Monday, November 11, 2013

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.


  1. "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."

    Alors, c'etait un fait accompli accidentelle! The contentious aspects of the paragraph in question escaped the timely attention of all Governors (

    "As a senator, I can be rightly upset about how the plan traversed its Senate approvals".

    But why? If it is not upsetting because it exemplified a "top-down direction of research", then is it upsetting because it failed to ensure our "full participation as faculty members in collegial governance", or for some other reason? Please elaborate.

    As for "the context of what actually happened" (copied from the June BoG minutes:

    "He was asked about the forces working against the university, based mostly
    in government policy and action, and also in the work of the university’s competitors. The answer to these challenges lies in a robust risk identification
    and management framework, and in using that framework to protect the
    institution’s autonomy in the best way possible. The president was advised to consider streamlining the plan so as to sharpen focus and ensure greater
    linkages to project development going forward. How do we know we have the capacity inside the university to reallocate resources to those areas where we must work to distinguish ourselves?..."

    The advice seems directly related to the following from Ontario's proposed differentiation policy framework (

    "A differentiated post secondary education system will focus investments to improve research capacity and performance in areas of institutional strength. The government recognizes the key role of research and graduate education in both
    niche areas and on a broader scale and will work to strengthen institution's competitive advantage in research excellence, further helping to raise Ontario’s
    profile and sharpening its leading edge nationally and internationally."

    It would then appear that failure of the Strategic Plan to "sharpen focus and ensure greater linkages to project development going forward" might threaten "capacity inside the university to reallocate resources to those areas where we must work to distinguish ourselves".

    The areas we must work to distinguish ourselves are, obviously, three....

  2. On the 'noticing' of the paragraph, perhaps I should be clearer - it was noticed, for example, by me and I have raised with the Board, and with the administration in other meetings, a concern that we don't lose our base of opportunities for purely curiosity-driven research since serendipity is the most powerful known factor in the creation of new knowledge. (Unfortunately, there's a powerful statement in the press right now that creation of new knowledge is not our role as a university - an idea I can't fathom.)

    On the Senate approvals, I can be upset by the timing and quality of presentation of the plan which made it appear that Senate endorsement might not be that important. I then have to balance that against the fact that, from day one, Feridun approached the plan on the basis of full consultation with every stakeholder and that most of the aspirations or beliefs which I know about seem to have made it in.

    On the differentiation issue I would need a few thousand more words. Having talked now directly with some of the people pushing this, I'd say we have to look beyond the crude machinations of government to the actual problems they are dealing with and come up with our own solutions before they do. In terms of stormy politics, we are in the calm part right now. The "problems," which are really more like evolutionary forces, seem real and permanent, to me revolving around the exponential growth of knowledge and the way digital communications has changed our relationship with information. Budget issues and teaching issues are then consequences not causes but will be used as the weapons to force change. The pay levels and relevance of faculty are directly in the line of fire for some people - wrongly I hope.

    For me, the three areas - experiential learning, entrepreneurship (writ broad), and transformational research - push in the right directions to address the evolutionary forces.

  3. For me also. But what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?

    Experiential learning, entrepreneurship and transformational research were already featured in the Strategic Plan approved by Senate in May. The only objection one may raise about these three (read: experiential learning, entrepreneurship and transformational research) is that they are now used to divert the discussion from the three (read: quantum, water, aging) that parachuted into the Strategic Plan after the June BoG meeting. It is the manner in which these three (read: quantum, water, aging) where decided (i.e. by Board of Governors dictum) that some find objectionable.

    Suppose that quantum, water and aging are indeed, as you say, "things to which the public can easily relate", which helps if "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." (The identity of these attackers should be the subject of a separate thread - naming them will certainly help us defend ourselves).

    Would you like to argue in favor of the proposition that the manner in which these research areas were chosen was appropriate?

    Can you think of a fourth broad area of research that "the public can easily relate" to and would make for "a simple and immediately absorbable" story? This fourth research area would certainly be one that became strong "from the ground up - because of Waterloo faculty interests and abilities and pursuits", one with "significant prior faculty buy-in and engagement and expertise..."

  4. Part 1 of an attempt to get the website to accept this comment...

    The most important and enduring issue for me in this whole affair is connected with the following part of George's statement.

    "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."

    Our Board's action looks to me to be too close to "management" as opposed to oversight, and thus the Board may have overstepped. For comparison, consider some of the RIM board's relatively recent actions. First it hired Thorsten Heins. This action likely had strategic intent, favouring an orientation toward consumer products versus corporate services, given Heins's history with the corporation. This particular strategy appears to have gone bust, and Heins was removed by the board. Throughout, however, the RIM board was acting at the high oversight level where it belonged, acting fully legitimately and appropriately given the usual role of a board (at least according to what I read in the newspapers). I have not read news reports about the RIM board venturing into management territory as by making declarations about the 3 markets that should be pursued, the 3 models of Blackberry that should be differentiated, and so forth.

    Would it be _legitimate_ for our Senate to object if the Board has overstepped? "Yes" as I read the University of Waterloo Act (item 22)
    although I recognize that other readings are possible. The Act includes:
    "The Senate has the power . . . to make recommendations to the Board of Governors with respect to any matter relative to the operation of the University. . . ." Points 22.10 and 22.11 also may apply.

    In the present controversy concerning wording of the Strategic Plan, the Senate could serve to give voice to the _Faculty_ as it speaks to the Board. If we restrict the Senate's actions narrowly to conventionally "academic" issues, then what body (or should I say "organ"?) of the university remains to maintain Faculty voice toward the Board? In many matters, the _Faculty Association_ gives voice in relation to the _Administration_, and from what I hear, the dynamic there is quite productive overall. Should the Faculty be voiceless in relation to the Board?

  5. Part 2 of 2:

    Would it be _wise_ for our Senate to object, if the Board has overstepped? I understand George to be saying "no" because (a) there would be cost in terms of putting the wrong story onto the press wires and (b) there would be little if any gain.

    (a) Cost. The impacts of such stories are debatable. Another potential cost, raised to me in personal communication by a Senator, is that Board-Senate or Board-Faculty relations could suffer. Again, such impacts are debatable and depend on many other contextual factors. Moreover, some costs are worth paying in order to obtain offsetting gains, or even on principle. Sometimes you have to risk the cost to get the gain.

    (b) Gain. Although I agree with George that "The Senate needs to worry mostly about" the things that he listed in the passage that I quoted, at times it may be warranted for the Senate to worry about whether the Board has overstepped. If it has overstepped or otherwise acted inappropriately, inaction by the Senate could be very _un_wise. Some if not many professors perceive that Faculty authority dwindles bit by bit as Administrative (and now Board?) control expands. Accession to out-of-bounds action could accelerate such authority creep, and a complicit Faculty would have only itself to blame.

    In phrasing things as I have, I might seem to imply that I hold either a particular position on this matter or an apocalyptic vision about this matter. I hold neither, partly because I don't have enough information. At this point I'm just adamant that the Senate _should_ be addressing the matter, and I am pleased to see that it is doing so.

  6. I think George is right about trying to avoid confrontation with the Board (his final sentence). I am not so confident that everyone on campus will get engaged to remind one another the true meaning of the main sentence in question in the Strategic Plan:
    “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.”

    What is the true meaning? Seems to be embedded in the Oct 21, 2013 Senate meeting minutes which says for example:
    “Dixon confirmed that there is no intention to favor three areas of research excellence at the expense of other areas.”
    “Hamdullahpur confirmed once more that there was no influence by members of the board in the selection of areas of research to highlight.”

    As a Faculty-at-Large Representative on Senate, I feel like I need to consider the researchers who are not in the named three areas. Why should we care about the naming? Just look at the UW Internal CFI competition guidelines where UW has 53 million dollar funding envelope (see documents at and it says:
    “proposals must:
    … Align with documented strategic priority areas, and our past, current and future stated commitments; …”

    Who is going to make sure the UW CFI selection committee sees the Oct 21, 2013 Senate meeting minutes? How about the national CFI selection panel if a UW CFI goes through from here that is not in quantum, water or aging? And what about reminding selection panels about the Oct 21, 2013 Senate meeting minutes during the next CFI or large grant competition 3 years from now that depend on UW strategic priorities?

    I don’t want to vote for confrontation but … I’m unsure. Full disclosure: I happen to be in the water area. I’d like to hear from some new voices, researchers not in the big three who would consider applying to a CFI someday. Do you believe that the current language in the Strategic Plan would significantly disadvantage your CFI application relative to any in the big three? What outcome at Senate would you like to see?

  7. The Senate has a role to fulfill and this role is stated in the University of Waterloo Act ( The makers of the Act have distributed powers to both Senate and Board of Governors, such that, to use George's words, "our full participation as faculty members in collegial governance" is not only expected, but also legislated.

    The decision to not accept the Strategic Plan until its "focus" is "sharpened" may very well rest with the Board of Governors, but the “sharpening” and “focusing” of the plan is the business (and competency) of the Senate and its committees. Had this not been the case, we would not be having these conversations.

    Why should we care about the naming? If we don't, we forfeit our "full participation as faculty members in collegial governance". The makers of the Act intended for the Senate to exercise its powers and the Senate has a moral obligation to the legislator (read: the public) to do so. Otherwise "full participation as faculty members in collegial governance" is an empty statement.

    David De Vidi wrote in the Spring of 2008, as UW was about to launch its UAE campus (

    “The fundamental principle I’m urging is that the academic best interests of the university need to be determined by academics on academic grounds.”

    One who does not learn from one’s own mistakes is destined to repeat them and, odd as it may sound, confrontation (disagreement) can be a path to real consensus. In the meantime, evolution remains a trial-and-error process: a Senate that no longer exercises its powers might eventually evolve from vital organ to the wisdom teeth of the University body…