Concordia University’s “crisis of governance” is in the news again now that Education Minister Line Beauchamp has imposed a $2 million fine on the institution as punishment for its mismanagement of public funds. According to Minister Beauchamp, bad administrative decisions by Concordia’s Board of Governors and senior administrators wasted a total of $3.1 million over 16 months. That figure was calculated by totalling the generous compensation packages provided to senior administrators who resigned or were forced to leave the institution. In fact, that figure would be a lot higher had it included the compensation paid to administrators who had left quietly or who remained on the payroll without actually working for the University, not to mention the overly-generous compensation packages of senior administrators who remain employed (including a condominium purchased for Concordia President Frederick Lowy for $1.4 million).
But will the $2 million fine really punish those at the top who make bad decisions? Will it encourage better management practices?
The sanction imposed by the Québec government against the current Concordia regime is likely to be about as effective as the sanctions imposed by the US government of the 1990s against the regime of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
You heard right, I’m comparing Concordia University under Frederick Lowy to Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Sure, there are no torture chambers at Concordia (that we know of), but the levels of democracy and transparency are roughly similar in the two cases. Those at the top of the University hierarchy pay lip service to ideals like critical thinking and academic excellence, all the while filling their pockets with generous executive compensation packages and transforming a public institution built with public money into a factory that churns out docile and indebted “human capital” (graduates) and valuable “intellectual property” (research) for Concordia’s private sector partners.
The US-imposed sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s did not destabilize the Hussein regime or encourage democratic reform. They merely made it impossible to get life-saving medication for poor Iraqi children and made life all the more miserable for those suffering under Hussein’s iron heel. Likewise, the $2 million reduction in Concordia’s operating budget will not result in cuts to senior administrative salaries. Given the fundamentally undemocratic nature of Concordia governance, the cost of the fine imposed will be born by those who can least afford it – students, staff and faculty.
Concordia President Frederick Lowy has announced that Concordia “understands and shares [the Minister’s] concerns” and will be dealing with those concerns by hiring an outside firm to audit the institution’s management practices.
Concordia administrators and board members love to hire outside consultants to issue reports. Those reports (not accessible under Québec access to information legislation) have been used to justify the huge pay increases Concordia’s Board of Governors regularly bestow on senior management. Hiring such firms is a practice the corporate-dominated Board of Governors is familiar with. Private corporations regularly hire firms to tell them to increase executive compensation. This is how the lion’s share of income gains over the past thirty years has gone to executive pay (the famous 1%) while wages for the rest of us (the 99%) have largely remained stagnant.
So, if the $2 million fine is unlikely to bring about any changes in Concordia’s management practices, why is Minister Beauchamp taking this action?
The timing of the action says it all. This fine could have been imposed a year ago. But Minister Beauchamp only decided to take action once she was in the midst of a fight with University and Cegep students over the drastic increases to tuition that the government is planning to implement over the next few years.
Proponents of accessible public education have argued that the problems faced by post-secondary education will not be solved by increasing the financial burden of indebted students through higher tuition. They point their fingers instead at huge compensation packages for senior administrators, expensive real estate development as well as costly inter-university competition and redundancies. Concordia is the most glaring example of such wasteful practices.
By imposing a $2 million fine on Concordia, Minister Beauchamp seeks to show that she is taking action on such waste (even if that action is completely ineffective). Obviously, she hopes to take the wind out of the sails of the student strike movement by giving the impression that waste is not tolerated in the education system. She is also trying to counter the growing impression that the Minister is hiding in a bunker doing nothing while police beat-up on students.
Nevertheless, the Minister’s tactic may very well backfire. The symbolic fine may simply serve to focus public attention on the widespread problem of waste in a top-heavy education system. Teachers from the Fédération nationale des enseignantes et enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ) cited the now top-of-mind Concordia example when they came out in support of striking students.
And if the education system is top-heavy, isn’t that simply a reflection of a larger social problem? If our public services are starved of revenue, isn’t that because of the huge tax breaks bestowed on the grotesquely bloated income of the super-wealthy and corporations? Doesn’t it make more sense to finance public education and health services by taxing those who can afford to pay for them rather than by privatizing public services through user fees (tuition increases for students or a regressive $200 healthcare “contribution” for all Québec residents)?
What we need is a new democratic, transparent and egalitarian model not only for Concordia, but for all educational institutions and for Québec as a whole. First the occupy movement, and now striking students are leading the way towards such a model.
David Bernans is a former part-time faculty member of Concordia University, a former researcher/archivist for the Concordia Student Union and a former President of the Concordia Graduate Students’ Association. He was also, much to the chagrin of Concordia administrators, a token student member of the Concordia Board of Governors (2005-2006). He is now an author and translator based in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Québec. Follow him @dbernans on twitter.