Education minister fines Concordia $2 million

Education Minister Line Beauchamp has fined Concordia $2 million for approving millions of dollars in severance packages handed out to former senior employees over the past several years.

The decision was communicated to Board of Governors Chair Peter Kruyt in a letter dated March 8.

Although Concordia President Frederick Lowy has indicated that the university will “act in accordance with its responsibilities,” the minister’s decision to pull the $2 million from the university’s 2012-2013 provincial funding has sparked widespread condemnation from the campus community.

“It’s unfair to make the entire Concordia community pay for the actions of a few people,” said Concordia University Faculty Association President Lucie Lequin. “Maybe this will mean less services for students, or make it more difficult for employees to negotiate better salaries. For us, the minister’s letter is nothing more than a political and public relations move. In the face of student unrest and people citing Concordia as an example of mismanagement of funds, the minister felt she had to act.”

In her letter to Kruyt, Beauchamp wrote of past communications with Kruyt in January and February when she expressed her concern over the number of people leaving senior positions at Concordia, and ultimately over the university’s “management of public funds.”

She also criticized Concordia for rehiring and remunerating former Concordia President Judith Woodsworth, who left the university with a severance package worth $703, 500 in December 2010. Woodsworth, who returned in January, is currently a translation professor with tenure in the French department.

The letter, obtained by several media outlets including TVA, who posted it to their website, indicates that Beauchamp had urged Concordia in January to use “moderation” when making budgetary decisions, and that the university’s approval of severance packages worth millions of dollars had “given citizens cause for concern over the proper use of public funds by universities.”

In a press release issued on March 9, Beauchamp said that Concordia had shown “a lack of control,” and that the university must now face the consequences for its actions. By sending the letter to Concordia, Beauchamp said she was signalling to all Quebec universities that “healthy management is synonymous with transparency and efficiency. I insist that our universities be administered efficiently and rigorously.”

At Monday’s Board of Governors meeting, Kruyt indicated that “the letter from the minister does not really change the work that we do. Her choice of language is unfortunate. Concordia is one of the most financially responsible institutions in Quebec.”

Lowy told the BoG that “as far as we’re concerned, the events of the past do not necessarily reflect the current management,” and added that, with regards to the university’s reputation, “many alumni and donors will take note of the minister’s letter.”

For Concordia Student Union President Lex Gill, the letter validated what students had been saying all along about “mismanagement of funds,” but she also indicated that Beauchamp had not offered the proper response.

“By acknowledging that there’s a serious issue at Concordia, the ministry is only trying to save face. What the minister is doing is just a reaction, it’s not a solution,” she said.

At the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association, chair of communications and cinema professor Dave Douglas said that, if anything, Concordia has been making progress on governance and transparency since the BoG and Senate adopted most of the recommendations from the Shapiro Report, which came about in spring 2011 after the BoG ousted Woodsworth.

“When you think about it, $2 million is not a large amount when it comes to the government’s overall budget,” he said. “The loss of that $2 million will be dearly felt at Concordia, but I don’t know if it will really improve the government’s revenue. That money could have perhaps been used instead for financial aid for students.”

Graduate Students’ Association President Robert Sonin called Beauchamp’s decision “absurd,” saying that “it highlights how out of touch the ministry is, how poorly administered our higher education system is, and how completely unaccountable the people who make poor decisions are.”

Ministry of Education spokesperson Esther Chouinard said she could not confirm if Beauchamp had decided to send the letter now because of Concordia’s recent decision to hire external auditors to review severance packages worth $2.4 million that were given to five former senior employees who left Concordia between 2009 and 2010. The hiring of the auditors will come at a cost of $25,000, and was approved by the Board of Governors on March 2 after being proposed by Lowy. Chouinard said it would appear that the ministry was not informed of that decision.
Gill said she supports the hiring of auditors, but that the university and the ministry need to go even further and conduct an “investigation” into the issuing of severance packages and the management of public funds as a whole.

With files from Marilla Steuter-Martin.

The six severance packages that will be looked at by the ad hoc auditing committee:
$605,000 to former internal audit director Ted Nowak
$639,000 to former internal assistant audit director Saad Zubair
$700,000 to former vice-president of advancement and alumni affairs Kathy Assayag
$332,000 to former chief financial officer Larry English
$129,000 to former security director Jean Brisebois

Judith Woodsworth’s severance package of $703,500 and that of her predecessor’s, Claude Lajeunesse, who left halfway through his term with a $1.3 million severance package in 2007, will not be among those analyzed by the auditors.

Notable quotes:

“It’s unfair to make the entire Concordia community pay for the actions of a few people.” – Lucie Lequin, CUFA president

“Many alumni and donors will take note of the minister’s letter.” – Concordia President Frederick Lowy

“I insist that our universities be administered efficiently and rigorously.” – Education minister Line Beauchamp

“By acknowledging that there’s a serious issue at Concordia, the ministry is only trying to save face.” – Lex Gill, CSU president

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