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U of T begins Faculty of Forestry disestablishment process

Governance committee approves transferring faculty to Daniels despite student opposition, final vote on June 25

U of T begins Faculty of Forestry disestablishment process

U of T’s Planning and Budget Committee (PBC) has unanimously recommended the disestablishment of the Faculty of Forestry and its restructuring as a graduate unit under the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. The proposal must still be voted on by the Academic Board and the Executive Committee before being approved by Governing Council on June 25. If approved, the Faculty of Forestry would be disestablished, effective July 1.

Under this plan, the existing Forestry programs would continue to operate, but administrative and financial duties, including Forestry’s budget, would be moved under the jurisdiction of the Daniels Faculty. Financial aid would continue at current levels following the potential restructuring, as would Forestry endowments.

The restructuring proposal is motivated in part by the Faculty of Forestry’s projected long term financial unsustainability, and by the synergies between Daniels and Forestry programs.

Forestry Graduate Student Association (FGSA) Chair Nicole Tratnik urged the committee to reconsider the proposal because it does not meet students’ needs, but the proposal nonetheless received unanimous recommendation.

U of T Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr said that restructuring Forestry would be “a unique moment when the discipline can be redefined within the context of the university and wider society, and where the new synergies and opportunities can be realized.” The proposal discusses this potential in research areas such as “bio products, landscape conservation, or mass timber use in building design and construction.”

Tratnik, however, believes the proposal is inadequate in its current form. “Forestry and architecture could be something novel and rewarding, but if done badly, could result in the loss of Canada’s oldest institution of Forestry, a pillar of higher education and research excellence at a time when Canada’s forests face unprecedented change,” she said.

Proposed Daniels budget

The proposal notes that despite managing a balanced budget, the Faculty of Forestry will not be financially sustainable in the long term. In addition to moving Forestry’s budget to Daniels, U of T would also provide an additional $1 million to its base budget “to support future collaborations amongst faculty members and the Faculty’s overall sustainability.”

Tratnik criticized the vagueness of the commitment and said that there is no guarantee this would be used to support Forestry directly. She also questioned U of T’s proposal to allocate this $1 million to Daniels, rather than allocating that money to directly support the Faculty of Forestry.

Under the proposal, the Dean of Forestry position would cease to exist, and Daniels Dean Richard Sommer would have administrative and budgetary responsibility for Forestry, “including responsibility for faculty budgetary appointments transferred from Forestry” and appointing a Forestry Program Director.

Criticism of consultation process

Following consultations beginning in March 2017, the proposal was formalized and released for consultation among faculty and staff in December. It was open for the minimum requirement of 120 days before it could go through governance.

While the report notes that “Forestry faculty members unanimously supported moving forward with a restructuring process,” Tratnik told the committee that this was misleading. She alleged that “three of the seven faculty members that did not agree were moved to other departments, and [that] the proposal wasn’t voted on by the Forestry Faculty Council.”

In response to a question about this issue from a PBC member, Regehr said that U of T’s faculty restructuring policy does not require it to obtain approval from affected faculty councils.

Tratnik said that U of T failed to incorporate the FGSA’s suggestion of making Forestry a high-level Extra-Departmental Unit under Daniels, which would grant it more administrative power to “keep Forestry’s interests intact.”

She added that U of T failed to explicitly communicate its intentions of establishing an urban forestry undergraduate program, and to clarify the status of cross-divisional teaching of current Forestry programs.

The PBC lost its quorum toward the end of the meeting, meaning that it could not approve its April 3 meeting report. Approval of the report has been moved to the first meeting of next academic year in September. Quorum is nine voting members — or one-third of its total voting members.

On May 30, the Academic Board voted to recommend the proposal, with 43 votes in favour, three votes against, and two abstentions.

Editor’s Note (June 7, 11:00 am): This article has been updated to include details from the Academic Board vote.

What is the University Pension Plan?

Joint pension plan could ease U of T’s financial burden, allow for greater financial manoeuvrability

What is the  University Pension Plan?

In August 2017, U of T announced the establishment of a joint pension plan — aptly named the University Pension Plan (UPP) — with Queen’s University, the University of Guelph, and the United Steelworkers Union. Over a year and a half later, few details about the plan have been made widely available. Let’s take a deeper look inside the UPP and what it means for faculty and staff. 

What is the UPP? 

The proposed UPP follows a standard multi-employer, jointly sponsored pension plan (JSPP). Simply put, it collects all pension funds from faculty and staff of each university into a single pool, allowing employers equal governance and responsibility over the shared funds. Its goal is to reduce the risk of investing for a single employer while improving transparency and returns. 

At the second U of T Planning and Budget Committee meeting on January 10, U of T Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr said that all 22 Ontario universities and their major labour groups had initially been involved in the discussion of a JSPP; now, only three universities remain.

On U of T’s end, the development of the UPP has been a joint effort since 2014, involving the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) and the unions representing would-be members of the UPP. 

While the UPP is a joint plan, it does not mean that members have joint liabilities. In an email to The Varsity, UTFA president Cynthia Messenger wrote, “The agreements that establish the plan call for each university to be fully responsible for the unfunded liabilities.” 

Messenger added that “the UPP is not funded on the basis of cost sharing among universities.” This means that U of T, with the largest pension fund in the group, would not have to shoulder any financial burdens of the other members.

The UPP would allow for employees and employers to have equal governance over pensions. “Joint sponsorship and joint governance mean that no decision can be made about… the pension plan without the agreement of representatives of plan members,” Messenger wrote.

Why the UPP? 

“It is clear that the traditional single-employer defined benefit pension plan is extremely vulnerable, both economically and politically,” Messenger said. 

Concerns about increasing life expectancy — meaning more frequent payouts — and a trend of low interest rates are among the reasons behind the development of this plan. “The proposal for a jointly sponsored pension plan… gives UTFA members the opportunity to insulate themselves against negative change,” Messenger wrote. 

The current provincial government has also been pushing for universities to transition to JSPPs. It claims that a JSPP would force universities to focus on education, rather than pensions. On this issue, Messenger wrote, “There is a risk that the provincial government might impose negative change on the sector’s existing single-university pension plans.” 

Under U of T’s current pension plan, the university contributes a significant amount to the Pension Benefits Guarantee Fund (PBGF). These contributions protect employees’ pensions if their employer went out of business. 

However, universities in the UPP would no longer make these contributions. “In order to get relief from those special payments [like the PBGF], the government was encouraging organizations like universities to move towards jointly sponsored pension plans,” Regehr said at the Planning and Budget meeting. 

If one of the members became solvent — that is, had assets exceeding debt obligations — the JSPP would continue paying out pensions to their members, with no additional payments from the member required. 

By easing the financial burden of its pension plan, U of T would be able to reallocate a portion of its funds into other initiatives, including educational strategies.

What’s the next step?

Recently, there have been two sets of negotiations regarding the UPP. The first involves the university administrations and their employees. Messenger said that these negotiations “reached a milestone in October when the design of the UPP was finalized.”

The second set of negotiations is between the individual bargaining units and employers at each of the three universities. According to Messenger, these “went into high gear in December” and have since been completed.

Now, ratification votes for United Steelworkers Union bargaining units and faculty associations will run through to February. Unrepresented employees and retirees will have their chance to vote on the UPP from April to the end of June. If the vote passes, the next step will land at the Financial Services Commission, which will consider the various possible methods of implementation and application that will result from the consent period. 

“For [the] UTFA, the critical question is the security of a defined benefit pension plan for our members over the long term,” Messenger wrote. “What we have come up with is a plan that best protects the interests of plan members and… best protects their key interest — the future of their pension plan.”

Planning and Budget Committee recommends FitzGerald Building revitalization

Plans in place for former medicine, dentistry hub to host new administrative offices

Planning and Budget Committee recommends FitzGerald Building revitalization

Governing Council’s Planning and Budget Committee (PBC) has unanimously voted to recommend the transformation of the FitzGerald Building from hosting research labs to space for administrative office spaces. Following the PBC’s recommendation on January 10, the Report of the Project Planning Committee for FitzGerald Building Revitalization must still go through the Academic Board, Business Board, and Executive Committee for discussion, prior to receiving final approval from Governing Council on February 28.

The FitzGerald Building, located on 150 College Street, was vacated by the Faculty of Dentistry and the Faculty of Medicine in July. Both have since moved to new or renovated spaces on campus.

According to the report, the Faculty of Medicine had conducted studies that demonstrated “significant challenges and costs” to continued use of the building. Further, the report states that “there have not been any significant upgrades to the building infrastructure in many years, and the wet research space in particular has deteriorated.”

Constructed in 1927, the FitzGerald Building has heritage status, meaning that it cannot be demolished. According to Vice-President University Operations Scott Mabury, the refurbished building will only provide half the occupancy space that is available at the administration’s current 215 Huron Street location, “but it’s going to be a much better space to work in.”

Administrative offices, including Financial Services and Human Resources & Equity, operate at 215 Huron Street, which Mabury said the university hopes to replace with a “data sciences kind of building… that will house a number of researchers across the campus.”

If the report is approved by Governing Council, construction on the building will commence in May, with full operational occupancy expected by October 2020.

This was the second committee meeting this academic year. The initial second meeting, scheduled on October 31, had been cancelled. PBC Secretary Joan Griffin told The Varsity in mid-October that there was “no business to transact by the Committee during [that] cycle.”