Transforming the U of S

At the end of November, the task forces delegated with prioritizing all academic and support service programs at the University of Saskatchewan delivered their respective reports to President Ilene Busch-Vishniac. On Dec. 9, the TransformUS reports were made public. On Campus News Editor Colleen MacPherson sat down with the president in late December to talk about her reaction to the reports, the response so far and where the TransformUS process goes from here.

By Colleen MacPherson
What was your initial response to the reports?Â

IBV: I was very pleased with them. I was as anxious as everyone on campus has been and I was worried that doing their work, the task forces might discover pockets of excellence and pockets of struggling programs so that it could look as if we would then have a bull's eye written on someone's back. Instead of that, they indicate that in any given unit, parts of it have been going reasonably well, sometimes great, and parts of it are going not so well, so the fact that the marks or grades were distributed more or less evenly across campus was a very pleasant surprise.

Was there anything that surprised you?Â

IBV: There was little there that was terribly surprising. A number of the themes in the academic task force report I've been noting myself. A number of the themes in the support services report are perfectly understandable; you could see exactly where they were coming from. It is clear the task forces did a huge amount of work with the information that was available to them. We now need to look at all of them (the recommendations) carefully, contextualize them in the broader view of the whole institution and then figure out exactly how to move forward with those recommendations and additional information at hand.

Do you think it was a challenge for the task forces to balance various units' ability to fill out the required template and provide the necessary information?Â

IBV: There will have been some variability because of that but certainly at least one of the reports noted that when they just didn't have enough information, they put that unit or program in quintile five. That means we have to look at things in quintile five very carefully. Are they there because people just didn't have enough information or because maybe we don't need to keep doing this? We will take every recommendation very seriously but we also know that we now need to filter them through the lens of keeping this institution running effectively and efficiently. So we will try to understand the context in which those recommendations might have been made and if that context fully captures the broader view.

Was there anything you thought was missing from the reports?Â

IBV: There were things that were missing that we knew would be missing. The task forces looked at a fine level of granularity and they did a great job at precisely what we asked them to do. What they didn't do, because we didn't ask them to do it, was to necessarily consider things at a higher level but I was very pleased that they came forward with themes that they saw. For instance, in the support services report, they noted the need to make sure that we had defined minimum levels of service that we would distribute evenly throughout the campus, and themes about support of graduate students. We didn't ask them to try to put the whole thing together and consider, for example, what the implications are here for change recommended over there, or what are the implications in arts and science, taking our biggest college, if we were to follow all of the recommendations.

So then considering all those implications is the next step?Â

IBV: That's right. It's what I describe as contextualizing on a larger scale.

How would you characterize the feedback you've received so far?Â

IBV: Since the publication of the reports, I have had very little feedback. It's been much quieter than we anticipated. I have seen some comments on social media, typically directed at a particular unit asking how did this end up there. I have, at the various parties and events I've gone to in the last couple of weeks, had people stop me and about the same number said they were pleasantly surprised as those who said they had problems with unit x or unit y.

Any speculation on why the response so far has been muted?Â

IBV: I think there are a number of things going on. First of all, the reports came out during final exams. We were torn originally about whether to do that but we thought asking people to wait until January would just prolong the anxiety. We talked to the students about it and the students requested that we just put it out once we had it. Second of all, the fact that there is a distribution of marks rather than a target put on any particular unit has a tendency to force people to actually think about it instead of reacting immediately. There's a huge amount information in the reports and our community is doing the appropriate thing—thinking about it before responding.

Could the quality of the reports have contributed in any way to the lack of immediate feedback?Â

IBV: I think that would have had a huge impact, both the fact that the task forces did a huge amount of work, that they did everything they could to avoid bias and that the process was very clean. There was no one involved above the level of department head so there was no one pushing for any kind of reaction.

What do you expect the next period of time, with town halls and other opportunities for people to comment, will be like?Â

IBV: What we expect is it will vary all over the map. I would expect people associated with units that didn't fare as well as they expected will react defensively and they will tell us why the data doesn't tell the whole story or what's wrong with the data. I'm sure there will be those who attack the entire process, which is also fine. I think what is important is for everyone to remember that the reports are recommendations. What I hope we get out of the listening phase is more information that helps us draw those reports together and understand the context of broader university goals.

From start to finish, TransformUS is a very long process. Do you have any concern about sustaining morale on campus?Â

IBV: We're now at the point where, a year ago, we were laying people off; we lost about 250 positions and we were in the middle of it this time last year. We now have TransformUS and continuing anxiety about jobs. It is very tough to sustain good morale on campus when we are in the process of eliminating positions. On the other hand, we have to live within our budget so we had exactly two options—across-the-board cuts which would also have resulted in job elimination or trying to be strategic. We opted to try to be strategic. It will undoubtedly have made the process longer but the outcomes will be better we hope both for the individuals employed here and the university as a whole.

Do you think there are any particular risks to the university's reputation by going through a process like this?Â

IBV: Everything we do has an impact on our reputation so the risk to our reputation with TransformUS is that we will be seen as being in worse financial shape than we are. People will read this as "Oh my, they're clutching at straws, things must be really horrible." In fact, we have been treated much more generously by the provincial government than our peers and we are being deliberate, not to cope with a current deficit but to avoid one in the future. We are frankly in much better shape than many of our peers and we are taking action now to avoid problems in the future. That's a nuanced message that's very hard to get people to hear correctly and I think the actions we're taking now will be read by some incorrectly as a sign that we are in dire financial straits.

There is also consultation underway on the university new vision document. How do the vision and TransformUS tie together?Â

IBV: That was one of the reasons why things rolled out the way they did. We put the vision document out at the beginning of October in draft form. I have personally been in front of over 700 people now to talk about it and we also have lots of comments that came in writing. We knew TransformUS would sort of swamp our ability to have conversations internally so we're consulting externally now. I am very pleased that while there have been truly great suggestions, generally the vision document was very well received. So yes, there will be a new version released, probably some time in the spring so that we can get it to Senate in April, the board in March or May, and to Council in that time period too. But I think the changes will be small enough that having that draft will help us develop the implementation plan for TransformUS. They have to be linked because we can't be in the position of making changes that will move in directions that are different than where we're trying to go.

What is the most important message about TransformUS you would like to deliver to the university community?Â

IBV: What I would say is it's important that everyone understand that these reports are the end of the first phase, not the end of the process. Everyone should take a deep breath and understand that we're not taking any action just based on the reports. The consultation will be real, will be meaningful, and we will be looking at implications like if you change a program in college x, what will that mean in unit y. We will be looking at all of that and what people see coming out in the implementation plan will very much reflect comments that are made, cross implications and what we want to be as a university in the future.