OPENFILE: NSCADs gotta know when to hold ’em

If you like NSCAD, the current situation has been hard to talk about.

It is kind of like having a friend—smart, accomplished, successful, arguably world renowned— with a gambling problem.

A smart friend, who you admire, who is about to lose her house because she is running out of money and time.

NSCAD has $21 million annual budget, a $19 million dollar debt, and has run deficits of $1.4 million last year and $2.4 million this year. The NSCAD Board itself projects a deficit as high as $4 million by 2013.

Tuesday, Howard Windsor’s report for what to do with NSCAD was presented to the public. Windsor is the much-respected former senior bureaucrat somewhat famous in Nova Scotia for being the government-appointed “Board” of the Halifax Regional School Board when it went off the rails. He has had some success with fixing broken institutions.

The province also announced today that it is going to bail out NSCAD, covering this years deficit with conditions—NSCAD must take whatever steps are necessary to balance its budget in the next fiscal year.

Our friend with a gambling problem, maybe she looks for the quick fix, some kind of one-time solution, to bail herself out? Does that really address the root problem?

Can NSCAD stay independent? Some may assume that amalgamation is the only way to save the school, given its dismal financial state.

I don’t think amalgamation would solve the problem at all. The deficit is so deep, the problems so vast, and it’s not like Dalhousie is going to say “we will happily take you on and pay for all your programs.”

Cuts are required to stay independent. This will mean making a series of really difficult and heartbreaking choices and making them very quickly. Faculty and staff will be downsized and whole departments may face the axe. Property that has been long held and dearly loved, or fought for and recently acquired or renovated, may need to be sold.

Like our friend with the gambling problem, when your friend is hurting, you don’t kick her when she’s down. But, really, NSCAD is in deep trouble, and a lot of the trouble is NSCAD’s own damn fault.

A Board of Governors should not be a rubber stamp. They’re there to protect students, alumni, the government and public’s interests. The presidents, past and present, are highly capable people, there to safeguard the future of a historic institution.

Yet, for the last few years, NSCAD has made choices to add programs, buy buildings, build a third campus, grow staff and faculty, without the money to operate them. The institution is on financial life support because those that should have known better, didn’t.

According to the CBC reports, the port campus was built without securing desperately needed federal funding, and its heating costs are $600,000 more annually than the university planned for. These are just two high level examples of bad management and poor oversight.

At some point prior to the wheels coming off, someone needed to say “enough is enough.”

Personally, I’d like to see NSCAD grow. It would take a couple million dollars a year to stabilize the institution, and a couple million more would make it a global centre for art, and that would have huge positive economic implications for the province. NSCAD might be the cheapest project we could invest in that would bring the province global attention.

Right now, the province is in serious financial trouble, and can’t cut funding for the children’s hospital while increasing funding to an institution that has shown itself to be chronically unable to manage itself.

First, NSCAD has to complete Howard’s eight-step program to get over the gambling problem, and prove that the staff and Board can be trusted with more funding and more resources.

We have to believe that overspending and over-confident budget projections are well behind them. But first, we have to save NSCAD.

Then we can talk about the future