What the hell happened at the U of S?

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A brief recap of the summer’s hottest academic debacle

National attention was given to the U of S in the wake of recent events. /Haley Klassen

National attention was given to the U of S in the wake of recent events. /Haley Klassen

The University of Saskatchewan had an interesting winter semester in 2014, to say the absolute least.

A new program, TransformUS, was met with ire and outrage. A tenured professor was fired for breaching “protocol” and speaking out publically against the program, only to be re-hired the next day. The acting President was fired. National attention was paid to the U of S and with torrents of accompanying criticism. And finally a former Lieutenant General of Saskatchewan came to serve the acting president of the University. This all happened over the first few weeks of May, so if you happened to blink, much of this might have passed you by.

As such, we will now try to recap what the hell actually happened at the U of S earlier this year.

Essentially, the catalyst to this debacle was the provincial budget not providing funds requested by the U of S, much like what happened at the University of Regina. The program sought to address and manage a projected deficit of $44.5 million by the 2016 scholastic year. The University addressed this deficit and stated that it was false on the Q & A portion of their website.

It instead outlined a deficit of approximately $15.3 million after the 2013/14 scholastic year, though it did not address the projected deficit for 2016.

Regardless, the TransformUS operated as a means to eliminate the least effective, in terms of cost and enrolment, classes at the university. From this the president, faculty and students would vote to defund or continue these cost infective classes.

Fair enough, austerity and tight budgets require some hard decisions. The crux of this scandal begins and ends with the TransformUS program and how it was run.

Enter Professor Robert Buckingham, a tenured prof and executive director of the School of Public Health. During a meeting with U of S deans, then President Ilene Busch-Vishniac, stated that she expected “her senior leaders to not ‘publicly disagree with the process or findings of TransformUs.’”

Understandably, someone took issue with this; that someone was Robert Buckingham. He would go on to publish a letter titled “The Silence of the Deans,” describing his relation with the School of Public Health, the U of S and also his disapproval of the program. The letter also describes how any tenured staff speaking out against the program would find that their “tenure would be short,” by mandate of Busch-Vishniac. The letter was published in early May, and on May 14, Buckingham was fired.

This drew international attention, given the disregard for tenure and also the internal silencing of dissent against the administration. Given the coverage and outrage surrounding his dismissal, Buckingham was promptly reinstated May 15.

Four days later on May 19, University Provost and Vice-President Academic Brett Fairbairn announced his resignation in the wake of the controversy.

And finally on May 21, by rule of the University of Saskatchewan’s Board of Governors, Ilene Busch-Vishniac’s appointment as university president came to an end. In her stead, Dr. Gordon Barnhart was appointed acting interim president until a more permanent replacement can be found.

If one thing is to be taken from the events at the U of S, it’s this: freedom of speech is still vehemently cherished. When it’s stripped or censored it warrants action and outrage from the public and national community.

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