Student Council talks TransformUS with senior administrators

Councillor Jon Herriot questioned if the burden of budget cuts would fall on liberal arts programs.

Councillor Jon Herriot questioned if the burden of budget cuts would fall on liberal arts programs.

Senior university administrators answered student representatives’ questions and concerns regarding TransformUS at the Nov. 28 University Students’ Council meeting.

University of Saskatchewan Provost and Vice-President Academic Brett Fairbairn and Vice-President Operations and Resources Greg Fowler were at the meeting, wherein members of students’ council had the floor for their own questions.

The conversation focussed primarily on TransformUS — a program prioritization model that ranks academic programs and support services according to five categories ranging from being a candidate for enhanced resources, quintile one, to being a candidate for phasing out, quintile five.

U of S Students’ Union Vice-President Jordan Sherbino started off the questions by asking for an expanded definition of the academic quintile four, in which a program or service is recommended to be reconfigured for efficiency and effectiveness.

Sherbino said he was concerned about the fact that reconfiguration was ranked fourth — one above the ranking of phase out — could imply that restructuring will predominantly have negative effects on a program.

Fairbairn replied by stating it is possible that programs landing in the middle to lowest rankings could be candidates for reduced resources. However, these programs may benefit from being reconstructed or even phased out.

“It could be good or bad to be in any [quintile] so it’s worth thinking about ways in which it could be good for something to be in [quintile] five even,” Fairbairn said. “A program that is being phased out by being merged with something else, the parts of it that are the best might be retained in the university.”

Member of students’ council for the College of Medicine Jon Herriot asked about the possibility of there being a disproportionate representation of liberal arts programs in the lower academic quintiles that may face large cuts.

Noting potentially low student demand as one of the few probable weaknesses, Fairbairn said programs in the liberal arts and humanities are generally the most cost-effective programs that universities have.

“Something most people don’t know is that in every university I’m aware of, the most efficient programs on a cost basis are those in the liberal arts, education, maybe business depending on the kind of program, followed closely by the humanities,” Fairbairn said.

Following a question regarding faculty and staff adjustments after TransformUS from USSU General Manager Caroline Cottrell, Fairbairn said the university has signed a collective agreement for faculty and staff that includes procedures for dealing with employees whose programs or services are eliminated or restructured.

Greg Fowler talks about TransformUS.

Greg Fowler talks about TransformUS.

Fairbairn also noted that a university often does not save money by simply eliminating programs and that the bulk of the savings do not come from lower utilities or space costs, but from lessening expenditures on staff and faculty.

As the TransformUS taskforces are expected to release their recommendations to the campus community during the final exam period on Dec. 9, USSU Vice-President Operations and Finance Jenna Moellenbeck said she would like to know how the university will offer support to students, faculty and staff that may already be stressed.

Deans and unit leaders will be widely available on Dec. 9 to talk to any students or employees that feel that they may be affected by their program being slated for elimination or reconfiguration, Fairbairn said.

However, Fairbairn added that students need not to worry should their academic program receive a low ranking as all students have been promised an opportunity to complete their degree within a time period varying from five to seven years. He said he expects that faculty and staff will not have that same security and that these support services will be geared primarily towards them.

“None of you [students] will be individually prevented from finishing the kind of program you signed on for. But obviously, there’s not that same kind of guarantee there for staff,” Fairbairn said, adding that there will be a series of meetings throughout December focussing on the task force recommendations.

“One of the most important messages is that what’s in the taskforce reports will only be recommendations,” he said.

Fairbairn also addressed the fact that should sweeping changes to academic programs be brought to University Council — the governing body of the U of S responsible for changes to academic programs — that the council has the ability to approve or reject any of the recommendations.

“Absolutely, council has the ability to say no to things,” Fairbairn said. “If we were to bring, say, a sweep of academic measures to University Council that are necessary for financial stability of the university and if they were to say no to those, they would have said no.”

With universities receiving less and less funding from their provincial governments, USSU President Max FineDay asked whether students should be expecting budget balancing projects like workforce planning and program prioritization to become normal aspects of their U of S experience.

TransformUS will account for saving only five per cent of the university’s operating budget and will extend out seven years into the future, Fowler said, confirming that changing the university’s finances is best done without taking drastic measures such as across the board cuts.

“This is something that will continue and it is continuing at a pace that is measured for the university,” Fowler said. “It is much more strategic, rather than something that we take any immediate action without the consideration of the students.”

Photo: Katherine Fedoroff