School of Public Health moving on

An academic review of the university’s School of Public Health will soon get underway, fulfilling one of three commitments made to the unit in July by Interim Provost and Vice-President Academic Ernie Barber.

Just days into his term, Barber met with faculty members and a student leader in the school "and I made some commitments." The first was to begin a search for a new executive director to replace Robert Buckingham who was removed from the position in May.

"The second commitment I made was to do an academic review that would take place concurrently with the beginning of the search and it would be informative when we're making an offer to someone to serve as executive director," said Barber.

The third, he said, was an assurance he would look at all complaints made by students, staff and faculty about various aspects of the school's operation and personnel to be sure each was investigated appropriately. Even after the investigations are complete, Barber acknowledged work will still need to be done to resolve underlying and lingering issues.

And he was adamant the academic review was not triggered by the May events involving the school's leadership and subsequent revelations about the number of formal complaints. In fact, when the three graduate schools—public health, public policy and environment and sustainability— were established, each charter document included provisions for academic reviews.

"We're starting with public health," said Barber, "because it was the unit that leapt out of the starting block the fastest and because we're searching for an executive director. I think it's fair for that person to come in with the university reconfirming its commitment to a particular governance, a particular vision."

The provost announced the review to the school Sept. 29 and expects a site visit by external experts to take place before mid December. Given recent events in the unit, Barber said he needed to be very clear the academic review is not an investigation of the school.

"These are reviews of units (that) help us understand all the barriers and drivers of success and puts it in the context of our desire to meet international standards. It is not an investigation of complaints nor an investigation of leadership. We're not asking them (external reviewers) to come in and do a workplace assessment."

And, he added, it was just coincidental that the review announcement coincided with the university fulfilling a freedom of information request for documentation on the various complaints lodged about the school. Those documents, released Oct. 5, were redacted to protect the identity and privacy of both complainants and respondents.

The provost described the number of complaints from School of Public Health students, staff and faculty as "abnormal for an academic unit of its size," and while declining to give details, said they fell into two categories: complaints about academic programs, the way academic policies are or are not being applied, academic processes and academic program administration; and complaints about behaviours.

"What I can say is it is evident to me that all of the complaints, verbal, informal or formal, have been investigated using our processes and policies." And all but one has been concluded, he said, with actions taken that are "considered to be appropriate."

Barber admitted that saying an investigation is concluded may not mean it is resolved in the eyes of a complainant or respondent. "That's the nature of inter-personal complaints. When I say an investigation is concluded, it means you have come to a place where you can conclude whether or not a policy has been violated."

Even with the end of all but one investigation, "it would naïve of all of us to believe that there are not still lingering issues in the school. When you've had a lot of internal conflict, it takes time to grow back into a place where everybody feels good in the workplace and we will continue to work with everyone in the school to find resolution."

"I will tell you if we were to see that same volume of new complaints now, I will consider that to be a failure of my leadership and a failure of the leadership of Nazeem Muhajarine, the interim executive director. It is our responsibility to make sure that there is a safe, productive learning and work environment."

Reflecting on the turmoil within the school, Barber suggested one contributing factor may have been its effort "to do an awful lot in a hurry," developing and delivering grad programs at the same time arguably without the necessary resources. Barber said the result might have been feelings of dissatisfaction: it would not be unusual to hit dead ends and have to back up, "and the people in the programs would be negatively affected by the backing up."

Barber said interdisciplinary and inter-college research and education "is incredibly difficult to do well. When we try to do something as important to our mission as these graduate schools, we tend to underestimate how much individual and collective effort it takes to do these things well." Success comes, he said, by committing all resources— money, time, people and attention—to what is important.

With the academic review of the School of Public Health beginning, plans will be made for similar reviews of the other schools within the next two years. Each has had its own particular challenges, he said. For the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, it has been functioning as a joint school with the University of Regina. For the School of Environment and Sustainability, it has been finding its niche within an area rich in research and scholarship.

Notwithstanding the review results, "I personally still feel the university made the right decision to invest in these schools," Barber said. There is a continued commitment to developing expertise and leadership in these fields; "we have the will because we know we have to be successful in interdisciplinary, inter college programming."

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