On Campus

For UNBC president, surprise budget cut was final blow

British Columbians are lucky to only lose one uni president

Dr. Don Cozzetto, president of the University of Northern British Columbia, resigned earlier this week not even half way through his five-year term. He sold his house and skipped Prince George before we at Maclean’s – or anyone else, for that matter – could ask him about the surprise departure.

But according to a Vancouver Sun interview with UNBC board of directors chair Don Rix, Cozzetto’s main reason for quitting was that he got tired of being a scapegoat for government cuts to expected funding. “It’s pretty hard if you’re the front man to go around and say, ‘I’m sorry you are going to need to lay off two people, or we won’t be able to fix your lab this year even though it’s been on the list for five years,’” Rix told the Sun.

Considering that Cozzetto had been battling a budget deficit since he took the helm in 2006, you can’t blame the man for being disheartened when the B.C. Liberal government handed him another financial burden: surprise funding cuts, mere weeks before the April 1 start of the fiscal year.

On March 12, B.C. universities and colleges were given a nasty surprise when Advanced Education Minister Murray Coell announced they would receive millions less than expected. The 2.6 per cent cut across the board is estimated to represent as much as $60 million in total. Institutions have been scrambling since to figure out exactly how the cuts will affect their specific funding and how to absorb the shortfall into their budget — budgets that in many cases have been planned for months and recently finalized.

British Columbians may be lucky that they only lost one university president over the debacle. University of British Columbia president Dr. Stephen Toope expressed resigned frustration in a statement shortly after the cuts were announced. “The government’s budget decision is especially challenging as it comes on the heels of tremendous effort made on the Vancouver Campus to deal with a large structural deficit,” he said.

Now this week, almost three months after the government’s announcement, the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education finally issued their “Letters of Expectations” addressed to the individual institutions. The letters outline, in no uncertain terms, what the province expects the schools to deliver.

Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer noted that the letters lead off with a friendly tone, but “even a cursory read discloses that there is nothing cooperative about the Liberal approach,” Vaughn wrote in Wednesday’s paper. “These are marching orders, and belated ones at that.”

Belated is right. On the first page of each agreement is the term: from April 1, 2008 to March 31, 2009. And yet, Coell’s signature is dated May 30 and the letters were only posted online this week. So, basically, the government is instructing the universities how to implement the surprise cuts two months into the fiscal year. And they are serious about the expectations: “Persistent and substantial failure to achieve targets and complete deliverables may result in more formal action being taken,” the documents read.

The government’s late issued directives imply that reorganizing a university budget should be as easy as rejigging a campus frat party. “Hey guys!” an undergrad might say two hours into the party. “We don’t have as much beer in the keg as we thought, so slow it down!”

It should be that easy—right? It’s not as if student applications have already been accepted, student loans applied for, professors and staff hired, and programs planned. There’s more than two months to go before those new undergrads file into the classroom—lots of time to reduce their seats.

In reality, cutting the money – as much as $17.4 million at UBC alone – from already-set budgets has been tough. For instance, in an April 3 release Vancouver Community College proposed to reduce almost 400 student seats, layoff 16 employees, and suspend a number of programs. Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators, estimated that 80 faculty and 1,000 student positions were cut in the end. But even with those cuts, VCC is facing a deficit, something this week’s letter of expectations bans without the ministry’s approval.

In addition to barring institutions from running deficits, the letters lay out which programs they cannot touch, even though the colleges and universities have been working for three months to sort out their budgets. Schools are prohibited from reducing programs for people with disabilities and “vulnerable people in our communities,” and a variety of subjects, from health to skilled trades, are protected.

All this, two months into the fiscal year.

Let’s take a moment to recognize one of the smarter changes the Campbell Liberal government has done in post-secondary education during their two terms of rule: three-year budgeting. When they began projecting funding for universities and colleges three years in advance, they stated that the predictability would allow institutions to plan long-term. Sigh.

Let’s hope other university presidents don’t take Cozzetto’s cue and leave for greener – or at least, more predictable – pastures.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.