Eye of the Storm: History, Past and Future at the University of Saskatchewan

By Merle Massie

The University of Saskatchewan has been front and center in national and international news this past spring, owing to the public fallout of an ugly internal battle regarding the university’s past and future directions.

And historians have been active generals and foot soldiers on all sides of the battle. Because when you’re talking about shaping past and future, there are historians in the room.

A quick précis of events: Robert Buckingham, then Executive Director of the School of Public Health, released an open letter entitled ‘Silence of the Deans,’ accusing University of Saskatchewan senior administration of demanding a code of silence and conformity surrounding the controversial priority planning process TranformUS underway on campus. In response, the University of Saskatchewan fired Buckingham and stripped his tenure.

The ensuing public outcry – across campus, Saskatchewan, alumni, Canada, and beyond – was loud, outraged, and embarrassing for USask. The next day, part of the decision was revoked and Buckingham’s tenure reinstated. President Ilene Busch-Vishniac candidly admitted: “we blundered.” But soon the dominoes fell. Provost and Vice-President Academic Brett Fairbairn, who signed the firing letter, tendered his resignation. Two days later, the Board of Governors fired the President and hired a new interim President, Gordon Barnhart, to skipper the USask ship out of the shoals.

The key context to the story is, of course, money. Long prior to the Buckingham fiasco, the U of S has been wracked with controversy. To combat a projected future budgetary shortfall, the program prioritization process is leading adjustments and strategic cuts, rather than an across-the-board slash. This process has been messy, painful, and sad. University of Saskatchewan has been in ‘crisis mode’ for two years. The events of this spring merely brought the festering mess to a public explosion.

There is both storyline and characters in this battle:  they read like a ‘who’s who’ of the History department.

Cast of characters:

Brett Fairbairn, now ex-Provost, a tenured professor in the Department of History and founding director of the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives. Brett presided over a term where the power of the Provost’s office grew exponentially, particularly with the creation and expansion of the Provost’s Committee on Integrated Planning (PCIP). While the TransformUS process involved the entire university, final decisions and all action plans come from PCIP. Self-described as ‘gatekeepers’, “PCIP provides the link between the academic priorities of the university and its business and budgetary priorities.” To follow the money at the U of S (as all good historians do), it would be wise to open up all the documents submitted to, and accepted by, PCIP since 2009.

Jim Miller, SSHRC Tier I Research Chair on Native-Newcomer Relations, SSHRC Gold Medal and Killam award winner, tenured in the Department of History. Over a month before the convulsive events in May surrounding Buckingham, Miller called the TransformUS process the “biggest disaster that’s happened to the University of Saskatchewan apart from the Great Depression in the 1930s.” During the Buckingham crisis, Miller reinforced and expanded this statement in newspaper and CBCs As it Happens. Miller coined the term “reign of error” to describe the atmosphere on campus.

Bill Waiser, AS Morton Distinguished Research Chair in the Department of History, commented: “A place of higher learning must be a place where ideas, processes, and decisions can be debated openly and freely – without intimidation or threat.”  Waiser gloomily predicted that USask “will be a fundamentally different place in the future – but not a better one.”

Rob Norris, Minister of Advanced Education, voiced concerns from the Government of Saskatchewan. Sending a letter to the Board of Governors, Norris (whose spouse, Martha Smith-Norris, is a tenured professor in the Department of History) asked for an emergency meeting.

Gordon Barnhart, Interim President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan, accepted the temporary position at the request of the Board of Governors at the same meeting where it fired previous President Busch-Vishniac. Barnhart is an adjunct professor in the Department of History, having earned his PhD from that department in 1998.

Alongside this ‘big five’ list are the graduate and undergraduate students, professors, staff, and alumni attached to the History Department whose names are listed prominently on petitions calling for change at the U of S.

But it’s the storyline where the rubber hits the road. At its core, the program prioritization process seeks to answer two questions: one, what has the University of Saskatchewan been in the past? And two, what should it look like in the future?

Brett Fairbairn wanted a future university flourishing through targeted well-funded research areas of excellence. Jim Miller and Bill Waiser want a university with a conscience, an open atmosphere, collegial processes, and broad financial support that includes arts and humanities. Rob Norris wants a university that abides by its provincial mandate through the University Act. And Gordon Barnhart, a non-partisan political historian, wants to limp the USask ship into a quiet port, haul it up and examine it keel to topmast.

In the end, my preference is to follow the lead of a so-far unnamed side character in this story: Professor Emeritus Michael Hayden, who has written a book and several articles on the history of the University of Saskatchewan. He calls for the U of S to return to its roots as a ‘people’s university’, where – as its first president, Walter Murray, routinely argued – the University of Saskatchewan had to meet the specific needs of the people of Saskatchewan, first.

And if the hundreds of letters, thousands of signatures, social media posts, blogs, and coffee shop conversations are any indication, the people of Saskatchewan have much to say about their university.

Gordon Barnhart will do well to listen.

Merle Massie is a writer and historian, and a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Ottawa. Find her blog at: http://merlemassie.wordpress.com/.

3 thoughts on “Eye of the Storm: History, Past and Future at the University of Saskatchewan

  1. One very important contradiction that is missed in this otherwise excellent article is the bizarre paradox that even as the University of Saskatchewan’s bloated administration has crippled the functioning of the university and spread terror with ill-advised cuts to support and maintenance staff and forced through the adoption of the notoriously destructive and widely discredited Dickeson process to decimate programs and faculty positions, it has spent lavishly on megaprojects and like the Canadian Light Sourceand InterVac. At the very same time as these greatly underused white elephants, which have failed to come anywhere close to meeting the wild revenue-generating promises made for them, swallow tens of million dollars in operating costs, there is a total of a billion dollars of construction of huge and pretentious new buildings going on.

    Far from setting the groundwork for their fantasies of a sort of MIT north, these overpaid nincompoops have lessened the value of a degree from our university and perhaps even extended the threats to its accreditation beyond our College of Medicine.

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