City & Politics, Essay

TransformUS: Changing the U of S and the definition of leadership

Economic times are tough no matter what industry you’re in. Financial belt tightening is taking place on a mass scale across all sectors, education included and definitely at post-secondary institutions. Increased costs, high capital projects still on the books, and cuts in the financial resources coming from the government has left the University of Saskatchewan with a large projected money gap to fill.

Enter TransformUS.

Instituted in 2013 by the administration of U of S President Ilene Busch-Vishniac, TransformUS is a long-term plan of strategic cost cutting measures designed to prune $25.3 million from regular expenditures to avoid a future deficit of $44.5 million. The process is called program prioritization. Developed by higher education consultant Robert C. Dickeson, program prioritization is, simply put, a method of effectively reallocating and streamlining resources. All academic and administrative resources and programs are ranked against a series of criteria. Decisions are then made based on that ranking with programs with the highest rankings receiving funding and the lowest receiving…well, you can guess the end results of such a system. The details of Dickeson’s methodology can be found on the TransformUS page.

When the program was instituted at the U of S, promises were made that the cost cutting measures would be precise and fair, and the process transparent. While the U of S administration insists that has been the case, others are not convinced. Where the cuts are being made is causing concerns and it seems that many at the University do not believe that process has been fair or transparent.

Opponents are varied and growing in numbers. U of S historian Jim Miller was recently awarded the Killam Prize by the Canada Council for the Arts and subsequently used the spotlight to describe the TransformUS process as a disaster. Professor Eric Howe of the Department of Economics at the U of S is a former member of the Academic Task Force of TransformUS, emphasis on the word former. He published two papers, one that predicted the process would be a failure and one more recent that said it has turned out even worse than he expected. And then there’s Professor Robert Buckingham, the now former head of the School of Public Health.

Professor Buckingham recently went public with an email that was essentially the equivalent of a gag order, stating that he and other deans must publicly support the TransformUS process no matter their personal misgivings. He has alleged that the U of S even threatened cuts to tenure if dissenting deans did not fall in line.

In response to his actions, Buckingham was summarily terminated from his position at the University, escorted off campus, and permanently banned from its grounds. The University has attempted to explain the move by saying part of being a leader at the U of S is having access to privileged information in the context of a dean’s contract which includes some version of a confidentiality clause, and putting the good of the organization ahead of their own personal goals and opinions. To simplify, toe the line.

For a moment, let’s go back to Howe’s January 2014 report, which he openly defines as his own interpretation of the program prioritization process at the U of S. “TransformUS: Even Worse than Predicted” paints a frightening picture of an obfuscated process that is inherently biased against smaller/specialized programs, Aboriginal programs, and relatively low-cost programs. He alleges that the Dickeson method is flawed due to these blind spots and is not so much saving the University from an economic standpoint as stripping it apart one piece at a time in an illogical fashion. To wit, he describes TransformUS as being, “to rational choice what 1+1=3 is to mathematics.” This falls in line with Millers’ comments which depict the TransformUS process as a systematic attack on the humanities.

Not surprisingly, many programs that fall in the category of smaller, specialized, and/or low-cost also fall in the category of the arts and humanities.

These concerns have been echoed by staff and students, and subsequently championed by provincial NDP leader Cam Broten who vocalized the issues discussed in Howe’s report at the end of April. One of the specific points Broten noted was that deans were not free to express their views and concerns. At the time, Advanced Educational Minister Rob Norris said it was a little early in the process to be raising such criticisms. Two weeks later, Buckingham was fired. Broten was immediately on the offensive during question period at the provincial legislature over the firing of Buckingham and Norris is looking into the matter.

TransformUS is certainly a divisive plan that is viewed by some as the start of converting a respected university into a community college and by others as the best, albeit painful, means of saving it from its own financial woes. Regardless, the termination of Professor Buckingham raises a completely different set of concerns, specifically how the U of S views leadership.

At the core of this is the reality that the University expects its leadership to publicly follow decisions they do not agree with once said decision is made, regardless of their personal feelings on the topic. This type of mentality is not uncommon in other sectors including politics and the corporate world. The danger is that it could foster of culture of yes men rather than free thinkers, which flies in the face of what university culture is theoretically supposed to be promoting. Good leaders are not those that blindly follow but those who question decisions they don’t agree with and fight for something they believe in. Buckingham, whether you agree with him or not, took a stand against a process he was concerned about and against the administration’s purported attempts to silence those in a comparable position.

Strategically, this move made no sense on the part of the U of S administration. Buckingham was mere weeks from retirement when fired. Had they left well enough alone, the email Buckingham released would have been a small news item that faded away with time and probably quite quickly given the pace of the modern news cycle.

Instead, they have created a PR nightmare with numerous organizations and international media outlets turning their eyes on them and the ongoing concerns surrounding the TransformUS process. Though he says he isn’t considering it right now Professor Buckingham has the option to file a lawsuit, dragging the media coverage and focus on even longer. The firing has quite probably damaged the administration’s relationship with the faculty, staff, and students. The provincial government is now looking at the U of S and the TransformUS plan with increased scrutiny, possibly to the detriment of the administration implementing it. They just provided the official provincial opposition with ample fodder to press harder on a matter said opposition was already concerned about.

The U of S has come out of this looking like they have something to hide in the overall TransformUS process. If a dean questions a program and accuses the administration of muzzling dissenters on Tuesday only to be fired on Wednesday, the optics of that move are certainly in that dean’s favor. And offering to hire him back on Thursday after a massively negative response to the move from all corners only adds to that.

Keeping in mind that any damage to their reputation has been done, the U of S has already somewhat reversed their decision. Buckingham has been offered a tenured faculty position in the School of Public Health but not his former post as executive director. They stand by that decision based on their perceived role of someone in a leadership position. Given how close he was to retirement with little to lose in this scenario, one can’t help but wonder if Buckingham anticipated this response from the U of S and threw himself under the bus. Was this actually a cagey move by someone already on their way out to put a program he didn’t agree with under a more public microscope? Regardless of intent, that’s exactly what’s happened.

When it comes right down to it, a university has the right to manage its finances and human resources as required, particularly if a dean’s contract does indeed have a confidentiality clause in it that’s been violated. Conversely, anyone should have the ability and the right to publicly question administrative decisions within their own organization without fear of retaliation. This is doubly important at a university where critical thought, free speech, and open discussion should be encouraged, engaged, and mandated at all levels.

People like Miller, Howe, and Buckingham are starting to come across as canaries in the TransformUS coal mine. In the context of that analogy, the termination of Buckingham is roughly the equivalent of lighting a match near a gas leak and this whole thing might about to blow up in someone’s face.

All anyone can hope is that the University of Saskatchewan, in one form or another, is left standing when the prairie dust settles.