Though TransformUS was formally cancelled during the University of Saskatchewan president’s address on Sept. 9, the reality may be slightly less optimistic than initial coverage has implied.
“TransformUS, in a way, isn’t dead,” said interim President Gordon Barnhart during an interview with the Sheaf.
TransformUS was the name for the slew of cost-saving changes planned for the U of S, started in 2013 under the administration of ex-University President Ilene Busch-Vishniac. The austerity project was due to a projected 2016 deficit of $44.5 million dollars and was hoped to save at least $25 million through immediate implementation. It was an all-encompassing plan including an alteration of on-campus libraries, amalgamation of smaller departments, cuts to departmental budgets and finally, the merging of the School of Public Health and the College of Dentistry under the College of Medicine.
After the turmoil that occurred this spring with the controversy over TransformUS, it may be unsettling for some to hear the interim President’s words, but Barnhart had more to say.
“What I really said quite carefully was that the word TransformUS and in fact the philosophy of how quickly things were being implemented and how they were being implemented is dead.”
The difference, Barnhart says, between TransformUS and the new eight-priority plan his administration has created is both procedural and related to the end goals. These eight priorities include Aboriginal achievement, restructuring the College of Medicine, interdisciplinary health education and research as well as a transformation of libraries.
“The difference is that we’re taking a smaller bite, a smaller piece of the action: eight points. But within those eight points there are sometimes multiple points within it, so it’s more than just eight points,” Barnhart said. “What we’re also saying is that we’re being driven by our mission — who we are and where we’re headed rather than specifically by money. It seemed before, under TransformUS, that it was the $44.5 million… deficit that was driving the change, and we think the change should be driven by our need to become better.”
Along with tackling issues at a smaller scale and at a slower pace, Barnhart said his administration is attempting to incorporate more consultation from the wider campus community.
“I feel confident that I, as the president, and the senior administration, we have the support from the deans and their colleges. I’m not saying that it’s unanimous. Nothing is ever going to be unanimous across campus. But we’ve just got grassroots support to work along this and that consultation will continue,” Barnhart said.
With regards to a student voice in future plans, Barnhart acknowledged the difficulties students had in getting heard under TransformUS, but also said that the university cannot always prolong decisions until a time that is convenient for everyone.
“As much as we can, we will have the community — that’s more than students — but the community as a whole involved and getting their input as we did with the deans and the heads of departments,” Barnhart said. “I’ve been working very closely with the executive of [the Graduate Students’ Association] and [the U of S Students’ Union] and certainly in dealing with [USSU President] Max FineDay. I think we’ve had excellent communication. And we’re not done, we need to keep going.”
Reached by email, FineDay was also hopeful about future student engagement.
“The main difference is that this administration is committed to reaching out to college societies, to the USSU and to students who will be most impacted by this new plan,” FineDay said. “The interim president and interim provost have both committed to talking with students, not only in university budget matters but also in conversations around tuition. Does it mean we’ll always agree? No. But it means that the door is open, and both sides are willing to listen. This year students will be heard.”
FineDay also wrote, “For students, ending TransformUS will restore some faith in our administration. We expect administration to be caretakers for this place and, when the situation calls for it, go beyond what is normally done and extensively engage the student body in the future direction of our university. From what I’ve heard, this is what the administration will do, and that’s a win for students.”
Regarding the “transformation of libraries” mentioned in the plan, Barnhart was quick to assure that “transformation” did not mean disappearance. Speaking of the Dean of University Library Vicki Williamson, Barnhart said that a plan to reform libraries had been under way well before TransformUS.
“In the process of TransformUS it somehow became interpreted that, say, the law college was just going to lose their library — that it was just going to be closed,” he said. “And I’m not sure that was intended, but if that was intended, what we are now saying is, ‘Let’s go back to the dean of libraries and let’s get back to the original track of seeing how we can make the libraries more useful or a better tool in terms of students.’”
In particular, Barnhart mounted a strong defence of the U of S Law Library.
“The Law Library is not only students’ but it is the law professors’, and it’s also the law community’s. The lawyers downtown and the lawyers across the province [use] that library as a resource.”
Speaking of tuition rates at the U of S, and specifically a figure from Statistics Canada indicating that the rates of tuition increase here are amongst the highest in the country, Barnhart wanted to make one thing clear about how tuition is set at the university.
“Well, first off, there’s an impression that tuition fees are set by [whether] the university needs more money, and that’s not the case. We don’t say, ‘Okay, we can’t balance the budget this year so we’re going to have to increase the tuition more.’ That’s not the case. Instead, when the question comes up each year of what the tuition should be for the coming year, there is a study done of across Canada to try and find out what the medium is within comparable universities.”
Barnhart asserted that within comparable universities, the U of S ranks near the middle and added that government rebate programs in Saskatchewan make student debt significantly more bearable compared to other provinces.
Addressing on-campus childcare, an issue not discussed in either the previous administration’s TransformUS or the current eight-point plan, Barnhart was keen to show that the subject had not been neglected, saying his administration has been working with the USSU.
“As I understand, we’ve identified need for about 800 spaces right now. We have a proposal going to the board, I can’t give you the details yet, but assuming the board agrees, we will be building more spaces in the next little while,” Barnhart said.
“I’m also told that about 35 per cent of those vacancies are needed by Aboriginal parents — Aboriginal mothers particularly. But no matter who might be needing those spaces, it is an obstacle for a student to get an education if they have children and if they have no place to get their children looked after in a safe way. So it is very much a priority for us as a university and, as I say, stay tuned. I’m hopeful that within the next six weeks we’ll have some positive news.”
FineDay’s response to the university’s childcare plans was hopeful.
“Obviously construction will take a while. I will likely not be the president of the USSU when it opens, but I’m going to continue to push this university to honour the commitment to expanding childcare, and challenging them to plan for future expansion now,” FineDay wrote. “If that can be a piece of what I get done here, I’ll be happy.”
While TransformUS is finally appearing to fade into the past, some questions remain. Namely, the controversial Vision 2025 document that is slated to be discussed by the Board of Governors on Sept. 18.
“We should not gratuitously duplicate research or educational programs that may be found elsewhere within the province,” reads the main point of contention in the document. Many see this phrasing as a way of saying programs that overlap with those offered at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology, the University of Regina, the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies, or the First Nations University of Canada might be cancelled. Barnhart stressed that program coordination amongst post-secondary institutions in this province is an on-going process.
“I know there’s been debates for years over, ‘Well [the U of S and the U of R] both have colleges of engineering,’” Barnhart said. “And that becomes a really very vicious circle of ‘Well, you should close yours,’ ‘No, you should close yours.’ But if we can cooperate, we can work together,” Barnhart said. “I’m not in the short term expecting that we’re going to close a college just because somebody else has that same college.”
While a new vision is being enacted across the campus, the controversy over TransformUS is certainly still being discussed in the student community. As third year physiology pharmacology student Yuhao Wu puts it, “It’s hard to see how the university, with its overwhelming debt, is going handle its finances considering that TransformUS was kind of brought in to handle our debt crisis.”
Photo: Katherine Fedoroff/Photo Editor