The universities must spend our money wisely

Concordia - université sous enquête

The timing was awkward for Concordia University.
Against a background of student protest over increased tuition fees, the Quebec government last week hit the university with a $2-million fine for paying a total of $3.1 million in severance packages to six employees. Education Minister Line Beauchamp said Concordia needed to be reminded that the money it was handing out so generously is public money.
The taxpayer and the protesting students – who frequently complain about well-paid (too-well-paid, they would argue) university administrators – are soothed. (Though one can’t help but cast a cynical eye on Beauchamp’s timing. It seems obvious that the government was happy for the chance to deflect the attention of angry students away from its planned tuition-fee hikes.)
Universities may be big organizations, with large staffs and a fee-paying clientele, but they are not corporations. Unlike private business, they depend on public funds. They deliver a public good: higher education. As a result, the public has every right to question hefty severance packages for departing administrators – not to mention why there would be a string of highly paid administrators leaving before their term was up, as happened at Concordia.
Taxpayers surely also have doubts about top universities spending large chunks of public money to promote themselves. Thanks to La Presse, it was revealed this week that:
The Université de Montréal has been paying between $8,500 and $12,500 per hockey period to have its name on the boards at the Bell Centre.
U de M has also paid $110,000 to run ads extolling its research work on the popular television talk show Tout le monde en parle.
The same university pays $16,000 to rent a large billboard at the south on-ramp to the Jacques Cartier Bridge during the month when students register.
McGill University and Université Laval in Quebec City are also turning to advertising to promote themselves.
La Presse reports that Quebec universities have spent $80 million in five years on advertising.
If universities want to make themselves known, they should show up where potential students are, in high schools and colleges. Surely a split-second view of a name on the boards of a hockey arena is not what’s going to persuade a top student to choose that university.
But it was Concordia’s severance packages, not billboard and hockey-game advertising, that brought the government’s ire down on its head. The university’s former president, Judith Woodsworth, was given $747,045 in severance pay and a leaving bonus of $169,573. She had served as president for only 2½ years, after taking over from Claude Lajeunesse – who also left early, two years into a five-year term, with $1 million in severance pay.
Concordia, which is still looking for Woodsworth’s permanent replacement, says an independent audit firm will carry out a review of how the university pays its senior management.
Universities are struggling like other institutions with new economic realities. They are undoubtedly trying to attract top administrators, teachers and students as best they can. Unfortunately, this has led to an unacceptable waste of public funds. If there are rules governing this kind of discretionary spending that need to be changed or clarified, the government should figure out which ones and change them.

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