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Monday, November 4, 2013

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….


  1. From this document, it is not clear as to who made the changes to the document. Does anyone know what person or group of people unilaterally decided to change the wording? How was the decision to change the wording arrived at?

    Highlighting three research fields to receive allocations for future resources from the university is not appropriate in a high level strategic plan.

  2. Thank you to members of FAUW for calling attention to this troublesome language. I agree that the focus on these three topics is quite narrow for a strategic plan and runs a great risk of interfering with the intellectual and academic freedom that should be fostered on campus.

  3. Thank you FAUW members for this helpful comparison. Indeed, more details about how this change occured and what it really means would be greatly appreciated. I guess that you have raised a question and that we are now all expecting some answers from the upper administration. Please keep us posted as it is very meaningful to us as for where we are heading...

  4. The message sent by David to all faculty members pointing them to this blogpost stated that "the academic integrity of our institution is at stake." I beg to differ. Such hyperbole creates an atmosphere that doesn't help us solve problems but only exacerbates them.

    I for one do not believe that David's motion should be put forward let alone passed. The Senate recommended the strategic plan to the Board of Governors; the Board of Governors accepted that plan, but modified it, as is their right. If it weren't their right, Senate should have opposed sending the plan to the Board in the first place. David doesn't mention in his post that all seven faculty Senators who sit on the Board of Governors were at the August 2013 meeting that approved the new language, and the minutes of that meeting record no votes opposed to the new wording. I trust that my fellow Senators considered their votes carefully before casting them.

    My concern is that the motion David is proposing runs the risk of being a declaration to the Board that the Board has no say in the management of the university. A university's strategic plan is not purely an academic matter; it is a indication of how the President and the administration of the university, after consulting widely, will set goals and priorities for the university's affairs in the coming years. Since the President reports to the Board, the Board has a say in the President's activities and thus the goals of the university.

    I'm not wild about the wording that emphasizes some research fields over others, or that a university's worth is only found in its international rankings. But regardless of the presence or absence of such wording, in the current climate such priorities will exist. It would be unrealistic for us to think that the University of Waterloo would not be pursuing goals such as quantum science, given the resources that have already gone into such fields and the importance placed on them by our society. I think the research portion of the plan has put into words what has been the practice here for a while, and therefore I don't see the institution's academic integrity being threatened because I didn't see it being threatened before. I may feel left out of the university's main academic profile, as I'm sure many do, but that doesn't mean that the university's integrity in academic matters has been compromised in any undue fashion.

    I think it is important to remind the university at large that the university encompasses a multitude of fields and disciplines, and that these areas require support. If that support isn't forthcoming, we must argue and advocate for it. At the same time the university, with good but not unlimited resources, cannot forego setting priorities in the distribution of those resources. The strategic plan was developed with wide consultation and was considered by all appropriate university bodies; I am very reluctant to disrupt that process due to some unhappiness about one portion of the result.

    (James Skidmore, Faculty of Arts and Senator)

    1. David Porreca's blog post does not include the astonishing suggestion that the BoG has "no say in the management of the university."

      It is an entirely different thing to say that the Senate is obliged to oversee academic integrity, including research integrity, at the university. These two claims could not easily be confused.

      Similarly, David's remarks in no way suggest the remarkable idea that Waterloo will "not be pursuing goals such as quantum science."

      Extensive rebuttals of claims that nobody makes are of limited use in the discussion. A disavowal of counterproductive hyperbole would seem appropriate at this point.

  5. Very odd. It would be nice to see the evidence that suggests Waterloo has the greatest potential in those particular three areas. What does "including" also include?

  6. 1) The proposition "the Strategic Plan ought to highlight a handful of research fields, to which current and future resources would be allocated", is not a self-evident truth. It needs to be demonstrated.

    2) The place for debating the above proposition is, de jure and de facto, the Senate.

    3) That the proposition was first adopted and then applied (read: water, quantum, aging) without the consent of the Senate is alarming indeed.

    4) The Senate is represented on the Board of Governors by 7 faculty Senators. It is not replaced by them.

  7. In reply to David Clausi: the wording was changed by the Board of Governors. Which is to say: the Senate made a recommendation to the BOG that, as the motion quoted in David's message makes clear, they "adopt the strategic plan in that version", i.e. the version presented to Senate for a vote. That recommendation was disregarded by the BOG.

    I think it's not correct to suggest that David is engaged in hyperbole. There are a few faculty representatives on the BOG seven regular faculty and the University President. The total membership is over 30, most of whose experience of universities is from being students long ago. So there is an important question about who we want to have making strategic decisions about the research and academic direction of the university. The members of the BOG are listed here.

  8. A very interesting discussion on a very important topic. Thanks to David and to commenters.

    It will be useful to consider the University of Waterloo Act here, which tells us that "The government of the University and the control of its property and revenues, the conduct of its business and affairs, save with respect to such matters as are assigned by this Act to the Senate, shall be vested in the Board of Governors..."

    What are the matters "assigned by this Act to the Senate," and thus, by the preceding language, not vested in the Board? Well, the Act says that the Senate can make recommendations about anything at all to the Board, but that it directly has the power to "establish the educational policies of the University", and that "this includes the power... to undertake, consider and co-ordinate long-range academic planning."

    It's a complicated document; there are many considerations and frankly a good deal of sharing of responsibilities proposed in it, as far as I can see. But at least on this reading (arguably, the plain reading), the academic element of strategic planning is reserved to the Senate's oversight.

  9. PART I: I wanted the new record for longest comment so here goes - and I hit the maximum character limit!

    Given the above discussion and questions, I think a close look at the timeline and published facts warrant posting here. So, after the May 21 electronic senate vote, here is what happened along with the corresponding comments that come to my mind [in parentheses]:

    June 4th Board of Governors meeting minutes:

    “The chair reintroduced the discussion on the proposed strategic plan, and the president spoke briefly to summarize the discussion from the earlier open session.

    The board heard a motion that the strategic plan submitted to the Board of Governors be approved as presented, subject to the preparation of a preface to (1) focus the plan on fewer areas of top strategic priority to be developed from the eight areas identified in the plan, and (2) outline the process to identify the metrics to be used to measure success in achieving the objectives of the plan, and that the
    board delegate authority to the Executive Committee of the board to approve the preface when presented.

    Hamdullahpur and Gamble.

    Following extensive discussion, it was agreed that the motion would be withdrawn.

    The board heard a motion to refer the strategic plan back to the president to focus the plan on fewer areas of strategic priority, to review the revisions with the Executive Committee of the board, and following that step, to bring the revised plan to a special meeting of the board.

    Lynch and Power. Carried.”


    Note that Executive Committee of the board members are listed at:

    [What does ‘focus the plan’ mean?]

    June 17 Senate Meeting

    Strategic Plan. McBoyle announced that the strategic plan was sent to the Board of Governors by Senate for consideration at its meeting of 4 June. The board returned the plan to the administration for some adjustments. It is intended to take the revision to the Executive Committee of the board for further feedback, and then on to the board for final approval.”

    [There seems to be some people questioning the consistency of the remarks made in June 17th Senate meeting and the June 4th Board of Governors minutes. Multiple people in Senate were seemingly in both meetings … What is the role and responsibilities of Senate members also on the Board? I’m not sure exactly but hopefully some people are aware of these!]

    continued ...

  10. PART II:

    Aug. 28th Special Board of Governors Meeting (Teleconference)

    “The chair summarized the discussions to date on the proposed strategic plan, focusing on the input of board members and the Board Executive Committee over the course of the past three months. At the August meeting of the Executive Committee, it was emphasized that implementation strategies ought to be developed as early as possible, with the role of the board, the administration and the accountability framework taking centre stage in the early part of the implementation process. The chair advised the meeting that the Executive Committee of the board had unanimously recommended adoption of the plan by the board. He introduced Hamdullahpur, indicating that he would summarize some of the main points from the plan.

    Hamdullahpur thanked board members for their input and their support over the course of development of the draft plan circulated to the board in advance of the meeting. He summarized the university’s objectives by reference to a series of slides, available at:

    Hamdullahpur emphasized the unique position of the university relative to its ambition to be one of the top innovative universities in the world, focusing on entrepreneurialism, experiential education, and transformational research. In the case of research, the university will focus on its existing strengths in quantum science, water and aging, all in the context of a broad commitment to research
    of profound impact.

    Implementation, measurement of progress, and accountability are keys to the success of this plan. McBoyle referred to the one page “next steps” document circulated to the board in advance of the meeting, and pointed out that implementation will be accelerated as requested by the Executive Committee. A first report will be provided to the board at the October general meeting.

    Hamdullahpur finished his presentation by expressing his confidence that the plan will serve the university thoroughly as we move through the next five years.”


    [Did the Executive Committee of the Board consider the 2012 Office of Research Strategic Research Plan in the process of identifying the quantum, water and aging areas? See]

  11. PART III (and yes this is it):

    Sept 16 Senate Meeting:

    Hamdullahpur presented a broad report covering a number of items, including steps taken since the last meeting of Senate to have the university strategic plan approved by the Board of Governors. He focused on the board’s advice to sharpen the plan to focus on the university’s strengths, things that differentiate this university from others. There were very few changes in content in response to the
    board’s input; rather, the changes were ones of emphasis and further explanation. Hamdullahpur outlined the top three goals that emerged through the strategic plan. Further, he explained the establishment of the steering committee, theme leaders, and teams that are being developed to see to the implementation of the plan. The implementation plan and accountability framework will be finalized over the fall. Hamdullahpur emphasized that the plan has the potential to move this
    university forward toward being one of the top innovation universities in the world.

    Further in his report, Hamdullahpur spoke to: changes in the federal cabinet and other issues related to research funding at the federal level; provincial roundtables on several issues (differentiation, credit transfers, online learning, and graduate student allocation). The university attended the roundtable on differentiation to press its point on research intensity and research-based graduate study as a differentiator. The university also attended the roundtable on graduate student allocation.


    Oct 21 Senate Meeting:

    “University Strategic Plan 2013” discussion in a Confidential Session (scheduled at the start of the Senate Meeting.


    [Currently, I am uncertain as to the procedure to be followed for strategic plan approval. If Senate was to vote against approving the current version of the plan on Nov 18th, what next? Would that automatically trigger another approval vote of approval at the Board of Governors? The answers may impact how I vote at Senate and thus would be helpful to have in advance of the 18th.]


  12. I can easily make the argument that if UW strategically priorities support of a few target areas in which UW can achieve an international reputation, then this benefits the faculty *as a whole*. For example, a wine-producing region benefits as a whole when a few wines from that region achieve international prominence, whereas a region in which no wines achieve such prominence suffers as a whole from lack of noteworthiness/credibility. Similarly, researchers from universities in which no areas have gained prominence suffer from being associated with being from "no where U". I think it's great for *all research faculty* at our university, eg, when presenting papers at conferences, if their affiliation is recognized as a university that has significant name recognition due to being known for being excellent at least as something, and better still, excellent at many things, rather than mediocre at all things, viz jack of all trades but master of none. The point is, this matter is a matter of opinion and debate and not a matter where the FAUW should be taking sides, eg, based on the personal opinion of it's president and/or a minority of faculty who may have contacted you about this. I would expect that the FAUW take a stand only on matters that are more clear-cut in their impact on faculty, eg, pay increases, rather than those on which the faculty are divided due to a variety of perspectives and opinions.

    1. It's absolutely FAUW's business to defend such things as the role of faculty in determining the research direction of the university. Collegial decision making is what makes universities tick. If you compare the motion passed by Senate and the one initially made to the BOG as quoted in Bryan Tolson's post, you'll see that they don't match---"more focus" was either not something the President and Provost thought could pass through Senate, or it was added in response to pressure from elsewhere, presumably the executive of the BOG. But even that was not enough to satisfy someone on the BOG.

      Bryan's link to the University's Strategic Research Plan also makes clear that the focus areas inserted into the Strategic Plan are not the ones that are arrived at if one actually consults with faculty. So even if we did want to "focus", the way to arrive at what to focus on is not via BOG diktat. So this is a FAUW issue b/c it's a matter of the BOG stepping way out of line.

      BTW ... the Higher Education Strategy Association "One Thought to Start Your Day" posting for today is titled "Kevin Lynch is Horribly Wrong." That's posting is a rebuttal of Mr Lynch's "awful article" in the weekend Globe and Mail. Mr Lynch is a the Chair of the BOG. I'm pretty sure this is not the person I want to have driving decisions about the academic direction of the University of Waterloo. Senate needs to reclaim that role.

    2. Quick, what's the top university for air quality issues?

      There might be one. For people working on air quality at that university, that would be a source of great pride and research resource attraction. But few other people even know about it, never mind care. Obviously there's no way that people working on metal fatigue, kinesiology or clinical psychology at that university are somehow basking in the glory of its air quality research when they go to conferences in their own area. Well, same for water. And aging. And nano.