Faculty, students disagreed with VP over spending

Burt’s tenure as Dal financial officer marked by debate over capital projects

During Ken Burt’s seven-year term, Dalhousie built four new buildings. The last, a multi-use building on LeMarchant Street, is still under construction (Photo: James Jenkinson).

A senior Board of Governors executive at Dalhousie University - Ken Burt - is leaving to “pursue other opportunities,” according to a letter sent late last week by the university’s new president Richard Florizone.

The letter was brief - 98 words in total. Its wording suggests Burt, who served for seven years as vice-president of finance and administration, left the university of his own accord.

Dalhousie Faculty Association president Kevin Grundy negotiated across the table with Burt for many years and says Florizone’s letter seemed somewhat curt for a senior executive of the board.

In four sentences, Florizone reviewed Dalhousie’s successes under Burt’s watch and went on to wish him “the best in his future endeavours.”

DFA: Less focus on academic mission under Burt

During Burt’s time in office, four new capital projects were undertaken by the university.

In the same period, the board deviated from an early ’90s undertaking with the Dalhousie Faculty Association and others, Grundy said, not to embark on capital projects unless funding was already in place.

In March 2013, the Dalhousie Faculty association conducted a review of Dalhousie’s finances. The review found projects were funded, not by borrowing, but by directing funds away from operating budgets and toward buildings. The majority of an operating budget is spent on what’s known as the academic mission: salaries, professorships, research.

The report showed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars, in the last 10 years, flowed from every other pocket of funding and into the capital fund. Of that amount, $95 million flowed directly out of the operating budgets and into a fund for buildings.

Board of governors student representative John Hutton says students were also concerned about the funding of capital projects.

Dalhousie Faculty Association president Kevin Grundy helped conduct a review of Dalhousie’s finances during Ken Burt’s term (Photo: James Jenkinson).

Just prior to the release of the faculty association report in spring 2013, Hutton says, Burt spoke with the Dalhousie Student Union council. According to Hutton, Burt told the DSU council, on behalf of the budget advisory committee, that no transfers were being made from the operating budget to the capital budget.

Growing trends

Although Dalhousie’s operating budget has increased over the last 10 years, Grundy says, less money is now dedicated to the university’s mission of learning, discovery and engagement.

The faculty, Grundy says, recognizes the need for enough physical space in which to work, but is concerned when that need compromises the university’s academic aspirations.

“If you’re taking money out of the academic mission and putting it into buildings, that’s a pretty clear statement that you’re favouring capital construction over what it is you’re trying to do from an academic perspective,” says Grundy.

An “admirable record”

Former Dalhousie University president Tom Traves worked closely with Burt before he stepped down earlier in 2013.

In an email, he praised Burt’s “admirable record” as vice-president and credited Burt with many accomplishments including balancing the budget for eight years under difficult financial circumstances, modernizing the university’s information technology services and overseeing improvements to the university’s human resources culture that have received national recognition.

He said Burt administered improvements to classrooms, residences and study space, and oversaw significant elements of Dalhousie’s merger with the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.

Regarding Burt’s relationship with the university community, Travis says financial vice-presidents often have the role of “Dr. No” in restricting spending to balance the budget. However, the absence of major labour disruptions during Burt’s tenure was a testament to him achieving acceptance of the university’s financial challenges.

“Ken Burt also attracted strong new leaders to head up the major administrative units at Dalhousie, which led to improved administrative service and better operating morale within these departments — and around the university more generally,” Traves said.

The next move

Although Grundy says relations between he and Burt were cordial, Burt was aggressive in promoting his agenda.

Grundy is surprised by a chief financial figure’s departure midway through the fiscal year and called the timing “odd”.

Regarding Burt’s departure, Traves said, “The appointment of a new university president sometimes leads to new styles of leadership on campus. Not everyone finds a good fit with these changes and when this happens it is usually best to move on to new opportunities.”

There are different options on how to choose a new financial vice-president. According to Hutton, past boards consulted executive recruiting companies, although the board could elect someone from within Dalhousie’s faculty or administration.

Formerly the assistant vice-president of financial services, Ian Nason will fill Burt’s position in the interim.

Senior spokesman Charles Crosby declined to offer any comment from the Board of Governors.

“Short answer would be no, it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment beyond the message President Florizone sent to the Dal community last week,” Crosby wrote in an email.

Update: July 17, 2014: Added comments by Tom Traves

 

 
 

2 thoughts on “Faculty, students disagreed with VP over spending

  1. Thanks for this report, and thanks to Kevin Grundy for investigating! Much appreciated, on behalf of DAL students.

  2. Correction: Burt told the DSU council, when doing a consultation on behalf of the Budget advisory committee, that no transfers were being made from the operating budget to the capital budget.

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