COLUMN: Barb Gustafson — May 28, 2014

Barb Gustafson
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Barb Gustafson

I want to reassure local alumni members, parents of current students, and anyone else with an interest in the University of Saskatchewan: despite news reports suggesting a war zone, the university is still standing.

I was at the U of S this past week, as the news reports of a fired-then rehired professor, provost’s resignation and departure of the president swirled. As I walked across campus, amid the greystone buildings, the greening trees, hearing laughter and daycare children playing in the distance, it was as calm and beautiful as any other summer day there. The work of the U of S goes on.

What has ended is the term of Ilene Busch-Vishniac as president. From the time of her appointment, she was in a difficult spot.  Following the immensely popular Peter MacKinnon as president, she would have needed to walk on water to begin to live up to his record. She was an outsider, not only to the U of S but to Western Canada. And she’s female, the first women to hold this role. She was accepting a huge challenge in accepting the role of president.

New leaders in any setting often want to make a mark, and make it quickly. Depending on the situation, quick action may be the right choice, to deal with a lingering problem or just to shake up years of complacency. The danger is that a new leader may not understand the culture and history of the place and not anticipate the reaction to decisions. Busch-Vishniac’s ill-received change was TransformUS, a process meant to review all programs and services at the university and reallocate funding so as to trim back in less-used areas and bolster well-used ones, as well as cut costs generally.

Was the hype about the need for cost-cutting overblown? Maybe. But it is true that the U of S went through years of strong financial support from the province as MacKinnon’s political connections paid off through funding for multiple new buildings, which then had to be operated, maintained and staffed. The university’s operating costs were growing while the government was scaling back its support to education, severely limiting funding increases. Something would have needed to change, somehow. It was a situation not of Busch-Vishniac’s making, but one she was going to have to address in some way. TransformUS was the process chosen.

Despite all the cries from students, faculty and staff of how this process was forced upon them, it was a highly transparent and open discussion by the standards of anyone who doesn’t work at a university. People who work in “the real world” routinely get change delivered without even a hint before it happens. There were so many meetings and committees regarding TransformUS that for anyone there to say they were left out is disingenuous.

Similarly, administrators and managers in “the real world” are expected to put on a brave face and make change happen, whether they agree with it or not. Not so on a university campus. Dissent was voiced in meetings and the media, up to the point when an administrator, Robert Buckingham, took his complaints to the provincial opposition. He was fired. A whirlwind of cries alleging infringement of academic freedom ensued. He was rehired, as a professor but not an administrator. In the process, the provost resigned and then the president was fired.

What is academic freedom? Again, this is something those of us who work in the “real world” can barely imagine. A long-held right of academics to speak out, it was intended to ensure the truth would be told without suppression by government, corporate interests, or administration. Academic freedom is important to society so that those given the tasks of research, teaching and deep thought on issues can speak without fear of job loss.  Does this right extend to obstructing administrative changes in the university as an organization? According to those who came to Buckingham’s defence, it does, and the final payment due for curtailing his academic freedom was severing the head of the university.   

With Busch-Vishniac’s departure just two years into a five-year term as president, perhaps the critics will feel sufficiently vindicated. I thought the resignation of Provost Brett Fairbairn would have been enough bloodletting, but apparently not. For those who weren’t happy with her leadership, whether for reasons around TransformUS, not being another MacKinnon, being a decisive female, or other reasons, you succeeding in taking out the top person. You have proven your power; but the problems still exist.

Gordon Barnhart, a U of S professor with a strong record of government service including as lieutenant governor of Saskatchewan, has been named interim president. It now becomes his job to ease the fears and to restore calm. His advantage includes understanding the culture and being well liked. If this were a six-month stint as president, he could simply be a caretaker; however, hiring a new permanent president takes a long time and he will have to face the same realities Busch-Vishniac tried to address. A decision must be made on the TransformUS process, to continue, modify or end it. And, whether the process wears the same name or not, the realities of funding still need to be faced.

I wish the new president well. For most of my adult life, I have had a connection to the university as a student, alumna, Senate member, and parent to U of S students. Like thousands of others in Saskatchewan and expatriate grads elsewhere, I want this institution to maintain its service and reputation.

My hope is that the summer calm of the campus will extend to the meeting rooms and president’s office, and well-considered decisions will occur.

 

Barb Gustafson is a lifelong Prince Albert resident and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Email: gustafsonba@gmail.com

Organizations: University of Saskatchewan, Prince Albert

Geographic location: Western Canada, Saskatchewan, Buckingham

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