Criticism levelled at TransformUS in open letter

February 3, 2014 - 4:49pm Updated: February 4, 2014 - 6:21am
Students and faculty attend financial town hall meeting at the University of Saskatchewan on Nov. 20, 2012. Karin Yeske/News Talk Radio
Students and faculty attend financial town hall meeting at the University of Saskatchewan on Nov. 20, 2012. Karin Yeske/News Talk Radio

With the period for feedback wrapped up, an open letter signed by a group of faculty, students and alumni is blasting the Transform US process at the University of Saskatchewan.

Transform US is a set of recommendations meant to prioritize cuts as the school seeks to trim $20-25 million from its budget.

The letter put forward a series of accusations and problems that the signatories said make the process suspect.

Among those who signed the letter was math professor Franz Kuhlmann.

Kuhlmann alleged that the process didn't represent the kind of peer review demanded in the academic world. He charged that those tasked with doing evaluations generally came from outside the program being discussed. As such, Kuhlmann said the people doing the evaluating weren't qualified to assess programs and that this model created comparisons "between apples and oranges."

The letter was addressed to university president Ilene Busch-Vishniac.

While the university provost's office crafted a specific response to the letter, Busch-Vishniac said the concerns it raised were known to the administration and echoed those seen in several other submissions made in the feedback window, she said they saw some 300 letters and emails in total.

Ultimately, she said the school was caught between two choices -- either target the cuts, or impose them across the board.  She also acknowledged that a program meant to slash tens of millions of dollars in costs was bound to create

"Being strategic does mean that you are, sort of, picking winners and losers," she said. She cautioned that the alternative of blanket cuts would likely result in "mediocrity" across all departments, rather than maintaining strengths where the university has them.

Kuhlmann also levelled accusations that the funding shortfall was really an effort to pull cash from academic programs and redirect it elsewhere.

"The administration says: 'There's the debt, so we have to make you bleed' but, we had that before. We had crises like that before when they said that the pension plan was in financial crisis. And so they pulled a lot of support from the academic programs and when it turned out that money was still there, it was re-invested, but not into academic programs but into administrative programs," he said.

Kuhlmann added that foundations like the Canadian Light Source and VIDO were often the recipients of administration largesse at the expense of other programs.

Busch-Vishniac denied the allegations outright.  She said the funding shortfall is a case where the generosity of the provincial government has simply run out in the face of mounting costs.

"We are at a point where the government is now saying to us, 'Gosh. We can't keep funding the increasing costs that have been there, primarily in personnel costs, year after year after year," she said.

Busch-Vishniac added that it's hard for universities to cry foul when other bodies, like health regions, face the same pressures when it comes to the province's willingness to spend.

As to the role of foundations, Busch-Visniac agreed that the research done at CLS or VIDO doesn't support itself on its own cashflows.  She argued that individual research done across the other academic units doesn't either and she said the foundations represent areas of strength where the U of S does well on the national stage.

For his part, Kuhlmann said Transform US is a move that damages the traditional role of a post-secondary institution and that if the cuts envisioned in the process go ahead, the school will become a bleak place, where students are offered a range of programs meant to produce workers, not thinkers.

"With the students paying more and more money get less and less offered. Where they cannot study the programs anymore that they want to study," he said.

With the feedback deadline up on this stage of the process, Busch-Vishniac said the next step is an implementation plan to be released in the spring. That will also be open to consultation.

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