Response to the September 30 UAT Town Hall

Many NASA members participated in yesterday’s U of A for Tomorrow town hall on academic restructuring. Not surprisingly, the top concerns expressed in the Thought Exchange were similar to those NASA has been raising with university leadership for months: concerns and questions about projected job losses, the inaccuracy of the Uniforum data upon which decisions are being made, and frustration with the lack of formal involvement of NASA and AASUA in the restructuring process.

I want to comment on three issues arising from the town hall. 

First, Provost Steven Dew responded to questions about the impact of layoffs by saying, “We have lots of people who have given a lot to this institution. We need to be respectful of those contributions and to the greatest extent possible find ways for existing people to migrate into potential new roles in the organization.” President Bill Flanagan likewise reflected, “I think it's very important that we acknowledge the impact on the university community of these layoffs and in particular the impact on the individuals affected. We can't lose sight of that. These are all people who have dedicated their working lives to the well-being of the university and have made huge contributions.”

We were pleased to hear this from the Provost and President. A key priority for NASA is to see those sentiments transition into concrete action if restructuring plans are approved and move forward. 

Our University of Sydney colleagues shared in our recent webinar that similar restructuring in Australia resulted in a “spill and fill” in which positions were moved from faculties to a central unit but the people did not follow the work. Instead, workers were laid off and forced to reapply for the equivalent of their previous positions, often at significantly reduced salaries. We do not want to see that type of model being followed here. 

University leadership needs to commit to continuation of employment wherever possible at equivalent pay grades and a process to ensure that any laid off staff are given priority, necessary retraining, and the first opportunity to apply for new positions resulting from the restructuring. 

Second, President Bill Flanagan reflected that, “I definitely recognize the importance that the union representatives have in representing the membership. In particular NASA which is being heavily affected by SET and of course the ongoing job reductions that the university is facing right now. … the important role of the unions and their representatives throughout this process is something that I am personally very committed to.”

We are hopeful that this indicates a willingness to change approach from providing presentations on decisions that have already been made and instead increase meaningful engagement. NASA made at least 11 verbal requests for participation in the U of A for Tomorrow decision-making bodies. These requests were followed up with a formal letter on July 28, 2020 co-signed by myself and AASUA President Ricardo Acuña requesting a seat on both the Service Excellence Steering Committee (SESC) and the Academic Restructuring Working Group (ARWG), as well as a role in the Staff Advisory Team. We received a response three weeks later rejecting all these requests. While much work has already been done, we know there are many more elements of implementation where our perspective could add value and it is not too late to add our voices to the conversation at those tables. 

Finally, I know many of you share the sense of frustration at the lack of detail about the number of layoffs projected under each of the three restructuring scenarios in the ARWG interim report. Given that the interim report prices out anticipated reductions in spending, NASA believes that the university should now be able to provide estimates of any additional job losses. In an interview with the Edmonton Journal the same day, President Flanagan confirmed, “We have to be clear that additional job losses are on the table.” There are already at least 800 fewer active NASA positions compared to March 31, 2019. Tragically, rather than hearing that the worst is over, and that restructuring will be used to restructure work to make it sustainable for remaining staff, the message instead is that restructuring is likely to result in even more job losses. 

We call on the university to engage in true meaningful consultations with us as stakeholders. We will continue to use all available avenues to bring forward NASA member’s concerns, priorities, and contributions. 

In solidarity,

Elizabeth Johannson