Checking Out of The Bates Motel: Thoughts From a Recent Retiree on the Changing Face of the U Of S

By Terry Matheson Emeritus Professor (Department of English) University of Saskatchewan

In a recent article, literary critic Stanley Fish wrote about the fears he was experiencing when contemplating his own impending retirement. He asked a former colleague who had recently retired what his thoughts were: did he feel dread of the future, regret the abandonment of his career, or whatever?

The colleague’s reply struck me as so relevant to my feelings when I left the U of S that I repeat it here: he told Fish that when he retired, he felt about the same as he would have when checking out of a motel.

This more or less summarizes my feelings about the U of S, viewed from the metaphor of a motel growing shabbier and shabbier each year if not also more frightening. Little by little, but inexorably, the university I originally considered in the early 1970s (and through the 80s and early 90s) to be a pretty attractive working environment, one that encouraged the faculty’s teaching and research activities and treated both faculty and support staff with respect, has slowly but steadily changed to a point where working conditions now exist that I would not have thought possible. Today, people are not only being fired left and right, but are treated in a contemptuous and cavalier manner, marched as they are off campus with dispatch by campus constabularies who could have been trained by Heinrich Himmler, and effectively “disappeared”. It’s as if the senior Human Resources administrators and their subalterns read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as if it were a guidebook on how to deal with human beings considered dispensable or otherwise superfluous. I could be wrong, but I cannot recall anyone from the administrative ranks making any public statements to the media of regret concerning the firings, or expressing any pity or compassion for the laid-off employees. Instead, we heard only of how the University was “transforming” itself somehow into something better, which struck me as utter tommyrot.

Shabbier and Shabbier

But how DID the place get this way? How could an institution, one that originally seemed to me to be a congenial place in which to practise my profession, change in the space of a few decades into a workplace where, without exception, the people I have spoken to in the last year or two—including former professorial colleagues, secretaries and administrative assistants, people involved in extension work, and even an administrator–describe the atmosphere uniformly as “TOXIC”.

Basically, I have noted at least four or more major changes in the University during my years here, that may provide some reasons for this lamentable decline of the U of S from a once-healthy, intellectually vibrant and employee-supportive post-secondary institution to its present toxic state: first, the alarming mushrooming of the number of administrators on campus, especially in recent years; secondly, and related to this, the subtle but increasing erosion of respect for faculty that has accompanied the emergence of this burgeoning group of bureaucrats, many of whom seem to know next to nothing about what faculty actually do; thirdly, the increasing focus on, and financial encouragement of, those branches of the University that train, rather than educate; and finally, the accompanying devaluation and resulting marginalization of the Humanities, Fine Arts, and even some of the Social Sciences, and in particular, the steady reduction of the English Department—my former stomping grounds–to the role of service provider. But first, some personal background.

Collegiality in Action

I was fortunate as an undergraduate to have attended, back in the 1960s, a small liberal arts institution in Winnipeg, then called United College. It was at that time affiliated with the University of Manitoba but had links with the United Church of Canada; it is now the University of Winnipeg. Just before I enrolled, United College had been the center of a major controversy concerning a history professor, Harry Crowe. The Principal of the College made public a private letter that had come into his hands, wherein Prof. Crowe had been critical of the administration, and had him fired. Crowe protested, and this protest eventually led to the formation of the CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.

Perhaps because of this controversy, I learned at that place of learning more about the central importance of faculty in determining the direction of universities than I ever would have imagined, although I only became fully aware of this in later years.

As a small institution, professors’ offices at United were lumped together; a physicist’s office could be next to an historian’s; the historian’s, next to an anthropologist’s, and so on. It seemed that most of the faculty knew each other, and appeared, for the most part, to get along pretty well. What this seemingly haphazard allocation of office space taught me was that all faculty and their fields of study were considered intellectually equal, and that all were working together to discover and disseminate valuable knowledge in their chosen areas.

I also saw that the administrative aspect of the college was regarded as something that had to be done: students needed to be registered; fees had to be collected; and salaries had to be paid. These managerial tasks were acknowledged as necessary, but were never considered to be of supreme importance, when set against the core raison d’être of the college, which consisted of the advancement and dissemination of knowledge; given this, administrative duties seemed often to be taken on by faculty reluctantly, if the official announcements of administrative positions that I recall were any indication. In the monthly newsletters faculty and students received, we would learn that certain professors had “generously agreed to put aside their teaching and research” to assume administrative responsibilities. It was simply assumed that a faculty member who took on such duties did so almost resignedly, and was likened to a latter-day Cincinnatus, someone who had magnanimously agreed to do things that needed to be done, but not things which anyone particularly wanted to do.

I personally have no memory of any particular status being attached to the various administrative positions faculty members occupied. Prof. X was a Professor of English, and also the Registrar; Professor Y was a Psychology Professor, and also Dean of Arts, etc. In all my years at United, I never once heard the phrase “top-down” when referring to the relationship between administrators and faculty (in my last few years at the U of S, I heard it used ad nauseam, always by administrators).

In those days, administrators were regarded as our equals, in no way superior to teaching faculty, but simply academics who had temporarily set aside their academic careers. It was also taken for granted by everyone—professors and students alike–that this was the only way universities could be run: that is, by academics. That universities would someday be administered, that students would come to be advised, by career bureaucrats, many who had not taught a class in many years–if at all–was unheard of, and would have been regarded as inconceivably wrong-headed.

After receiving my Ph.D. from the U of Alberta, I landed a position here in Saskatoon where, for the first time, I found myself a full-time teaching member of a multi-college institution. Because the U of S was huge in comparison to United College, larger departments were frequently entities unto themselves. One’s ability to meet faculty from other departments and colleges was far more limited. Nevertheless, I perceived much of the same mutual respect faculty enjoyed from department to department, or even college to college.

Faculty respected each other as members of a profession whose commitment to the furtherance and dissemination of knowledge was assumed, on the grounds that, had we not been committed, we would never have expended all the time and hard work of graduate school to prepare ourselves for academic careers. I truly believe that when I entered the profession in the late 60s and early 70s, most administrators also shared that respect.

For the most part, faculty members were left alone to pursue their goals. This did not mean that there were no pressures on faculty; we all knew we had to take our teaching and research seriously. And, on the basis of my experience, the vast majority did. As my late uncle (himself a University President at the time) once said to me, “no one ever went into academic life who didn’t want to be in academic life, and no one ever went into academic life for the money or power”. But he made that statement a long time ago.

Unfortunately, as time went on, I began to notice subtle signs that my uncle’s belief in the integrity of the academic establishment was no longer valid; that we were being scrutinized somewhat more critically, if not suspiciously, by administrators whom we had previously considered to be our equals, as colleagues.

A bit of a proviso is needed here: what I have just said is not to state that there were never some status-conscious administrators who regarded themselves as superior beings, by virtue of their positions. Some administrators have always been pretty pleased with themselves; others have always exuded a self-congratulatory odour of smugness. But when I first entered the profession, these people seemed to have had the decency to keep their sense of superiority more or less to themselves or their administrative colleagues, and at least paid lip service to the principle of academic collegiality when speaking publicly.

Dismantling Collegiality

How things have changed!

As the years went on, I came to find, in conversation with fellow faculty members, that this collegial camaraderie was eroding, and was being noticed widely across campus by faculty and support staff. The initial signs were subtle, but they seemed roughly to coincide with the rise in the numbers of career administrators: representatives from the administration on College and University promotion and tenure appeal committees, on which I served numerous times over the years both as a member and a Faculty Association observer, became increasingly adversarial and contentious rather than collegial.

There appeared to be an increasing readiness on the part of administrative members of these committees—incredibly, most of them former faculty–to assume that there simply had to be weaknesses in a candidate’s case for tenure or promotion, rather than looking for, or even acknowledging, its possible strengths. Decisions on tenure, promotion, and merit increases appeared less generous, and on some occasions were positively niggardly. Stories began to circulate of administrators casually referring, in conversation, to faculty as a body of lazy, overpaid and underworked underlings, who needed monitoring, lest they fall asleep at the switch, which, it was assumed, was their default position. This monitoring task, it seemed, fell to the administration, who were coming to see themselves as the sole guardians and maintainers of excellence, faculty being presumably unable, in their state of slothful insouciance, unwilling to take up this mantle on their own.

The introduction of what has turned out to be an endless cycle of Integrated Planning established a new spirit of intrusive domination by the administration, by encouraging competition among departments and colleges, which were now forced to vie for slices of the budgetary pie, a pie the slices of which were being determined largely, if not entirely, by the administration. Members of departments that were considered to be less than satisfactorily productive—“productivity” being determined by a calculus conceived by administrators–were either merged with other similarly “disappointing” units, forced to merge with larger ones, starved of funds, or cancelled altogether. In Arts and Science, many departments simply disappeared: Far Eastern Studies, Northern Studies, Classics, Women’s Studies, and a department I was Acting Head of for a few years, Modern Languages. Yet, until recently, however much morale was shaken, there were few layoffs, at least none on any kind of scale. But then came The Great Debt Crisis.

Where Did the Deficit Come From?

I have followed the much-proclaimed financial crisis that has hit the University with a mixture of shock and incredulity. It seems hard to believe that only a short time ago, the University administration awoke suddenly to find the Institution about to be engulfed by what has been called a “structural deficit”, a veritable tsunami of debt, projected to grow to roughly $44.5 million in a few years, that appears to have caught everyone completely unawares, if official documents can be believed.

Indeed, if one examines the 2010-2011 Annual Report of the U of S, one finds some corroboration for the above. In her remarks, Chair of the Board of Governors Nancy Hopkins spoke glowingly of the “long term financial stability of the University”. Presumably, she spoke in good faith, and could only have made such a statement on the basis of information she received from administrators who, she had to assume, were well informed.

But just what is a “structural deficit” anyway? Cornell University experienced one some years ago. While a definition is hard to come by, it is easy to see how one can be avoided. In dealing with Cornell’s structural deficit, Vice President of Planning and Budget, Elmira Mangum, said the solution was to “make sure that we have predictable, recurring resources to cover our predictable, recurring expenses.” This would seem to be a no-brainer. Obviously, the administration at the U of S has incurred expenses in excess of its “predictable, recurring resources.”

I have read quite a bit about the financial mess the University claims to be in, and have yet to read anything that explains what caused it; all I have is questions. The first that comes to my mind is, why did no one in the administrative ranks see, some time ago, a multi-million dollar shortfall looming on the horizon, and address it before it got out of hand? The second involves the vagueness of the way in which the University got into this predicament. From what I can gather, no compelling explanation has been forthcoming. Did senior administrators really spend money that they didn’t have? Had they been given a virtual guarantee, by the Provincial Government, that such money would be theirs for the spending, only to have seen the tap turned down after the money they thought was guaranteed, had been spent? If such were the case, why not state it? In a letter to the Star-Phoenix last spring, former president McKinnon stated unequivocally that “There was no operating budget shortfall when my administration left office,” and went on to echo the view expressed by Cornell’s budget officer, that this budget shortfall is “anticipatory”, and ”would materialize only if certain assumptions about revenues and expenditures are realized.”

A former, now-retired colleague of mine firmly believes that the debt is caused in part by bloated faculty salaries. He was told this by an administrator. While I suppose one could point to any expense incurred by the University as a partial cause of the present fiscal situation, faculty salaries are one aspect of a university’s expenses that can be predicted with relative accuracy. Given this, if salaries were a looming problem, one would think that it would have been mentioned in previous annual reports, yet it is not. Although the 2010-2011 Annual Report does reveal some concerns with the University’s debt load, and is openly worried about the pension fund, there is not a syllable of concern expressed about faculty salaries. But such concern does find extensive expression in the 2011-2012 Report, which, given the silence on the subject in the previous year, gives the impression that those responsible for the more recent report are looking around desperately for some aspect of campus expenses to point the finger at.

I do not find the salary issue at all convincing. If it were a major concern, how could there have been no mention of it prior to this year, and how could the administration give the USFA any increase in scale in the most recent negotiations? And yet it did.

The main point here is that members of faculty have, at no time, been given any genuine answers to these, or other, questions. No one I’ve talked to seems to have any idea as to what is going on. As one former colleague expressed to me, with reference to a rather vulgar, but apt, simile, the administration of the U of S treats faculty and staff as a mushroom farmer treats his mushrooms: keep them in the dark, and feed them manure.

Drowning the Kittens

As far as the recent layoffs are concerned, I don’t know which aspects of the process appalled me more: the removal of these people on the dubious grounds that it was done to save money, or the way in which it was carried out. These unfortunate people were treated in a manner similar to the way employees of the Star-Phoenix were dealt with, some years ago, when Conrad Black bought the paper: then, his former friend and unscrupulous hatchet man, David Radler, gave employees no advance warning that they were to be terminated; as they came to work, they were told to line up in two lines: one line was for those who were to be kept on; the other, for those who were to be terminated.  Black himself referred to this process as “drowning the kittens.”

The soon-to-be terminated were marched to their cubicles, allowed little time to gather their belongings; and ushered out perfunctorily, their computers confiscated by security personnel, themselves almost literally tossed out on the street, and, if rumour has it, even forbidden to return. The only difference I can see between Radler’s methodology and the HR people at the U of S is that here, the employees were not terminated all at once.

Whether one chooses to see the U of S’s treatment of its employees as having been inspired by Heinrich Himmler is beside the point: To treat human beings with such callous insensitivity is beneath contempt. To argue, in defense of such treatment, that it was necessitated by, among other considerations, the fear that those being fired—let’s call things by their proper names–might vent their spleen by destroying “sensitive” documents in their anger, or copy them for use in the future as a means of avenging the way they had been dealt with, is so preposterous it would be funny, if it were not so transparently disingenuous.

In the first place, WHAT sensitive documents would most support staff have access to, for Heaven’s sake? To hear the bleatings of the HR people in defense of their outrageous behaviour, you’d think the laid-off employees had been employees of CSIS or the CIA.

Unfortunately, I also fear that the decision to treat people who have been fired in this deliberately unfeeling way was not merely more evidence of administrative insensitivity, but part of a calculated plan to flex administrative muscle and send fear throughout the entire University:  that this use of such heavy-handed and palpably unnecessary methods was designed deliberately to remind all employees, faculty included, that their positions are all potentially in jeopardy; that they are all expendable; and that the administration can, and will, treat employees in any way it chooses–that such methods are going to be par for the course. Whether this was a deliberate attempt to intimidate or not, it definitely has had that effect.

The Humanities as Service Centre

Closer to my former home, what’s next in the future for Humanities departments? I see a likely next step in the administrative strategy–given that the humanities do not generate large sums of grant money, and never have–may well be to amalgamate such “fiscally unproductive” departments: English and the other language units, and possibly History and Philosophy as well, could be forced to become a new “Department of Humanistic Studies”, with English comprising a largely service function within such a mega-department. After all, the English department is well on its way to being turned into a service department as I write: it has lost virtually all of its sessional lecturers, and is being pressured at the same time to cut back on the number of upper year courses it features in the Calendar. And why? Apparently, the administration considers sessionals to be a needless expense. But since the need to teach incoming students is bound to continue, this job of teaching freshmen, in the absence of sessional lecturers, can only fall on the shoulders of full-time faculty, who will be forced to teach an ever-increasing number of first-year courses. Of course, given the “research-intensive” university the U of S now is, a gun will be perpetually pointed at faculty heads to produce ever more research, which their increased teaching duties will not allow them time to do. The result? Fewer and fewer will be promoted.

And the rationale behind all of these moves? It’s simple: faculty are lazy, underworked and overpaid, and need to have their lazy noses pushed to the grindstone by the sole custodians of standards, the ever-vigilant administrators. They don’t need the help that sessionals have traditionally provided—to keep class sizes down, so full-time faculty can have time to do justice to all their courses and students, and participate meaningfully in committee work and research—because they NEVER needed such help. They were just being babied. So goes the argument.

When I came to the U of S in the early 1970s, there was one Dean of Arts and Science, and his one secretary. Today much of the entire second floor and half of the classroom wing in the Arts Building are occupied by administrators. According to the president of the CUPE local that represents sessionals, Dr. Brian Zamulinski, the number of faculty at the U of S since 2000 has increased 24%; in the same period, the number of administrators has increased 167%. I have records indicating that since 2008, the number of faculty across campus has increased by approximately 3%; the administration has grown by 17.75%. And, as Dr. Zamulinski cogently observes, what good have any of these throngs of administrative people done? Are students the better for their presence? Are faculty? Are the people of Saskatchewan??

This leads me to complete the motel metaphor: when I sent my letter announcing my intention to retire from the U of S—a letter that was acknowledged literally within hours by two obviously delighted Prominent Administrative People, who together were making well over half a million dollars a year—I came to realize that I was not simply checking out of a cheap or dilapidated structure.  The University of Saskatchewan has declined from what I once considered a vibrant and reputable institute of teaching and research, which faculty and staff were proud be a part of, to a frightening parody of its former self, a place where one employee confided to me that she is literally afraid to go to work: the academic equivalent of the Bates Motel, and nobody who saw Hitchcock’s film would ever want to stay in the Bates Motel.

About VOX

VOX is a forum for the expression of opinions of members of the USFA on topics of general interest to the membership. Submissions to be considered for publication should be sent to the USFA office to the attention of the VOX Editorial Board or they may be sent by email to, or to any member of the Editorial Board.

VOX is sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association and is published by an independent Editorial Board, whose members are:
George Khachatourians
Brian Pratt
Howard Woodhouse

VOX may appear up to eight times a year, depending on the volume of submissions. All articles remain the property of the authors, and permission to reprint them should be obtained directly from them. All opinions ex-pressed in VOX are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the position of the USFA or the Editorial Board.