Joining forces in Halifax

VICTOR DWYER April 8 1996

Joining forces in Halifax

VICTOR DWYER April 8 1996

Joining forces in Halifax



In a community famous for its turf wars, it took an ultimatum from above to create some common ground. In August, 1994, Nova Scotia Education Minister John MacEachern called a meeting of the presidents of the province’s 13 universities. His message was a simple one. ‘You have talked about autonomy— in fact, that’s all you ever talk about,” said MacEachern. “So all who want to be autonomous, get up and leave the room. The rest of us will stay and talk about money.” As it turned out, everyone remained seated. Recalls Kenneth Ozmon, president of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax: ‘We all started thinking, ‘Are we going to let the government dictate our future, or are we going to do it for ourselves?’ ” In fact, within months the seven universities located in metropolitan Halifax had taken a momentous leap forward, meeting as a group to find new means to co-operate. This week, the minister is expected to give the green light to their landmark proposal for a Metro Halifax Universities Consortium. Among its roles: co-ordinating course offerings and faculty appointments; creating a central registrar to oversee admissions, student records and timetables; and, eventually, even publishing a common calendar. Says Frederick Lowy, rector of Concordia University in Montreal: “All eyes are on

Halifax right now. What they are proposing may well provide a model for universities across the country.”

If implemented, the plan is expected to save $17 million in its first three years— 4.5 per cent of the metro universities’ combined budgets. That figure is roughly equal to the seed money necessary to launch the new venture: funds for a new computer system, employee training, plus staff buyouts and early retirements. In addition, the proposal calls for hiring a full-time co-ordinator and a general manager and appointing three to five outsiders to join the Halifax presidents on a new governing board. Their job: “to prod, steer and push the presidents to agreement” whenever needed. MacEachern, who is expected to approve the proposal, told Maclean’s that he will likely also announce that one of the seven institutions, the Technical University of Nova Scotia, will actually become a part of nearby Dalhousie.

The creation of a Halifax consortium is being seen as a historic experiment in academic co-operation—a feat that universities across Canada, especially those sharing a common urban market, are regarding as a blueprint for survival. In the past decade, every province has

Seven city universities find ways to co-operate for their own survival

chopped spending on higher education,^ and universities everywhere are bracings for the effects of massive cuts, announced § in last month’s federal budget, to postsecondary education, health and social services. In a climate of fiscal chill, there are fears that even some major institutions may disappear. Citing a loss of $306 million from Ottawa over the next two years, Saskatchewan postsecondary minister Bob Mitchell recently said that he has not “ruled out” a possible amalgamation of the Saskatoon-based University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina.

Under the gun, many universities are reaching outward. Among the most highprofile ventures to date has been a co-operative undertaking between McMaster University in Hamilton, the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo. Dubbed “McWaTor,” the tripartite graduate engineering program employs team teaching, using video and computer linkups. Says University of Toronto president Robert Prichard: “Combined, the three universities have roughly 500 professors in engineering, which is about the number you need to match the strengths of an MIT.” Meanwhile, the University of Toronto

and Ryerson Polytechnic University have been quietly exploring ways for each to carve out its own distinct niche in nursing, dietetics and geomatics (a division of engineering), as well as discussing the possibility of sharing faculty in those fields. Those moves echo similar ones at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo, which already share a small number of professors in the fields of women’s studies and modern languages. Last fall, Vancouver’s University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University began offering a joint doctoral program in philosophy.

In Montreal, home to four universities, Concordia’s Lowy says he has been meeting recently with McGill University president Bernard Shapiro to discuss “a division of labor” in several areas. Feeling the pinch from governments, both leaders are also experiencing new pressures from within their own ranks. Ten members of Concordia’s geology department, which is slated to be absorbed by the geography department in May, have petitioned the dean of arts and science to create a joint school of geology with McGill instead. While he declined to divulge details of his discussions with Shapiro, Lowy said that “the Halifax schools are showing us all that there is no constructive place for contempt.”

Certainly, Nova Scotia’s universities, and particularly the tightly clustered Halifax institutions, have had little choice but to lead the way. Across the province, enrolment climbed by 35 per cent during the 1980s, while provincial spending on higher education grew by only 13 per cent. By the early 1990s, Nova Scotia had the lowest level of funding per student of any province—$6,000, roughly $1,000 less than the national average.

Meanwhile, its unique and highly specialized patchwork of institutions has long made large-scale rationalization a prickly proposition. Along with Dalhousie, Saint Mary’s and the Technical University, Halifax is home to Mount Saint Vincent University, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), the Atlantic School of Theology and the artsoriented University of King’s College (affiliated with Dalhousie). Although they conduct some bulk purchasing and share library services through a computerized system called NOVANET, they have been famous for their determination to co-operate on little else. Says Janet Halliwell, chairwoman of the Nova Scotia Council on Higher Education, a government advisory body: “It is a strong and vibrant community that has spent a lot of its time fragmented and fighting.”

But when the tough-talking MacEachern announced a three-year budget cut totalling 10 per cent in 1994, talk of team-

work became a matter of survival. That same year, Halliwell’s council recommended the elimination of three of the province’s eight teacher education programs—a move the government has since implemented. Says Dalhousie president Thomas Través, whom many credit with reversing that university’s historically isolationist stance: “A number of straws finally hit the camel’s back.” Necessity may be the mother of a great invention. Deans and chairs in Halifax

will gather annually to co-ordinate program offerings with minimum duplication and maximum selection. Equivalent courses will be given the same call numbers, and have similar requirements. The new venture may provide a model that assuages students’ fears that cutbacks will inevitably lead to diminished course selection. “Many universities allow students to take courses elsewhere, often with a lot of red tape along the way,” says Través. “We will be actively encouraging people to seek opportunities across the system.”

That thrust will be especially evident in the field of business administration. Together, Dalhousie, Saint Mary’s and Mount Saint Vincent have the fourthlargest concentration of business faculty and students in Canada. Making reference to the deep chill that has long existed among the three programs, the consortium proposal calls for the creation of a Metro Halifax business school program. While the current schools would retain formal autonomy, the new program would co-ordinate their offerings, and encourage each to develop complementary areas of specialization.

MacEachern, for one, finds that notion encouraging. “Frankly, I think the way that we cut teacher education was heavyhanded,” says the minister. “The emphasis here is on building strength, rather than tearing things down.”

Even more radical is the proposed merger of Dalhousie, which has neither engineering nor architecture faculties, and the Technical University, which has little else. To date, the two schools have effectively functioned as complementary units, but their separate administrative structures have made full-scale cooperation impossible. That has been especially evident in computer science: each has a small department in the field, and MacEachern has made it clear he feels the province would be better served by what he calls “a larger first-class faculty.”

In local terms, the Technical University has been at the centre of a tense poker game. In their proposal, the presidents studiously avoided the issue of the university’s fate, aware that Halliwell was an advocate of its consolidation with Dalhousie. But according to MacEachern, the provincial cabinet debated the issue in M mid-January, and soon after I the minister told Través I and Technical University x president Edward Rhodes § that the writing was on the § wall. “We came to a point where we realized there were too many forces pulling us together,” says Rhodes. “One was that we were being nickeled-and-dimed to death every year. The other, of course, was the cabinet.” The agreement, awaiting MacEachern’s final approval, would transform the Technical University, one-tenth the size of Dalhousie, into a satellite campus of the larger university.

MacEachern is clearly impressed by the presidents’ proposals. “I think the universities will discover,” he says, “that once they begin working this way, more and more opportunities will open up.” In addition, the minister says that his upcoming announcements will include “a sketch” of how the changes in Halifax can be applied to universities across the province. Those leading the way, while proud of their progress, are feeling some trepidation. Says Ozmon: “It’s like entering a marriage—only with six partners. And like any marriage, it all involves a lot of trust. Sometimes you just cross your fingers that it’s going to work out.” In a world of diminishing resources, a lot rests on the spirit of partnership.