University of Saskatchewan President Ilene Busch-Vishniac prevented a bitter debate at last month’s university council meeting after arbitrating an under-the-table deal between university administration and College of Medicine faculty.
“We were headed for a very contentious debate at the university council and it was clear that would be in no one’s interest,” Busch-Vishniac said.
At the September meeting, council was scheduled to vote on approval of a sweeping restructuring plan for the college that would create three new divisions of governance for the college — biomedical and population sciences, clinical research and teaching.
But the plan, drawn up mainly by university Provost and Vice-President Academic Brett Fairbairn with guidance from the former dean of the College of Medicine, has been widely criticized by the college’s faculty who say the restructuring process has been administered too quickly.
The plan was originally approved by council in May. But the debate was reopened by President Busch-Vishniac after her office received more than 50 letters from university faculty members opposing council’s decision.
At a rare special meeting held Sept. 6, the general academic assembly voted to force council to reconsider its decision at its next meeting.
The problem that we have is that we are asking a college to change itself, and it is very hard to ask people who are comfortable with the way things are to necessarily move forward and agree to a significant change. — President Ilene Busch-Vishniac
But Busch-Vishniac saw no happy ending in sight.
“One of two things would have happened,” she said. “We would have had a rancorous debate and not reaffirmed the original motion which would have left us with no path forward.
“Or we would have had the same sort of rancorous debate and ended up reaffirming the original motion… having done so over figuratively dead bodies laying in the road making it almost impossible to implement.”
Rather than leaving the matter solely up to council, Busch-Vishniac invited the dean of the college, a handful of faculty members, the provost and vice-provost, and the chair and vice-chair of council to a behind-the-scenes meeting to hammer out a deal. She said she wanted the administration and the faculty to come to an agreement that would not leave either side feeling abused.
At the closed-door meeting, Busch-Vishniac said she would be willing to withdraw the administration’s support for the restructuring plan provided that the college put forward an alternative plan no later than the December council meeting.
She said the college’s plan must include restructuring that will address accreditation concerns within 12 months, rebalance responsibilities within the college’s faculty and provide council with proof of progress towards these goals.
Finally, the plan must “Manage to accomplish all of this without additional funding from the university,” Busch-Vishniac said.
The original restructuring plan was drafted earlier this year after a team of inspectors with the national accrediting body visited the college in 2011 and found 10 infractions. In a letter sent to the former dean, accreditors wrote that if the non-compliance areas were not corrected soon, the college would risk being placed on probation and “seriously compromise the ability of the faculty to deliver a quality medical education program.”
Fairbairn, who has led efforts to implement the original plan, told the general academic assembly in September that the accreditors found deep-rooted issues with the structure of teaching duties within the college’s undergraduate medical degree. The college’s structure is unique among Canadian medical schools and Fairbairn believes it does not properly incentivize teaching or research.
The college falls far short of its Canadian counterparts when competing for federal research revenue.
Busch-Vishniac could not say for sure that the college’s plan will mature fast enough to avoid probation but noted that it is rare for accreditation to be revoked.
“It is unusual for accrediting bodies to take the action of withdrawing accreditation or putting units on probations,” Busch-Vishniac said. “If they can be reassured that a process is in place that will resolve the issues that they are raising, they [will] try very hard to avoid probation or withdrawal of accreditation.”
Busch-Vishniac has been told by more than one source that the college has been making significant progress towards an alternative restructuring plan and she hopes to have “enough flesh on the bone” to appease accreditors when they return to the college in March 2013.
“The problem that we have is that we are asking a college to change itself, and it is very hard to ask people who are comfortable with the way things are to necessarily move forward and agree to a significant change.”
Busch-Vishniac took the job of university president in July 2012 after former president Peter MacKinnon stepped down following 13 years in office.
Photos: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf