Response to the USask TransformUS project and fate of Prof. Robert Buckingham

In early May, the dean of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) was fired for writing an open letter called “Silence of the Deans,” criticizing its new restructuring plan, TransformUS. The university justified its actions, saying that Professor Buckingham had betrayed the trust of the university administration by publicly criticizing the TransformUS project.

TransformUS is the name of the University of Saskatchewan’s restructuring plan aimed at reducing costs and making the University more fiscally efficient. U of S estimates it will save $25 million in total and will be more likely to avoid incurring a deficit in the future.  Over the course of 2013 to the present, the plan has moved from the development stages to implementation. In November 2013, a report was released by the prioritization task force dividing all current academic programs into quintiles: candidates for enhanced funding, maintained funding, reduced funding, program reconfiguration and program dissolution.U of S has reallocated $5 million to invest in the growth of programs in the first quintile, giving them “priority” status.Most of the cost savings will come from restructuring academic programs, senior administration and support services. This includes disbanding the College of Graduate Studies & Research and redistributing its functions amongst the 12 remaining colleges. The plan also includes consolidating U of S library services and reducing the number of print resources available in the libraries in favour of increased student space.

Regardless of the language used, we are particularly concerned with the closure or ‘reconfiguration’ of the Law, Education, Engineering and Veterinary Medicine libraries as part of the TransformUS project. Consolidating four of seven campus libraries will have a profound impact on their respective faculties and students, not to mention the inevitable job losses. Emphasizing study space for students is not an end in itself and does not make a library if librarians and collections are off-site. This consolidation devalues the expertise of departmental librarians by making their services less accessible and furthermore risks overloading the remaining ‘full-service’ libraries. It also devalues the departments the libraries are associated with. This is particularly disconcerting as the College of Veterinary Medicine and several Engineering programs have been identified as candidates for enhanced resources, suggesting that any fiscal rationale for these actions is misplaced. Furthermore, a law school without a law library is not taken as seriously in the larger academic community and may have more difficulty hiring new faculty and attracting students.

If services like embedded librarianship are being considered, as suggested by Acting Dean Ken Ladd, these developments must be emphasized. Describing the project primarily in terms of space allocation is a slight to librarians and those who benefit from their services.

Basic researchers continue to struggle for research funding while industrial projects are given favour by NSERC, CIHR, and SSHRC (CAUT’s commentary on NRC transformation). According to USask’s research website, the Industry Liaison Office works to, “Accelerate the Commercialization of University Research & Knowledge and Create Economic Value & Opportunity by Transferring University Research & Knowledge to Society.” This flies in the face of conventional scientific progress. Scientific discovery is an exploratory progress that cannot be guided by the whims of industry. Scholars from every discipline are trained to investigate by building upon the work of their predecessors; in this way, the research guides itself.

After the unwarranted firing of Dr. Robert Buckingham, former Dean of Public Health, university administration has undergone several changes in recent weeks with the resignation of Provost Brett Fairbarn and the firing of President Ilene Busch-Vishniac. It is crucial that the administration seriously consider not only how they handle critique but how this demonstrates the flaws inherent in TransformUS. Repairing a damaged reputation does not mean falsely projecting a united front but instead gaining confidence from concerned faculty and students by prioritizing their input on the future of the university.

Some USask students have organized a public reaction to the TransformUS strategic plan. They argue that TransformUS is based on the false premise that an economic crisis is imminent. As a public, educational institution, USask should not be concerned with its financial future to the point where it places a higher priority on its profit margin than on the quality of research and education. We are deeply concerned that establishing partnerships with industry in the excessive capacity of Western University’s recent STEM-focused strategic plan and USask’s TransformUS will stifle research creativity and take away opportunities for faculty and graduate students to take on original research projects.

A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Dr. Buckingham as the Dean of Health Sciences and not Public Health and contained outdated information about the status of TransformUS. These oversights have been corrected.

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4 thoughts on “Response to the USask TransformUS project and fate of Prof. Robert Buckingham

  1. Hmmm: fact checking would be nice:
    – Prioritization (“TransformUS”) was not a strategic plan. That would be Integrated Planning (now in the third incarnation). Prioritization was an internal ranking, based on the task forces’ criteria.
    – Buckingham was not the dean of “health sciences.” You have google. Use it.
    – The prioritization process is nearly complete. It is now at the implementation stage.
    – The identification of programs into quintiles is complete. Again, try google.
    – Certainly, the library development bears concerns. The use of off-site storage is common for many libraries. The potential closing of four branches is a concern.

    I’m disappointed that a librarian would have such a casual regard for the facts.

  2. Pingback: Response to the USask TransformUS strategic plan and fate of Prof. Robert Buckingham | Sam Trosow

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