Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Provost of the University of Saskatchewan has resigned

The provost of the University of Saskatchewan, Brett Fairbairn, resigned yesterday (Monday, May 20, 2014) just before an emergency meeting of the university's Board of Governors. The President of the university, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, announced that she had accepted the resignation.

Last week the Provost fired Robert Buckinham, the Dean of Public Health, from his tenured position for disagreeing with the policies of the rest of the university administration, specifically the Provost and the President. They want to disband the Faculty of Public Health and the Dean disagreed and protested the attempt to muzzle him. Two days later the President offered Buckingham a tenured position and admitted that a terrible blunder had been committed on her watch.

The Provincial Minister of Advanced Education, Rob Norris, called the emergency meeting of the Board of Governors in order to determine if recent events at the University of Saskatchewan had violated the "University of Saskatchewan Act." He spoke to the Board at their 8pm meeting then addressed the press. According to CBC News ....
The province's minister of advanced education, Rob Norris, spoke at the closed-door board meeting.

He emerged after about an hour, and spoke to the media before leaving for his constituency office.

Norris said he spoke to the board about his continuing concerns "regarding compliance with the University of Saskatchewan Act, and also what I see and what we see as a deepening controversy — if not crisis — regarding the national reputation and international reputation of the University of Saskatchewan.

"That reputational damage that continues is of very deep concern to us," Norris added.

One section of the act requires senior administration to report to the board before the dismissal of suspension of individuals, "so there are real questions about the substance of that kind of report process, especially given, and in light of the reversal that took place, and some of the commentary around that reversal," Norris explained.

He left it to the board to consider whether it had breached the act or not.

...Around midnight, board chair Susan Milburn emerged, and told reporters both the board and the administration have complied with the legislation.
The Provost's letter of resignation states that he is resigning because it is likely to be in the best interests of the university. The following quotations from the letter of resignation come from University of Saskatchewan Provost, VP academic resigns.
"... my motive for offering my resignation is my genuine interest in the well-being of the University of Saskatchewan."

"I believe the work I have done as a student, faculty member, and provost has contributed to the growth of our university’s reputation."

"The same interests lead me to offer stepping aside from the provost role as the best contribution I can now offer under present circumstances."
Now, I don't know about the rest of you, but that doesn't sound to me like someone who admits to a terrible blunder.

The Board of Governors is receiving legal advice from their lawyers before determining what to do next. It's pretty obvious that they are thinking about whether Ilene Busch-Vishniac should keep her job. (It's also pretty obvious that she shouldn't.)

Many members of the faculty have called for Busch-Vishniac to be fired as soon as possible but in situations like this the Board will probably wait to see if she does the same honorable thing that the Provost did.

One letter in particular is getting a lot of attention. It's an open letter signed by a prominent member of the University of Saskatchewan faculty, Jim Miller. As reported in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix [Emergency board meeting called for weekend; prof calls for president to be fired].
Jim Miller, a U of S history professor and Canada Research Chair, has written to Milburn imploring her to "terminate" Busch-Vishniac and Provost Brett Fairbairn for their "egregious" actions.

He said booting the administrative members would be "a first step" in restoring the university’s tattered reputation.

"It certainly wouldn’t do it by itself, but it would clear the decks to let someone who has a more consultative and collegial style come in and provide leadership," Miller said.

He was adamant the board needs to dismiss the president and provost with cause and deny them severance pay.

"It would be an outrage, it would upset everyone all over again, if they discovered that the president was simply asked to resign and walked away with a huge severance payment," Miller said. "It would continue to inflict more harm on the university and undermine the public’s confidence in the institution."

Miller added that the board needs to take a serious look at TransformUS, which he said has been "contaminated" and "discredited" by Buckingham’s claims that it was agreed upon only after staff were coerced and intimidated.

"The whole business of TransformUS is undermined and it should not be proceeded with in the near future," Miller said.

The university board of governors is made up of 11 members — including Busch-Vishniac, one student and one faculty member — who oversee the university’s management, administration and handling of financial affairs.
Meanwhile, the situation gets more complicated because the Board of Governors previously gave Ilene Busch-Vishniac the power to unilaterally review tenure decisions at the university. What this means if that she can veto the decision reached by the candidate's peers on the tenure committee and the subsequent approval by the Dean. The Chair of the Faculty Association, Doug Chivers, says that this is a violation of their collective agreement. Watch the interview with Doug Chivers at: U of S board meets, discusses leadership at the university. It seems clear that the faculty have lost confidence in the Board and the President.

This is the 4th is a series of post on this issue. The other are:

The Provost and the President of the University of Saskatchewan made a mistake
Robert Buckingham rehired at the University of Saskatchewan
Ilene Busch-Vishniac should resign immediately as President of the University of Saskatchewan


  1. How often do dean's speak out in Canada?

    A US Dean seems to be implying this isn't done. I wonder if his view might be more US-centric.

    1. That's the corporate view of how to run a university. I'm still fighting to preserve the democratic view of how to run a university—the one where the faculty views are the ones that count and the administrators are in change of administration and not policy.

      I prefer a university where major decisions—like whether or not to shut down Faculties—are reached by consensus and where you must get faculty buy-in before proceeding with any major changes in direction.

      I think it's going to be a bit longer before public universities in Canada are completely run on a corporate model where administrators are in charge of running the university and faculty are just employes who must do what they are told. But we are clearly headed in that direction

      "Dean Dad" [Confessions of a Community College Dead] has obviously given up and adjusted to the idea that he takes his marching orders from the President and not the Professors in his Faculty. That's very sad, but it's almost unavoidable in a university or college whose primary goal is to make a profit.

    2. Well, voting by faculty might be a valid way of making decisions, "consensus" is problematic when different sides have different goals. There can't be one solution that will make everybody happy. David Mitchell, as usual explains the problem with consensus better than I can:

    3. Jonathan Badger says,

      There can't be one solution that will make everyone happy.

      OMG!!! Really?

      Why didn't anyone tell me this before? So much for the goal of reaching a consensus. I guess we've just been incredibly lucky in the past.

      Or maybe the idea of consensus doesn't mean what you think it means?

    4. Did you watch the video? David's experience is exactly what I've encountered in "consensus reaching" -- the idea is that the losers in the decision are supposed to finally admit "Yes, I wanted what you wanted all along; I was mistaken to think otherwise". You aren't allowed a simple "No, I think that's a terrible idea even though I know I'm in the minority here"

    5. It's the Leninist principle of "democratic centralism". Of course in corporations, often even the internal discussion doesn't happen.

    6. Yes, it is amazingly how close the system of authority is in capitalism to communism. I work at a soft money institute and now and then people suddenly disappear as their funding runs out. It turns out it is as bad form to bring them up in conversation as it is for people banished to the gulag.

    7. Jonathan, what you and David Mitchell are describing is a failure at consensus making. I'm sorry to hear that you work at a place where you can't express your views and where people "disappear" as you describe. That's terrible.

    8. "I'm still fighting to preserve the democratic view of how to run a university—the one where the faculty views are the ones that count and the administrators are in change of administration and not policy."

      I'm not sure I'm buying that view as truly democratic. Apart from the faculty views, student views should matter (that's something formalized here and I spend a lot of the time I was a student as a representative for the student body of my institute). Not only is the students point of view relevant, in my experience it tends to align with the faculty more readily than with the administration.

    9. @Simon Gunkel,

      The role of students in university governance is a much more complicated issue than most people recognize. As a general rule, you want people who vote for policy and procedures to have to live with the consequences. This doesn't apply to individual undergraduates and it raises questions about whether their opinions and votes are as important as those of full time members of the university community.

      Also when making decisions it's wise to consult people who have a broad understanding of everything that happens in a university. This includes undergraduate education, graduate education, research, administration, and service. Undergraduate students often have valuable opinions about thoses aspects of the university that they have directly experienced (as recipients) but they may lack perspective of the broad picture and the overall implications of new policies.

    10. Well, the system here does not consult individual students, but elected representatives of the student body. If you are holding that office, you aren't making decisions based on what you want and you don't take a short term view - at least I didn't. One of the reasons to run in the first place was to get a broader understanding of what goes on in academia.

  2. UBC's Nassif Ghoussoub wrote an article on his blog titled,
    Return on investment in faculty rarely captured by university CFOs, that speaks, from a research perspective, to the issue of the corporatization of universities in North America. Nassif's comments are relevant to the discussion here.

    1. That's an excellent article. Thank-you very much. I'm going to devote a separate blog post to advertising it.

  3. Ilene Busch-Visniac continues to insist she will not resign. So we now know whose interest she is primarily concerned with representing....


    1. Considering all the interest that now exists in the issue it seems logical for the president (and staff) to ask students and faculty to come up with a reasonable plan to "head off a $44.5-million deficit that is expected by 2016."

    2. Not having seen the books, it's hard to say. But if UofS is anything like most other universities in North America, clawing back on the administration would seem like the obvious choice.


    3. Gary Gaulin says,

      ...it seems logical for the president (and staff) to ask students and faculty to come up with a reasonable plan to "head off a $44.5-million deficit that is expected by 2016."

      That sounds like a good idea as long as the group includes staff as well. They will probably start by lobbying and protesting the government's decision to cut back on university funding. That's an option that's rarely considered by senior university administrators when they try to cope with reduced budgets. (I wonder why?)

    4. I'm on your side in regards to a democratic solution being preferable. The question now is how to accomplish this without even more chaos, or expecting senior administrators to protest for higher taxes, or further reducing other budgets already cut such as science funding that's already in trouble too and causing income based compromises to be made that scientists are against. It's a situation where unpleasant choices have to made, by someone, and whatever they decide is likely going to make others angry.

      I did have one dreadful thought why some would be reluctant to get too many involved in the process, which is the entire campus becoming divided then the situation escalates into student riots, or worse. Half might be in favor of paying more tuition or taxes, while the other half is very against it, and I doubt there will be many volunteers to accept a major cut in pay. In this case though the campus is already organized towards finding a solution to the problem but ousting all the top administrators could make the problem even worse, and does not solve their deficit problem. My thought was that the students might be able to come up with new ideas and where it's what they want they would likely be far more effective for protesting the government's decision to cut back on university funding. Of course the money has to come from somewhere, but at least involving those who will be most influenced by whatever decision is made would be far more democratic.

  4. Not sure why my comment disappeared....

  5. " Ilene Busch-Vishniac has been fired as president of the University of Saskatchewan.

    The board of governors said Busch-Vishniac had been terminated without cause and will continue in a teaching capacity at the university."


    1. If anyone has ever been hoisted with their own petard...