On May 21, former Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan Gordon Barnhart was appointed as acting president of the University of Saskatchewan following the same-day firing of Ilene Busch-Vishniac from the position.
Expecting to hold the position for an estimated 12–18 month period, Barnhart met with University Council on May 22 to address students, faculty, staff and the public at large.
“I’m not here to throw stones at the past,” Barnhart said. “I think it’s time for us to move on, turn the page and focus on many of the positive things we’re doing on campus.”
With the recent backlash against university administration and program prioritization model TransformUS — including DefendUS, a student and faculty rally taking place on campus — Barnhart is hopeful that the public debate will yield beneficial results for the university as a whole.
“I’m sorry when people are feeling that angry about things… but I am amazed with how many people have gotten in touch with me who are saying change is necessary, don’t stop now,” Barnhart said in an interview with the Sheaf. “So it’s not just one side of the story that I’m getting; I’m getting pulled from both sides, and that’s healthy.”
Looking forward, Barnhart is opting to distance himself from the public perception of TransformUS in favour of focusing on his own plans as acting president.
“TransformUS is a word that is used for a whole bunch of different changes, and I would like us to look more at the description of what I’ve given in terms of the change coming up, and I’m not putting one word on it because I think it’s bigger than that,” Barnhart said. “It’s the refocusing of our academic priorities, it’s also being very much financially aware of the financial sustainability that we have to make sure that that’s always on our mind as well.”
Touching on his goals as acting president, Barnhart intends to retain an open communication between students, staff, faculty and administration as the university plans for the future. Though savings have allowed the U of S to stay in the black for the time being, the potential financial crisis the deficit could entail means that a reorganization of spending is a chief concern.
“The problem is that our expenses are increasing at a higher rate than our revenues and you know from your own personal finances that you can’t spend more than you’re earning for very long before you start to run into trouble. And if we don’t get this under control, what will happen is we’ll all of a sudden face that doomsday where we’re out of money,” Barnhart said. “Sometimes the reorganization or the refocus might not even be a cost savings but it’ll be a better way of producing education for our students — and the students are our focus.”
The decision from the Board of Governors to appoint Barnhart as acting president, which was announced alongside the “termination, without cause, of the appointment of Ilene Busch-Vishniac as president and vice-chancellor,” came after a national controversy broke out surrounding the firing and subsequent rehiring of Robert Buckingham from his position of dean of the School of Public Health. Buckingham was let go — losing his tenure in the process — after he issued an open letter criticizing the merit of TransformUS.
Busch-Vishniac has announced that she will return to the U of S in a teaching capacity and will act as a professor in the College of Engineering.
Barnhart comes with a well-cultivated history on campuses and in the political spectrum, including six years as Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan, five years as secretary for the U of S and spent time as a clerk of the Canadian Senate and the Saskatchewan Legislature.
With files from Rainer Kocsis/Associate News Editor.
Photo: Andrew Mareschal