HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Saskatchewan

July 21

University of Saskatchewan Detritus

We all remember this spring’s controversy at the University of Saskatchewan over the firing of Robert Buckingham, which resulted in the resignation of the University’s Provost, Brett Fairbairn, and the firing of the President, Ilene Busch-Vishniac.  Despite all the coverage, a number of key questions were never answered, like “how could anyone possibly think firing a tenured professor was a good idea?”  And, “who’s idea was it to fire him anyway – the Provost’s or the President’s?”

We now have more insight, as Fairbairn recently released a five-page letter providing his perspective on events.  Two key points from his account:

  • The decision to fire Buckingham as Dean was a group decision.  The Provost, “leaders responsible for Faculty Relations, HR internal legal expertise and Communications”, and the President (by phone) were all present.  But the key question of whether to dismiss him from the university altogether was referred to HR for further study.  At this point Busch-Vishniac told Fairbarin: “I will stand behind any actions you deem necessary and will not second-guess”.
  • The decision to fire him from both jobs was the HR department’s recommendation.

How HR came to this conclusion isn’t clear; Fairbairn notes that it had happened before at U of S in a case where there had been an irreparable breakdown in relations between employer and employee. Without knowing the case to which he’s referring, it’s hard to know what to make of this.  Certainly, the employer-employee relationship with Buckingham as a dean was irreparably damaged (which is why they were correct to fire him); it’s not at all clear that he couldn’t have remained as a faculty member since he wouldn’t have had any real contact with any of the superiors whose trust he had abused as Dean.  For whatever reason, Fairbairn decided to take the “expert advice” from HR, and did so without looping back to the communications people to get their input (which might have been valuable) or checking with Bush-Vishniac.

Far from backing up Fairbairn as promised, Busch-Vishniac threw him under the bus and asked for his resignation three days later.  That was emphatically the wrong call.  From the moment she gave the go-ahead for Buckingham’s dismissal, it was clear that either both of them would stay, or neither would.  Fairbairn decided to go, astutely noting that “the only thing worse than blame and recrimination among senior leaders is mutual recrimination among senior leaders”.

Fairbairn’s letter is a valuable peek into how crises get managed at universities.  I think it shows him as a manager with mostly the right instincts, but who erred in accepting some terrible advice from professionals who should have known better.  Others – mostly people who genuinely have no insight into how major organizations function – will probably see this distinction as irrelevant since the real crime was firing Buckingham as a Dean in the first place.  Former CAUT director James Turk, in particular, has made the “managers should have a right to criticise each other publicly” case – to which the correct response is: “and how much freedom did Turk allow his staff and executive to criticise his management as CAUT director?”.

If I were at the University of Saskatchewan, though, my main question after reading Fairbairn’s letter would be: “how is it that the HR department got off comparatively lightly?”  Food for thought.

May 16

Deans and Multiple Personality Disorders

Imagine two scenarios.  In the first, an academic is threatened with termination if he/she speaks out publicly against the university’s proposed strategic plan.  In the second, a manager is fired for disobeying a direct order from a superior about running down the company he/she works for.  For most readers, I’d guess the first scenario is abhorrent, and the second quite understandable (if perhaps somewhat harsh).  Yet both scenarios describe precisely what happened to University of Saskatchewan’s Dean, Robert Buckingham.

The Buckingham incident goes to the heart of a real live issue in Canadian universities: for whom do deans work – the President and Provost, or the faculty?  Are they management’s tool to keep faculty in line, or do they represent the interests of their faculty in the halls of the power?

I don’t think there’s much doubt in a legal sense that Deans answer to senior management rather than faculty.  But the way Deans are chosen usually incorporate a large amount of feedback from professors in that department, who want to make sure that the Dean is – to the extent possible – sympatico with their interests.  And whether the Dean is a likable figure or not, he/she is very much expected to fight for the interests of that faculty and its members when it comes to things like resource allocation.

So, to Saskatoon where, as part of the university’s restructuring process, the 5-year-old School of Public Health Buckingham headed was slated, along with the School of Dentistry and the college of Medicine, to become part of an enlarged Faculty of Medicine.  The School, which at least in its own eyes is pretty hot stuff having just received European accreditation for its program, was less than thrilled with the notion of being under the same roof as the College of Medicine, which has had a rough time with accreditation issues for the past few years.

Buckingham fought his corner spiritedly but quietly for several months.  When Deans were recently told that the time for chat was over, and it was time for all the managers to fall in line, Buckingham chose not to do so.  Instead, he wrote a letter (available here) that wound up in the StarPhoenix in which he effectively implied that: a) the President and Provost lacked courage, and b) that the College of Medicine was sub-standard.  Within the next 24 hours, Buckingham was not only removed as Dean, but was also fired as a tenured professor, and escorted from campus.

Now, given the high level of tension on campus, and that Buckingham was only a few weeks away from retirement, it might have made more sense to let this incident go with a reprimand (and indeed, after much media attention, and an emergency meeting called by Advanced Ed Minister, Rob Norris, the University “reconsidered and reversedparts of its initial decision).  But make no mistake, within a managerial capacity, it was a fire-able offense: you can’t have your Deans going off and running down their colleagues’ departments in public.

Simply put, the freedom of comment that one has as a faculty member doesn’t apply to management.  Buckingham’s line about “I’ve never seen academics be silenced like this” is somewhat disingenuous: Deans are management and held to a different standard.  Saskatchewan was within its rights to ditch him as a Dean; where they overstepped, and have since clawed back on their decision, was in firing him as a professor, because that raises legitimate issues of academic freedom.  As far as I know no professor has been dismissed for speaking out about university management since Norman Strax at UNB in 1968, and that’s not a place we want to go back to.

Both sides stepped over the line here, but it’s easy to see how it happened, and how it is likely to happen again.  At the end of the day, deans’ identities and allegiances are split between their role as academics and their role as administrators.  It’s a thankless and occasionally dangerous position.

August 30

Anticipating Demographic Shifts

I was in Regina last week speaking to the university’s senior management team about challenges in Canadian post-secondary education, when someone asked a really intriguing question.

“Given the changing demographics of Canada, with fewer traditional-aged students, are there any examples of good practice of universities altering their programming serving non-traditional students instead”?

I have to admit, I was stumped.

You’d think, for instance, that maritime universities, who have been facing demographic decline for quite some time, would have some experience of this, but they don’t, really. Think about it: when Memorial started hurting for students because of Newfoundland’s awful demographics, the main response was to lower tuition fees and begin raiding other nearby provinces for traditional-aged students. In the rest of the maritimes, they’ve been sucking traditional-aged students out of Ontario for a couple of decades now, and the primary solution to any shortfall now is to go looking for traditional-aged students in other parts of the world.

From Statistics Canada

There have, admittedly, been some advances recently in attracting non-traditional-aged students in Northern Ontario and the Prairies – specifically, Aboriginal students, who tend to arrive at university in their mid- to late-20s (often after having had children). But even here, what they are doing for the most part is trying to put in as many supports as possible so that they can be taught as if they were traditional, full-time students. One might conclude that universities are going to great lengths to avoid re-engineering themselves to serve older populations.

Taking demographics seriously means that some universities are going to have to move towards much more modular delivery of courses, more e-learning alternatives, and more evening courses. There are pockets of this, of course, but it hardly constitutes a major trend. Generally speaking, community colleges and polytechnics have been doing much better on this front than universities.

As the demographic shift continues, what happens if governments conclude that they should put more resources on lifelong learning and less on traditional-aged students? That possibility may open up some big opportunities for those institutions (mostly colleges) who have already invested heavily in this kind of delivery, and leave those institutions (mostly universities) who have not politically quite vulnerable.

August 26

Trust

It’s a big day at HESA, as it’s release day for our final report on the Consultation on the Expansion of Degree-granting in Saskatchewan that we’ve been working on for a few months (available here). I can’t tell you what it says before it comes out – but I would like to talk about one of the key themes of the report: trust.

If you issue degrees, people need to be able to trust that the degree means something. In particular, students need to know that a degree from a given institution will be seen as a mark of quality by employers; otherwise, the degree is worthless. Worldwide, the function of quality assurance agencies – third-parties giving seals of approval either to individual programs or to institutions generally (either by looking directly at quality or by looking at an institution’s internal quality control mechanisms) – is to assure the public that degrees are trustworthy.

In Canada, many people have looked askance at these bodies, seeing them as unnecessary bureaucratic intrusions. “We never needed these before,” people grumble. “Why do we need them now?”

To an extent, the grumblers have a point. Trust is usually earned through relationships. People in, say, Fredericton, trust UNB not because some agency tells them to trust it but because it’s been granting degrees for going on 200 years now; they’ve seen the graduates and can gauge the quality for themselves. This is true across most universities in Canada; they’re old, solid and hardly fly-by-night and people know who they are. And there tend not to be more than four in any given urban area, so pretty much everyone knows someone who went to school “X” and can thus gauge an institution’s quality directly.

But what happens when you let new players, like private universities or community colleges, into the degree-granting game? What happens when universities start having to look abroad for students? How can employers in Canada trust new players? How can employers in Turkey or Vietnam trust any Canadian university they’ve never heard of?

Canada was able to get away without quality assurance for so long mainly because our system of giving a relatively small number of large public universities a monopoly over degree-granting was well-suited to engendering trust – especially when 90% of their students were local. But open up degree-provision, or widen the scope of your student base, and suddenly trust isn’t automatic anymore. You need a third-party to give a seal of approval to replace the trust that used to come naturally.

Quality assurance isn’t anyone’s idea of fun. But it isn’t the frivolous, makework bureaucracy the grumblers criticize, either. Rather, it’s a rational response to changing patterns in the provision and consumption of higher education.