Bishop’s union offers temporary deal in the name of financial stability

By Gordon Lambie
Bishop’s union offers temporary deal in the name of financial stability

It is no secret, going into the 2015-16 academic year, that Bishop’s University is facing a financial crisis. Though last year’s funding cut to the programming at Centennial Theatre was probably the most high profile sign of the school running out of money, the fact is that there are more and more cuts eating into the daily life of the university as the school struggles to handle government funding cuts while searching for additional sources of income elsewhere. The school’s administration is very blunt about the fact that the university needs more money to keep operating and recently made the decision to cut the positions of Director of Buildings and Grounds and Director of Information Technology.

Speaking before the Commission on Culture and Education on the 20th of August, Bishop’s Principal Michael Goldbloom described the school as having been in austerity mode for the last seven years.

Facing that reality, the Association of Professors of Bishop’s University (APBU) has extended an offer in the hopes that they might be able to play a part in keeping the university afloat.

“Given where we’re at, the union would be willing to sit down and participate in an effort to, together with the administration, go through the finances of the university and discuss ways to address possible financial changes, at least temporarily,” APBU President Virginia Stroeher told The Record, explaining that she met with Principal Goldbloom this past Monday to suggest as much. Recognizing the need for stability, Stroeher said that she has approached Goldbloom with an offer to make temporary concessions outside of the union’s collective agreement in the name of getting the school back on solid financial ground in the short-term.

“It’s not unusual” the Union President said, explaining that such a deal has been struck in the past at the school with positive results.

Stroeher was not ready to say what the APBU might be willing to concede over the coming year, but mentioned that some of the divisions at the University of Sherbrooke who found themselves in a similar situation made suggestions like freezing salaries or increasing teaching hours.

“There are many ways, but in order to do it, the union would also like to be involved in these discussions,” the APBU president said. “When you sit down at a table, I’ve always said that four brains, six brains, are more creative than one or two.”
Goldbloom was cautious in discussing the offer with The Record, pointing out that management and the APBU are currently in the midst of contract negotiations.

“In collective bargaining there’s a give and take and an exchange of ideas,” the Principal said “We have to respect that process.”

That in mind, Goldbloom said that the school’s senior management team has been engaged for some time in looking at each aspect of the university and whether or not there are ways to either increase revenues or decrease expenses. As a part of that process, he added, the administrators have been engaged in community meetings, encouraging faculty and staff to share ideas on how to move forward.

“We’re going to have to develop a plan, and the faculty and staff are going to have to pronounce themselves on that plan,” the Principal said. “We’re not going to solve this problem with the administration deciding that this is what we’re going to do. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t.”

Though the principal said that a variety of efforts are being made, he stressed that the school’s biggest expense has been and continues to be salaries and benefits. The number of people employed by the school and the amount that they are paid, he said, makes up 73 per cent of Bishop’s operating budget.

In response to whether or not the administration is willing to sit down with the APBU in the way that Stroeher has proposed, Goldbloom said that no process has been agreed on at the moment other than the established collective bargaining. He expressed a feeling, however, that the BU community is committed to the school’s survival.

“I am confident that the union and the Bishop’s community at large have a good understanding of both the reasons for and the magnitude of the financial challenges we are facing,” Goldbloom said. “I believe that there will be a good faith effort to try and find sustainable solutions”

While positioning the union as being open to cooperation, Stroeher stressed the importance she sees in examining the entire financial portfolio of the university, from administrators down through the teaching and faculty. While all of the schools faculties went through the exercise of cutting 15 per cent from their budgets as little as two years ago, she said that administration size has increased over the last eight years.

“There’s not a whole lot of fat to cut anymore.” Stroeher said. “Our administration has grown under Goldbloom, and maybe we need to look from administration down.”

The APBU President voiced concern that Bishop’s staff has been hit hard by the various cuts over the last few years. Whatever agreements the union and the school are able to come to, she said, should focus on other areas of the budget.

“We have to be sensitive about staff,” Stroeher said. “Our staff, over the past years, have been really cut to bare bones. These are the people whose backs I don’t want to save money on.”
Stroeher did not present the Union’s offer as a miracle cure to BU’s troubles, but simply as a chance for greater stability. She added, however, that there is a hope that showing the union and administration can cooperate will be a sign of responsible management and trustworthiness on the part of the Provincial government, on which the school is depending for funding.

“Often we can stabilize things,” the union President said. “Operating expenses just naturally go up. Things like electricity we don’t have any say over because that’s Hydro Quebec. That’s why we have to look at the complete ledger of the university and see if there are things we can put on hold for a year. These are certainly not long term changes that we’re looking at, they would be short term changes to stabilize our expenditures.”
Asked how the offer of this temporary deal might impact the APBU’s upcoming contract negotiations, the union President said that it was too early in the process to tell, but emphasized that all temporary concessions would be agreed upon as short-term and outside of the collective agreement.”

“What we need to do currently is stabilize,” Stroeher said. “We always hope that something will change, but first we need to stabilize, and then we can start to think long-term.”

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