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Interview / Jennifer Dekker

March 2017
APUO president Jennifer Dekker
Photo credit: Patrick Woodbury

In mid-January, the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa won a court decision allowing for a review of major salary increases to two senior administrators. The APUO believes the pay hikes contravene Ontario’s executive public-sector wage freeze. The Bulletin talked with APUO president Jennifer Dekker.

How did the court action begin?
When the 2014 Sunshine List for Ontario public salaries came out, several APUO members noticed that two senior administrators had received significant raises. In particular, the salary of the vice-president of research, Mona Nemer, went up by about $120,000 (43 per cent), and the dean of the school of medicine’s salary also increased. Our members were outraged because we had been hearing for months from the vice-president, resources, that the university had a structural deficit in its budget. The administration’s rhetoric and its actions were not in line with the executive salary increases. How could they ask faculties to cut their phone service or cancel conferences but still give senior administrators massive salary hikes? It was unethical and against the law. Since 2012 Ontario has prohibited increases to wages and benefits of senior executives in the broader public sector.

Why did the union decide to go to court?
We wrote to the chair of the board of governors on different occasions, asking to know the reasons for the salary increases. Allan Rock, who was president of the university at the time, didn’t respond to our concerns except to say he believed the raises were legal and sent us the CVs of the two administrators in question, as though this was justification. We knew of the pay scandal regarding Amit Chakma at Western and saw this situation in a similar light. It was misuse of public funds and student fees. We went to court because it was the only way to find out whether we were correct in our assessment of the situation.

What did the court ruling say?
Justice Giovanna Toscano Roccamo wrote it was hardly surprising that the APUO would object to salary increases to non-unionized employees at a time of fiscal restraint. She did not find that the executive committee of the board of governors necessarily exercises a “statutory power” of decision-making. And she concluded that this dispute is certainly “coloured with a public element” that makes it right to be litigated. Justice Toscano Roccamo emphasized that wage-restraint legislation is direction given by government and that wages should not be just a private budgeting decision. So there’s simply no reason why a judicial review application shouldn’t be heard, in full transparency, and that there be accountability for how the decision to hike the administrators’ wages was made.

What does the union hope to learn by going to court?
We hope to learn how this decision could have been made during a time of supposed fiscal restraint not only in Ontario’s public sector generally, but also at the University of Ottawa. Since we filed the application for judicial review, we learned that the university is planning to cut almost $2 million from the library budget, faculties and services are facing sweeping cuts of 2 per cent, and been warned that further cuts of between 4 and 8 per cent are coming in 2018. If we are required to cut, if students’ fees continue to increase while their access to libraries or conferences or other academic support continues to be limited, it’s obvious that senior administrators should not be getting huge pay raises.

Will this case have ramifications for future bargaining?
It has increased tension between us and the administration, so yes, it could have an impact. But APUO’s goal here is to shine a light on issues of governance at the board level — rarely do we have any impact on the operations of the board through collective bargaining. If anything, we hope that the board realizes that it needs to be accountable to the entire university community.

In sum, why is this case important?
It’s plain to see that, across the public sector, people are demanding accountability for the salaries of senior executives. Reining in the pay of administrators is an important part of that. We believe our board of governors must stop making decisions that affect workers and students without considering the impact on us. They have to exercise good and reasonable judgement that is also academically sound. There has to be real consultation and a conscious effort to govern in a fair and transparent way.