From money to mission

Significant headway in reducing a projected operating deficit means the University of Saskatchewan is now in a position to advance a new plan of action that focuses on mission rather than money.

By Colleen MacPherson
"As everyone is aware, we have been through what I call a crisis," said Interim President Gordon Barnhart, referring to recent efforts to reduce operating expenses through a process called TransformUS in the face of a projected $44.5- million deficit.

"The TransformUS banner is down but a great amount of what was produced in TransformUS was good. It's just that it was too much too quickly," he said in an interview with On Campus News.

After a summer of discussion and consultation, senior leaders at the U of S have developed a plan that includes a number of priority areas and projects. The plan was unveiled to the campus community Sept. 9. The community also heard that more than $32 million in savings had been realized through a combination of expenditure reductions and revenue increases.

Reflecting on TransformUS, Interim Provost and Vice-President Academic Ernie Barber said every large organization must always have a process of continual evaluation of its programs, priorities and administrative structure "to make sure you're getting maximum value."

In fact, he added, the TransformUS program prioritization process has provided important data for future decision-making.

"If you start with the templates that were filled out, that's an incredibly valuable snapshot for the university of its programs, and that's a valuable snapshot for deans about what's going on in their colleges," Barber told On Campus News. The same can also be said of the TransformUS task force reports.

"Think of the amount of work they did over a short period of time. They were able to come to a higher level of understanding about what all those data were telling them. I want to acknowledge and thank all of the people who contributed so significantly to program prioritization by providing information from their units and preparing the final reports."

The reports and the plans drawn up based on those reports, however, are being replaced by a smaller set of priorities or initiatives that relate more directly to the university teaching and research mission, Barber said. He added the list was drawn up collaboratively with senior administrators, deans, executive directors and unit heads from across campus. They are all areas of the university's operation "that we need to make substantial progress on this year."

As for the rest of the TransformUS projects, they have not been scrapped but are now lower on the priority list and will proceed at a much slower pace, Barber said.

"One of the things we learned clearly is that we've got to slow down so that we get beyond sharing information with people and actually really hear voices as these projects are being developed."

Barber added he is committed to advancing a change agenda "aimed at strengthening our place among Canada's top 15 research-intensive universities."

First on the new list of priorities is accelerating delivery on university commitments to improve Aboriginal engagement, including a representative workforce, student success and research.

Restructuring of the College of Medicine, including finding a new financial model for its support and improving both research activity and student outcomes, remains a priority, said Barber. There is also a plan to complete the re-organization of central teaching and learning activities and functions in the Centre for Continuing and Distance Education, Media Access and Production (eMAP) and the University Learning Centre.

Strengthening support for graduate studies and graduate students, and creating interdisciplinary and cross-college academic programs will also get attention in the coming year.

Barber was clear that any mergers or amalgamations of academic units suggested in the TransformUS reports are being sent back to the units affected for further deliberation before any action is taken.

Greg Fowler, vice-president of finance and resources, has two projects in his portfolio included in the new plan. One is the completion of the re-organization of the Facilities Management Division. It too is being "slowed down," he said. "We're having consultations because we've had quite a few changes to our facilities area. We need to listen to what we need and make changes as we go."

Consultation will also characterize any changes to service delivery at the U of S. Fowler said the TransformUS project proposal of a shared services model will be replaced with a project that focuses on supporting the university's academic mission.

"We're rethinking service design and delivery. What we're trying to do is have it led by the deans who will work this year to prepare a proposal about what services should look like at the university." Fowler said he expects both central and college-based staff as well as faculty and students will contribute to developing a new structure "but right now, it isn't about immediate actions; it's about consultation and discussion."

The need to address service delivery "is still there," added Barber, "and pressure needs to be kept on it."

Another ongoing project is the transformation of the University Library's collections, services and facilities. Barber said the library has been working on changes and updates for a number of years but the process was accelerated in the past few months "partly by a request to remove some dollars fairly quickly from the library system. We've relaxed the pace so the project can continue on the deliberate path that (Dean) Vicki Williamson was leading it down. The multi-year plan is still there."

Even with a new plan on how to proceed, Barber acknowledged that in a large, complex organization, total agreement on every decision is impossible. The key, he said, is to listen carefully to all voices at very particular points in the decision-making process.

"We did hear that voices were not necessarily heard at the point where we were deciding what we would do; sometimes they were heard at the stage where we're talking about how we're going to do something. There's a real sense that we need to hear these voices earlier and make sure there's understanding along the way.

"There was an incredible amount of work done over the past two years and we really need to celebrate all of that but we now need to take a step back and bring more voices into the conversation."