provinceAll roads of the U of S scandal lead back to Wall and Co.

by Lisa Johnson

While you might have felt a tinge or relief with the resignation of provost Brett Fairbairn, or the sudden firing of President Ilene Busch-Vishniac, the fact remains that the University of Saskatchewan is an absolute shit-storm at present.

And the public outrage following the removal of tenured professor Robert Buckingham, the executive director of the School of Public Health, is far from over.

“This movement didn’t begin with Buckingham, and it didn’t end with Busch-Vishniac,” says Tracey Mitchell, a U of S alum and one of three organizers behind DefendUS. The group’s letter asks that the recently appointed acting president Gordon Barnhart halt all TransformUS cuts, since Buckingham’s dismissal “sheds light on the culture of fear and intimidation that existed on campus throughout this process, making the results untrustworthy.”

In other words, don’t expect the university, or the massive restructuring process, to carry on smoothly simply because the president has been replaced by the (former) secretary.

“It’s an important step and a step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty,” says Opposition leader Cam Broten.

“So far the signs of recovery are decidedly mixed,” says Len Findlay, a professor of English at the U of S and chair of the Academic Freedom & Tenure Committee at the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). “And now many of us who care deeply for the university, its students and the public interest are wondering what comes next.”

Findlay says that “the dismissal of Dean Buckingham was colossally stupid, manifestly unfair, and a blatant mockery of academic freedom.”

But he also doesn’t think that Busch-Vishniac and Fairbairn should be saddled with all of the blame.

“The Board of Governors — most of them government appointees and supporters wedded to the extractive economy and extractive academy — has remained strangely silent and then mysteriously decisive, acting to terminate the President while allowing her to retain her tenure in the college of engineering, all of this ‘without cause,’ he says. “Do they realize what recent events will costthe U of S, financially as well as reputationally? What share of responsibility for this debacle belongs to the ‘Wall-Board?’” .

On May 14, the day after Buckingham released his now-famous “Silence of the Deans” letter criticizing the TransformUS process (including correspondence outlining how concern for his school’s accreditation was being silenced), the government was unprepared. Broten asked Premier Brad Wall if he thought Buckingham’s termination was appropriate. Without responding with a yes or a no, Wall insisted that the government was not going to interfere with the independence of the University. He also suggested, just as Brett Fairbairn later would, that “if you’re part of administration, you may forfeit a chance to do certain things in terms of being outspoken.”

Um, nope, says Broten.

“From the news of Buckingham’s termination, we know that debate was stifled in the case of the School of Public Health, but we don’t know about other colleges. CAUT clearly states that it’s important for academic leaders to be able to express themselves. That’s what we would want, in order to have the right decisions made. So absolutely, the right of academic freedom applies to administrators,” he says.

“Good ideas become better [through] critical scrutiny and open debate, while open exchange ensures bad ideas get their just desserts,” says Findlay. “[But lately] the University’s deans are hailed as leaders in the Action Plan for TransformUS but simultaneously muzzled: tied to speaking notes and a memorized script like a Harper backbencher, and thrown under the bus when they stray off message.”

The real question is: where does this clusterfuck have its roots?

Well, the predicted $44.5 million 2016 deficit scenario that is spurring the $20-25 million in TransformUS cuts at the U of S can’t really be blamed on individual administrators. (If it really is $44.5 million: the U of S Faculty Association has called this projected deficit into question, and like those in the DefendUS camp, have asked for an open and transparent review of the budget.)

The University of Regina is also dealing with a funding shortfall this year — the school asked for a $3.9 million increase to its operating budget, but ended up with a $2.1 million increase from the government. The roofs are leaking, and administrators have outlined an urgent need for everything from teaching materials to childcare and residence projects. All this, as the U of R prepares for rising enrollment numbers.

It’s also no secret that school boards across the province are also struggling to accommodate a growing population while the government hunts for efficiencies.

“We’ve got school boards saying we’ve got these huge needs with growing communities. It’s concerning because at a time when the province is doing well, this is the time to invest in education, whether it is PreK-12 or advanced,” says Broten.

When it comes to Pre-K to grade 12 education, the government has adopted an adversarial approach, he says — it hasn’t listened to teachers or respected their role, showing a “failure to address the basics while plowing forward with pet projects.”

Take, for example, the government’s strange obsession with standardized testing. School boards are unhappy, and calling for better communication from the government.

“While the local impact of the budget varies from division to division, the new ‘Efficiency Factor’ was the issue of concern raised most frequently by board members,” wrote Janet Foord, President of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association in an April letter to Minister of Education Don Morgan. “In fact, at the Spring Assembly, many trustees referred to the Efficiency Factor as ‘the LEAN initiative clawback.’”

Back in so-called “boomtown”, the U of S remains under a dark cloud, even while boasting record-high enrollments for the 2013 winter term (20,348 students in all).

“The mood on campus has been a really gloomy one, despite this being a booming province,” says Broten. “I think that when we look at the total picture, [the government has not] been as supportive of education as they need to be. The U of S has the second highest tuition in Canada according to Statistics Canada: students are paying more and more and getting less and less.

“The provincial government has made many of these decisions around funding, which has made the financial picture on campus more difficult. But they’ve also had a head-in-the-sand approach to the concerns being raised by staff, faculty and students. What’s required is the right commitment from government to restore the reputation of the U of S,” he says.