www.affairesuniversitaires.ca / janvier 2015 / 39
À mon avis
In my opinion
Dealing with resource constraints
What would a sustainable
university look like?
by Brett Fairbairn
Dr. Fairbairn is a professor in
the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate
School of Public Policy at the
University of Saskatchewan, and
the university’s former provost
and vice-president academic.
hen i became a faculty member a gene
ration ago, change in the academy was
on my mind. Changes that concerned me
were the inclusion of new perspectives
and methodologies – in my case, social
history – as well as more gender balance in the
faculty and more engagement with communities.
None of those challenges is gone. But there are
new challenges. Increasingly one I think about is
whether longterm resource constraints will change
universities for the better or for the worse.
As provost at the University of Saskatchewan
for six years, I came to appreciate the stresses
and strains in universities. My experience con
vinced me that most institutions are all too good
at getting by from day to day – too good, because
a culture of making do inclines us to neglect
Getting by means positions are held vacant,
class sizes increase, parttime instructors are hired,
and expenses are squeezed. We bring in more
international students and create new revenue
generating certificates. We cut expenses oppor
tunistically and increase revenues speculatively.
None of this feels sustainable. Common practices
in universities make sense only if we assume that
future growth will allow us to undo today’s reli
ance on makedo measures. But we are now edu
cating a high proportion of each age cohort;
much further growth seems improbable.
How do we sustain such complicated, numer
ous, and expensive organizations? It’s intriguing
to imagine what a truly sustainable university
will look like. In my view, it will exhibit a number
of features that will enable it to concentrate its
resources and access new ones.
A sustainable university will be mission
focused – its faculty and leaders will be able to
say succinctly what its mission is and what it is
not. A sense of shared mission encourages peo
ple to focus collective energies in some activities
and to let other opportunities pass.
Moreover, students, alumni, host communities,
and other key stakeholders need to readily under
stand how the institution’s core activities make
positive impacts. Otherwise the university will not
benefit fully from the support and partnerships
it needs from these groups.
An effective university will be peoplecentred,
with a complement whose skills are mirrored in
the institutional mission, and it will have robust
governance. Indicators of strong governance are
that discussions of university directions are open
and inclusive and have clear conclusions that are
put into practice. It is too rare today for these
conditions to be achieved.
Sustainable universities will not depend only
on their own thinking but also be open to learn
ing from elsewhere how to conduct their affairs
better. Rigour is required for a university to hold
itself to externally verifiable and comparable
standards for the effectiveness of all that it does.
Choices, prudence, and simplicity will mark
how a sustainable university directs resources.
Choosing means a university starts new things
and also stops or scales back other things, which
is more rarely the case. Prudent financial commit
ments are proportionate to foreseeable growth in
resources. Simpler and more cohesive structures
counter the tendency for an organization to be
come more complicated and segmented over time.
Mission and external focus, peoplecentred
ness, robust governance, openness to the experi
ences of others, rigour in comparisons, choices,
prudence and simplicity: such characteristics will
help a university make the best use of resources
entrusted to its care and help it to augment its
resources in lasting ways, whether from public
or private sources.
Financial sustainability resembles social and
environmental sustainability in several ways. It
critiques growth as a solution to problems. And it
requires changes in culture, norms and behaviours.
The process of achieving a sustainable university
will entail significant innovation and change. So,
I would add one more factor: controversy. Given
the nature of the academy, no change will or
should be uncontested. We can’t conclude that
because there is controversy something good is
happening. But we can usually say that if there
is no controversy then no important change is
Our challenges are organizational and they
concern our ability to make choices and pursue
intentional change together. Faculty, staff, students,
alumni and campus leaders of all kinds need to
understand university resources in new and more
transparent ways. For universities, the end goals
are the good society, the good life and the dignity
of all people. That’s what’s at stake. It’s why uni
versities need to continue and need to thrive in
every age, including an age of limited growth.
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“ Financial sustainability
requires changes in culture,
norms and behaviours.”