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In my opinion

What would a sustainable university look like?

How to thrive in a time of limited financial resources.


When I became a faculty member a generation ago, change in the academy was on my mind. The changes that concerned me were the inclusion of new perspectives and methodologies – in my case, social history – as well as more gender balance in the faculty and more engagement with communities. None of those challenges is gone, and at the same time there are new ones. Where issues 30 years ago were about the impact of mass access and associated expectations of diversity and societal outcomes, issues today increasingly also relate to long-term resource constraints. Under financial pressure, will universities change for the better or for the worse?

As provost for six years, I came to appreciate the stresses and strains in universities today. My experience convinced me that most of our institutions are all too good at getting by from day to day – too good, because a culture of making do inclines us to neglect long-term challenges.

Getting by means positions are held vacant, class sizes increase, part-time instructors are hired, and expenses are squeezed across the board. We bring in more international students and create new revenue-generating certificates. In other words, expenses are cut opportunistically and revenues are increased speculatively. None of this feels sustainable. Common practices in universities make sense only if we assume that current troubles are temporary and that future growth will allow us to undo today’s reliance on make-do measures.

But we are now educating a high proportion of each age cohort and much further growth in that respect seems improbable. Governments and students have communicated their reluctance or inability to provide much higher levels of funding. We are likely now seeing peak higher education. The pie is not growing much, and what there is may be reapportioned as new types of institutions develop and new forms of learning and discovery emerge.

Mass access and high costs have created a conundrum for those interested in the success of universities: how do we sustain such complicated, numerous and expensive organizations? I think it’s intriguing to imagine what a truly sustainable university will look like. In my view, it will exhibit a number of features that will enable it to concentrate resources well and access resources held by others.

A sustainable university will be mission-focused – its faculty and leaders will be able to say succinctly what its mission is and what it is not. Most institutions have a somewhat vague sense of mission, one that provides little practical guidance in decision-making. Time and effort will dissipate unless a sense of shared mission encourages people to focus collective energies in some activities and to let other opportunities pass.

Collective energies also have to focus on external impacts, so that students, alumni, host communities, and other key stakeholders readily understand how the institution’s core activities make positive impacts. Otherwise the university will not benefit fully from the support and partnerships it needs from these groups.

A university is composed of people, so to be effective it must engage the talents and co-operation of faculty, staff, and students. This means it will be people-centred, with a complement whose skills are mirrored in the institutional mission, and have robust governance. Governance provides the framework for how individuals work together to be more than the sum of their parts. Indicators of strong governance are that discussions of university directions are open and inclusive, and have clear and lasting conclusions that are put into practice. It is too rare today for these conditions to be achieved. Processes that are inclusive are often not conclusive, and vice-versa.

Sustainable universities will not depend only on their own thinking but also be open to learning from elsewhere how to conduct their affairs better. In a world that contains tens of thousands of institutions of higher education, all changing, it will often be the case that universities can learn from others. Openness is required so that an institution can learn systematically from and contribute to an international community of similar institutions. Rigour is required for a university to hold itself to externally verifiable and comparable standards for the effectiveness of all that it does.

Choices, prudence, and simplicity will mark how a sustainable university directs resources. Making choices means both that a university starts new things and that it can also point to other things that it has stopped doing or scaled back, which is more rarely the case. Prudent financial commitments are ones that are proportionate to foreseeable growth in resources – for example, contracts that reflect projections for government grants or productivity. Wise use of resources also involves efforts to make structures simpler and more cohesive, countering the tendency for an organization to become more complicated and segmented over time.

Mission and external focus, people-centredness, robust governance, openness to the experiences of others, rigour in comparisons, choices, prudence, and simplicity: such characteristics will help a university make the best use of resources entrusted to its care. A university that does this will also have the greatest chance to augment its resources in lasting ways, whether from public or private sources.

I have been writing about financial sustainability, but it is conceptually linked to other kinds of sustainability which also critique growth as a solution to problems. And like other kinds of sustainability, the financial variety will require pervasive changes in culture, norms, and behaviours.

So while I hope that the characteristics I have named seem like common sense, I suspect that they more often exist on paper than in practice, and that the process of achieving a sustainable university will entail significant innovation and change.

I would therefore add one more factor: controversy. Given the nature of the academy, no change will or should be uncontested. We can’t look at universities and conclude that because there is controversy something good is happening. But I think we can usually say that if there is no controversy then no important change is occurring.

The challenges now are organizational in nature, and concern our ability to make choices and pursue intentional change together. It is not enough for a few in each institution to understand the issues. Faculty, staff, students, alumni, and campus leaders of all kinds need to understand university resources in new and more transparent ways. For universities, as important societal institutions, the end goals are the good society, the good life, and the dignity of all people. That’s what’s at stake. It’s why universities need to continue and to thrive in every age, including an age of limited growth.

Dr. Fairbairn is a professor in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, and the former provost and vice-president academic at USask.

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  1. Erin Garvin / December 5, 2014 at 10:23

    And that, children, is how one gets to be a Provost: talk a blue steak of buzz words without saying anything at all.
    That is also how post secondary education in Canada has reached the current crisis: Like Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns, the politicos who run our universities continue to sing these vapid songs intended to make them appear to be the leaders of the fire brigade, when in fact they are the arsonists.
    Sorry for being so harsh, Dr. Fairbairn, but, we really need more substantial leadership from our leaders.

    • Brett Fairbairn / December 6, 2014 at 02:50

      I am sorry you feel that way, and I thank you for expressing your view. I think your comment has one thing backward: I became a provost by being a faculty member and being involved in the affairs of my university. What I wrote about in the essay is things I have learned since then by observation and experience. Perhaps they are not obvious at first, but I have come to believe that things like governance, simplicity, choices, and prudence are both important and difficult for universities to practice. And they are good, solid, English words deeply rooted in the history of the language. I wish they had more buzz.

      • Aisha Marsh / December 23, 2014 at 12:05

        Thank you Dr. Fairbairn for your valid observations and defense of the realities of post-secondary education. I found your article quite representative of what we, as senior administrators and leaders, are contending with in this age of economic strangulation.

        Garvin’s comments seem to be coming from an old choir of dusty academics that fail to understand the complexities of the modern landscape. Liking it as Nero and Rome burning simply highlights the limited and, dare I say, antiquated understanding of modern academia.

        Dr. Fairbairn, you are correct. The challenges are organizational and ALL involved must understand and positively participate in the transparent understanding and new allocation of resources. Those who do not may find a more satisfying career elsewhere.

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