants to hear. They especially like surveys of public perception and arguments involving performance metrics and system-wide control by outside, non-democratic and non-participatory agencies. Increasingly, university presidents and the Council of Ontario Universities seem to just fall in line, giving up their institutional autonomy and voluntarily playing the prisoner’s dilemma game while destroying the Ontario university commons. By Feridun’s description of the last COU meeting to Senate, there is zero chance of the university presidents cooperating against differentiation. Bird number one went down but the stone continued.

On further questioning, it emerged that Waterloo would consider shutting down departments as part of differentiation; perhaps those with not enough participation in graduate studies. The next natural question was about what kind of consultation might go on before (or while) proceeding with such a differentiation agenda at Waterloo. Apparently, the meetings around the mid-cycle review of the university’s strategic plan over the past year have given the administration a mandate to go in this direction. That, and the fact that other universities are already doing it. Bird number two, dead.

One might wonder what roles Senate, its Long-Range Planning Committee, and its Finance Committee play in this, especially if you read their legal responsibilities under the University of Waterloo Act and Senate Bylaws, in particular, the Act Section 22, Bylaw 3 Section 3, and Bylaw 4 Section 3. Apparently, their roles are deemed to be none, none, and none, except that the SLRP did assist Sallie Keller (former VPAP) with the strategic mandate agreement for Waterloo and Senate still gets to ask questions. SLRP will also review, in some sense, the strategic pl
an. FAUW members have some further leverage through Articles 15, 16, and 17 of the Memorandum of Agreement. Keep in mind, however, that the province does not respect such agreements or existing legislation very much lately.

The usual message is trotted out, that Waterloo might be a net “winner” in differentiation of teaching just as we appear to be so in the differentiation of research. However, in both cases, this is just in the context of everyone losing. The United Kingdom and Germany, strangely enough, were the touted models at Senate. The UK takes performance metrics to the limits of absurdity and seems to have completely abandoned the notion of the university as a social good. Germany is distinguished by having universities which are free but mediocre, according to The Economist last June. Not exactly the leaders I would have picked to follow.

Bottom line: If we’re so innovative, why would we seek to emulate haphazard social experimentation or mediocrity?

Addendum 1: A quick scan of the just-released strategic plan draft shows “cut” only three times, as part of the phrase “cutting-edge” and, although “different” appears seven times, it is never in the context of differentiation. Whatever mandate came from the consultations isn’t obvious in the plan.

Addendum 2: HEQCO must be rolling in money because reports come too fast to read. The latest from them claims that Ontario universities are efficient, productive, and accessible – then argues for a new accountability regime to improve what we do without additional funding. OCUFA characterized it quite astutely as “fiddling at the margins.” I feel so naive having worked here for 28 years without any notion of quality to guide me.