TransformUS aims for financial sustainability

The challenge of achieving financial sustainability is being tackled on many fronts at the University of Saskatchewan, including a comprehensive review of all academic programs and administrative services.

By Kris Foster
Given the title TransformUS, the review was announced in a letter to the university community Jan. 11 from President Ilene Busch-Vishniac. That letter explained the resources available to the university are not sufficient to maintain the current breadth of programming and activity. TransformUS involves simultaneous examination of every program and service "to assess its contribution to our overall success," said the president, and the development of a priority list of programs and services needing greater investment of resources and those from which resources will be withdrawn.

Busch-Vishniac clearly stated the primary objective of TransformUS is cost cutting.

TransformUS is modeled on one detailed by Robert C. Dickeson in his 2010 book Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services and will be adapted to special U of S circumstances. Provost Brett Fairbairn outlined Dickeson's model to University Council last year, and on Jan. 24, Council will be asked to approve TransformUS in principle.

Dickeson defines a program as "any activity or collection of activities of the institution that consumes resources (dollars, people, space, equipment, time)."

The first step in the process is the formation of two task forces, one to assess academic programs and the other to examine administrative services and academic support programs. Both will include broad representation and have been charged with finding ways to encourage student input and participation. Information regarding the member nomination and expected timelines for the task forces will be announced to the campus community in the near future.

According to information on the university's finances website, the four-part role of the task forces is to develop criteria for ranking programs; develop a ranking system for determining outcomes; collect data; and complete a report with recommendations on the outcomes for the president and provost by Nov. 30. It is expected programs and activities will be grouped into various categories such as "maintain with reduced resources", "maintain with enhanced resources" and "eliminate, merge or close".

Any program termination will follow normal processes with University Council actively involved in changes to academic programs. The university's Board of Governors will be informed of any changes that have budgetary implications. The Provost's Committee on Integrated Planning will be responsible for developing an action plan and timetable. This is expected in December and beyond.

In the case of an academic program termination, the university will ensure students have the chance to complete their studies in a reasonable time. If staff is affected, all laws, contracts, collective agreements and U of S policies will be adhered to during the change.

Two principles will govern the work of the TransformUS task forces. The first is that assessment criteria be holistic, taking into account various assessment factors including financial and non-financial, and other measures of performance. The second principle is that criteria must result in a fair assessment to ensure programs or services are treated equally. Assessment criteria will be shared with the university community for comment.

University Council, at its Jan. 24 meeting, was asked to approve in principle the undertaking of a university-wide process for prioritization of service/support and academic programs, as Council will ultimately be asked to approve any forthcoming recommendations that affect academic programs.

In addition to the program review process, the U of S is continuing to take a strategic, unit-by-unit look at its workforce. Every college and administrative unit is participating in workforce planning by reviewing its priorities and job positions to both find reductions and refocus employees' work in priority areas.

In a news release issued Jan. 5, university officials announced that about 40 employees would receive layoff notices over three weeks with more job losses planned for April. The January layoffs are expected to save the university $2.3 million per year. In a letter to employees Jan. 17, Fairbairn and Greg Fowler, acting vice-president of finance and resources, said immediate savings from workforce planning will help the institution meet its budget targets in 2012-13 and 2013-14.

The U of S has about 7,500 people on its payroll. In addition to these two projects, university officials continue to evaluate some 400 cost-saving ideas submitted by members of the campus community. The suggestions have been divided into eight groups, including compensation strategy, revenue generation and diversification, reducing institutional footprint and maximize value of university spending. Fowler and Fairbairn's letter said each will be assessed for its financial impact, adding that beyond TransformUS and workforce planning, "it will take projects in multiple areas to achieve the full $44.5 million change the university must accomplish" by 2016.