Volume 12, Number 14 March 18, 2005

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Atkinson says balance needed on key issues for U of S progress

After a couple of years of contentious issues at the U of S, Provost & Vice-President Academic Michael Atkinson used his seventh annual Academic Agenda address to campus to talk about the issues head-on.

But rather than stridently arguing for one side or the other on issues like research-intensiveness, integrated planning, or liberal arts versus science and the professions, Atkinson told his audience of 250 in Arts 241 that what the University needs for its success in the future is balance in its approach on these issues and in a number of other key areas.

Michael Atkinson

Michael Atkinson

He said the U of S must walk a moderate path between radical change and no change at all.

“The idea of balance I want us to consider suggests moderation and careful experimentation.”

He talked about six key balancing acts:


While acknowledging that recent emphasis on research-intensiveness may make it look like the U of S is tilted in that direction and doesn’t care as much about teaching, Atkinson says in fact “we are a teaching-intensive university ... and we take teaching performance seriously ... As for putting more emphasis on teaching – understood as undergraduate contact hours, I do not see how we can do more. In fact, we almost certainly must do less.”

While much of the talk is about research, “we are not a research-intensive university”, though there are pockets of intensiveness. He said while research success is growing, given the U of S’s mission “to be a driving force in the development of the province”, the University needs balance. “For most of us this means a greater attention to research and more creative ways of managing our teaching responsibilities. For others it means more and better teaching.”


Atkinson said in terms of new federal research funding, the liberal arts lag behind the sciences. And he said one and possibly two U of S research chairs are being shifted from NSERC to SSHRC to start to address that.

But he said the perception that liberal arts is slipping may have more to do with growing demand for accredited and professional degrees. The good news, Atkinson said, is that the liberal arts skills of critical thinking and a broad education are wanted in many credentialled programs.


While some argue U of S decision-making is too top-down, Atkinson said the integrated planning exercise shows it is more open than ever. He acknowledged “people have to be more engaged ... and we have to get better at this.”


The Provost said there is a shift occurring where universities’ outputs – the quality of their programs judged according to the learning acquired by students – will increasingly be measured, instead of just the inputs of funding that the Maclean’s rankings like to gauge.

He said that presents an opportunity, but the trick will be to “resist the natural inclinations of governments, students and donors ... to literally determine the role of universities in society by defining outcomes.”


Many argue for the value of putting students at the centre of everything a university does, and Atkinson says this would have the benefits of nurturing teaching and focusing on learning outcomes.

But at the U of S, “we are not a learner- or student-centred university; we are a faculty-centred university.” This results in having “a potpourri” of unintegrated courses.

“In the end we must judge ourselves on the basis of our students ... I am suggesting that we reset the balance a bit more in their direction.”


Atkinson said it’s time for academics to ease back on the self-imposed overload of publishing too many articles and doing too much administrative work.

“Too many marginal articles are produced by weak journals so that academics can get tenure and publishers can sell their products to libraries.”

And, “we are drastically over-governed here at the U of S. There are too many committees doing redundant work, meeting too often, churning up the time and energy of our colleagues ... We should stop kidding ourselves about the great usefulness of much of the administrative work we do.”

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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