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How to make USask 'The People's University' once again

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Image: flickr/University of Saskatchewan

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The recent firing of the President of the University of Saskatchewan accompanied by the resignation of its Provost is unprecedented but may represent larger problems with Canadian universities.  The fiasco was initiated by the firing of the Dean of its School of Public Health after he had publicly criticized senior administration policy.  A petition of 800 academics from across Canada called for the University to respect the principle of academic freedom. Over 500 students rallied in opposition to the same policies and the dean was reinstated to his teaching but not administrative position. Strangely, it has now come to light that this very same dean was using similar approaches in squelching dissent among his own faculty and staff suggesting a chronic blight on academic freedom at this university.

The cost-cutting plan, known as TransformUS, currently being inflicted on academic programs, faculty, and staff is under widespread attack. No public evidence has yet been produced to substantiate the alleged deficit of $44 million which is the premise for the cuts. And the resignation of the provost just 30 minutes before an emergency meeting of the Board of Governors on May 19 merely underlines the crisis in management.

The current crisis has deep historical roots. Some might say that the chickens are coming home to roost. Problems currently cascading around academic freedom and draconian restructuring began with policies formulated in the 1990s. Among other things, there was concern about the University of Saskatchewan's consistently low ranking in the annual Maclean's rankings of Canadian universities -- a superficial beauty contest if there ever was one. Senior administrators frequently parachuted from elsewhere and often most concerned about their own career-building reputations started a continuous, 25-year frenzy of forced planning, auditing, and navel-gazing activities. These changes led to chronic low morale and a climate of resignation, wariness, and fear. The number of Vice Presidents and associated senior staff doubled and the same bloat was happening in all the colleges. Their role was to take over academic decision-making from faculty and undermine the legally mandated function of the professoriate. A huge new unit along with a highly paid Vice President was devoted to marketing and branding -- to tell us and potential consumer/students/revenue units how wonderful this whole experience has been.

Senior administrators channeled funds into projects of their own making rather than into those serving the public interest. We ended up with all sorts of things that we do not need and do not serve the people of Saskatchewan or Canada. In the meantime, students have been unaware that they were paying for these expansions of academic and administrative empires. Their rising debt load should now make them conscious of exactly that.

Variously, we have had virtual colleges of biotechnology, e-commerce, toxicology, swine institutes, schools of public policy, public health, centers for nuclear innovation, etc. -- and the biggest white elephant of all: the Canadian Light Source synchrotron. Admittedly not entirely but still significantly so, much of this only serves industries and corporate interests. The University of Saskatchewan's Board of Governors reflects overwhelmingly the financial- and resource-based industries of the province -- not the people. There is some sort of symbolic irony in the granting of $44 million for the establishment of the Sylvia Fedoruk Centre for Nuclear Innovation. In spite of talk about medical isotopes (a Trojan horse) it ultimately serves nuclear corporate interests. It's free to corporate interests, but its taxpayer-paid grant matches one year's shortfall according to the provincial government's enforced austerity.

The role of the current government in creating this debacle is considerable -- a media feast now daily feeds on our University's shame. Supposedly Saskatchewan and several other resource–based, oil-rich, provinces are equivalent in wealth to the most developed, richest nations according to a recent study. So tax that wealth appropriately and pay for the public services that the citizens and especially young people are entitled to.  Stop providing free services to those corporations that are profiting from this wealth.

The Saskatchewan Government and the University Board of Governors should now take responsibility and rectify the current situation. We suggest the following measures:

  • Implement an immediate freeze on student tuition
  • Place at least a three-year moratorium on plans to reduce the operating budget by approximately $44 million
  • Make up that supposed shortfall while undergoing a reassessment
  • Scrap the TransformUs process and any of its implementations
  • Ensure that faculty's legally mandated role to engage in academic decision making is reinstated, including tenure and academic freedom
  • Generate an independent external audit of the University's actual financial situation
  • Expand the Board of Governors to more accurately reflect the people of 
  • Saskatchewan -- not just financial and corporate interests
  • Have the complete minutes of its meetings made public, as is common in all other jurisdictions
  • Have an external review of the circumstances involving a spilt between university administrators from other jurisdictions and an equal number appointed by the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
  • Have that commission ONLY review the administrative structure with a view of making major savings and eliminating redundancies
  • Leave academic teaching and research units out of this review
  • Implement the savings in administration
  • Have any and all policy decisions focused precisely on the well being of students and extension services benefitting the people of Saskatchewan

It is absolutely essential to engage and completely inform the public in these conversations. Any policy debate should be made completely open and transparent. It is not our university. It is not our colleagues' university. It is not the administrators' university. Above all, it is not the corporations' university. It is, as the first President Walter Murray called it, "The People's University" because it "belongs to the people of Saskatchewan."


Alexander (Sandy) Ervin is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan. Howard Woodhouse is Professor of Educational Foundations at the University of Saskatchewan and author of Selling Out: Academic Freedom and the Corporate Market (2009).

Image: flickr/University of Saskatchewan

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