Whither University of Saskatchewan? Corporate Agenda, Lack of Accountability, and Sidelining of Main Stakeholders

By Satya P. Sharma Associate Professor of Anthropology Department of Religion and Culture University of Saskatchewan

I came to the University of Saskatchewan in July 1970 and have taught anthropology all these years.  Fresh out of graduate school, coming to a beautiful campus and a University, which was true to its mandate and characterized by openness, and academic freedom was a dream come true for a young 28 year old. Oh, how things have changed in these past 43 years.  Change that leads to academic excellence and open discourse is always welcome.  Back then we had a supportive government which understood the importance of high quality education.  We had, back then, a central administration, small and efficient, which was supportive of the faculty, their teaching and research and which did not believe in empire building.

All of that is gone now.  It was a slow but steady process, supported immensely by the rise of the conservative governments, both at the federal and provincial levels.  These governments, in the name of “fiscal prudence”, began to downsize the support for education at all levels, but especially at the postsecondary level. So what has the University of Saskatchewan become now? It is a conservative place, fully reflective of the direction that the world has taken under insurmountable corporate pressure.  Let us try and understand this monster.

Corporatization, Deficit, and Beyond

In today’s business and corporate environment all executives, CEOs, and administrators think alike.  There is an uncanny similarity in their thinking and decision-making process. Undemocratic and lacking transparency, decision-making is invariably top-down, and non-compliant middle managers are forced into towing the line in their self-interest. Problems in the corporation, such as a fiscal deficit, bring a nifty blame game.  Eventually, the groups that end up suffering within the corporation, in the name of “making efficiencies”, are those lower down on the totem pole even if they are the biggest stake-holders but without the power to make decisions.  Nobody listens to them.  In the eyes of the executives, these stakeholders are like “barking dogs” who will eventually go silent.

This model of corporate functioning applies very aptly to the University of Saskatchewan that has been running as a corporate body for two decades.  The central administration has become an all-powerful entity.  Various modes of silencing dissent have been created, a good example being the creation of a Representative Council for academic decision-making. This body is loaded with administrators who get their way rather easily.  University as a corporate body and the biggest employer in the city, its administration enjoys the goodwill of the pro-business city hall and the pro-business local newspaper, The Star Phoenix.

Last year the university administration claimed that the U of S is faced with a deficit of 44.5 million dollars in its operating budget.  What caused the deficit?  Administrators blame a shortfall in the provincial grant to the university. It has been publicly stated that salaries account for about 70% of the operating budget.  Students work hard to earn an undergraduate or a graduate degree while holding on to 2, 3, even 4, part-time jobs to afford this education.  In the eyes of the administrators, the students are a “revenue source” and the tuition students pay keeps rising each year.  Access to and affordability of university education may already have become beyond many students’ budget.

Who Does the Work of the University?

Three unions make up the work force on the campus: the faculty association, CUPE, and ASPA.  CUPE employees are the least paid, the faculty is in the middle, and the ASPA employees and central and college administrators are the highest paid.  What do the administrators do?  They administer the university, the faculty and the CUPE employees. As administrators, they do not teach or do research; they just administer.  They have the largest army of workers and support staff.  According to my research, the central administration has a president, four vice-presidents, four associate vice-presidents, and four assistant vice-presidents.  Before the recent rounds of firings, a total of 805 people worked for central administration.  Human Resources alone had over 250 people working all over the campus.  The president makes $400,000 a year, and all senior administrators make in the $200,000 – $350,000 range.  Do we need that many highly paid executives to govern the university?   Let us first find efficiencies in this white elephant, which has an ever-growing pyramid.  Let me tell you that in 1970, the central administration had a skeletal staff of 21 people.  From 21 to 805, that is a jump of over 3,700%.  In 1970, there were a little less than 800 faculty, and a little over 13,000 students.  Now the faculty number just over 1,100, and the students just about 22,000.  Who is winning here?

How Are Decisions Made?

The colleges on campus are following the lead provided by the central administration.  Taking the College of Arts and Science as an example (because I teach there), there is a dean, three vice-deans, and an assistant dean, and a support staff of 51.  Before the layoffs, twenty departments/units in the college had 56 support staff.  On November 27, 2012, five secretaries in the Humanities and Fine Arts Division were laid off in a unilateral and inhumane manner. Two departments, Drama and Religion and Culture, lost their only secretaries.  Faculty members in the Department of Languages were moved out of the 5th floor to accommodate the Administrative Commons for the Dean’s office.  Even though faculty and students were, at the time, busy with final exams the alleged need for the Administrative Commons to be operational by January 4, 2013 overrode all their concerns.

None of this was carried out in a democratic manner: students’ concerns were ignored, and there was no prior warning or transparency in the decision-making process.  The Kenderdine campus was shut down in similar fashion in 2012, displeasing a number of stakeholders in both the university and the community.  The University Library staff has been cut and about a million books have been taken off the shelves and mothballed without any prior discussion or input from students and faculty.

A massive project, titled TransformUs, began in the early months of this calendar year.  At first, the central administration did not wish any input from students in the process of “prioritizing programs” even they would be directly affected.  Eventually, the administration gave them a place on the two committees – both academic and administrative – only because of student pressure.

At the same time, workplace audits were taking place across campus.  In a memorandum to the University community, dated August 6, 2013, Associate Vice-President-Human Resources, Barb Daigle, provided a Workforce Planning Update.  This memorandum informed us that 248 filled and vacant positions have been eliminated.  This is supposed to result “in an estimated total permanent budget savings of $8.5 million for the university by 2016”.  But at what cost?

The biggest loser has been Facilities Management Division, which took a cut of 107 positions.  Was this unit really so bloated all these years?  Not surprisingly, Human Resources lost only 8 positions, and the President’s Office a solitary one!  So, the white elephant is still almost totally intact, while the University Library, which is used by everyone, lost as many as 10 positions.

Posing Critical Questions

All of this begs the following question: Why was the budgetary shortfall allowed to happen in the first place given such a heavy administrative structure?  Did no-one see it coming?

What is the outcome of the TransformUs process likely to be?  One can only imagine that the Humanities, Fine Arts and Social Sciences are like to suffer even more.  This has already happened at other institutions, including the University of Alberta.

Rather than chasing corporate money, why aren’t central administrators more successful in persuading the provincial government to increase funding for public higher education?

How is it that at the same time as the university is faced with a fiscal deficit, past administrators are being rewarded with plush severance packages?

Where and when will the Corporation of the University of Saskatchewan stop?

I hope politicians, the Board of Governors, and parents of university students understand what is happening to “The People’s University”.

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