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University of Saskatchewan re-evaluates restructuring plan

Members of a student-led organization called "TransformThis" march to a rally against the administration of the University of Saskatchewan on campus in Saskatoon, Tuesday, May 20,2014.

LIAM RICHARDS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The University of Saskatchewan is re-evaluating the controversial restructuring plan that led to the firing of the dean of public health and the ouster of the president.

President Ilene Busch-Vishniac, who had announced the TransformUs project in January, 2013, and was one of its key champions, was given a termination letter by the board of governors late Wednesday night. Soon after, the chair of the board addressed the future of TransformUS and gave a less-than-ringing endorsement.

"We still have a financial issue," Susan Milburn said Thursday. "This [changing of senior leadership] gives us the opportunity to reassess, to ask if we're heading in the right direction, do we need to make adjustments."

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Asked whether the university could drop the TransformUS plan without contractual repercussions, Ms. Milburn answered: "I think we could. The process was meant to take a really deep look at our university."

Controversy has dogged similar budgeting exercises at some U.S. institutions, but no Canadian school has seen the firestorm that has engulfed U of Sask. after it fired Robert Buckingham, the dean of public health, for speaking out publicly against TransformUS.

The process was targeted at saving $25-million by cutting staff and merging faculties to address what the administration said were projections of annual budget deficits. Other Canadian universities, such as Guelph and Regina, have undertaken similar exercises based on a U.S.-based model of ranking programs developed by a higher-education consultant. Rather than make cuts to all departments, program prioritization picks winning and losing programs based on a school's goals.

The firing of the president had been called for at a Tuesday student-led demonstration on campus but was unexpected. The board of governors held an emergency meeting Monday night and was scheduled to meet again May 26.

"[Following the Monday meeting] we said we needed to conclude our due diligence and that getting more information was critical to our decision making," Ms. Milburn said. "We were able to get it and discuss it. I can't tell you what that information was."

The motion to fire the president was put to a vote Wednesday night of 11 governors, some of whom were on a conference call. Ms. Milburn hand-delivered the termination notice; it was "difficult" to do, she said. It is possible Ms. Busch-Vishniac could stay on in a different role for the remaining three years of her contract, possibly as a faculty member in the college of engineering.

Former Saskatchewan lieutenant-governor Gordon Barnhart has taken over as acting president. His appointment was applauded on Twitter by Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall shortly after it was announced.

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Doug Chivers, chair of the faculty association, said the university's administration was hobbled by a three-pronged attack on the school's reputation – Dr. Buckingham's dismissal, the TransformUS restructuring and a dispute over the president's claim to have the power to veto tenure recommendations.

The veto issue dates from the term of Dr. Busch-Vishniac's predecessor, Peter MacKinnon, who refused to forward two tenure recommendations to the board for approval. The union took the dispute to arbitration where the faculty's argument that the president cannot veto tenure decisions was upheld, Dr. Chivers said.

Ms. Milburn acknowledged that the veto question is on the agenda for the governors' meeting next week. So, too, is TransformUS and its impact on the university.

Jim Turk, director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said the university needs to reinstate Dr. Buckingham's position as dean, not just as a faculty member. "Freedom of faculty is also freedom to comment on whatever aspect goes on in their institution. Silencing deans is impoverishing the debate," he stated.

Dr. Buckingham said he was told by Ms. Busch-Vishniac no one was to be critical of TransformUS. If they were, they could have their tenure cut short.

"I have not been reinstated yet [as dean]," Dr. Buckingham said. "If it happened [that TransformUS was scrapped by the administration], that would be wonderful."

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Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. He joined the Globe and Mail in 1997 with an extensive sports background having covered Stanley Cup finals, the Grey Cup, Summer and Winter Olympics, the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the 1989 Super Bowl riot and the 1989 earthquake World Series. More

National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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