Gordon Barnhart

From student to president

When the phone rang the night of May 21, 2014, asking for a helping hand, asking him to step in as the interim president of the U of S, Gordon Barnhart paused for a moment.

By Kris Foster
"My first reaction was to say, ‘No, why me?'" recalled Barnhart. "I had never been a dean or provost. It is a huge challenge and I wondered if I could do it. I was getting close to the end of my career and thought: ‘What happens if this doesn't go well and I totally blow it?' That would be a terrible way to end a somewhat successful career."

That feeling of being in over his head was not new to Barnhart, who said he had the exact same feeling the first time he stepped on campus as an undergraduate back in the ‘60s.

"Coming from the small town of Saltcoats, Saskatchewan, frankly, I was scared," he said. "That's been my life. I've been in so many situations where I say, ‘Oh, Gordon, you've gotten yourself into something now.' But with hard work, honest effort, a sense of humour and an interest in people, somehow it seems to have worked out so far."

Barnhart, as everyone knows, said yes and accepted the challenge. "I believe in this place, the university and province," explained the 10th president and vice-chancellor. "I felt this was a small way to contribute and give back to the university that gave me so much."

Just 18 hours after receiving the phone call, Barnhart stood in front of University Council to deliver his first president's report, and admits he was a bit nervous.

"When I was university secretary, Council was a big event. I would carefully prepare for Council because there was tremendous amount of debate and question, which is good. But you need lots of preparation. I didn't have enough time."

He arrived and was introduced to a standing-room-only crowd that greeted him with warm, sustained applause.

"I said thank you and I remember telling Council that I hoped they would still feel as warmly a year from now, and here's my report on what I've done over the last 18 hours," Barnhart said with a laugh. "In times when things are particularly tense, I try to use humour. I am who I am and always show that."

Barnhart also remembers there not being a shortage of questions. One in particular still stands out: What are you going to do about the perp walk?

"I had heard about this perp walk, and my immediate reaction was that it's dead. In all of the decisions I've made, that is still one of the most important ones because it set a tone that we would treat people with dignity and respect."

That was his first day on the job. His last day, fittingly enough, is on October 22 when he will once again report to Council. But in between the bookends of Council—519 days in total as interim president—Barnhart said he "has grown to appreciate this university in so many new ways. I've gotten familiar with so many areas and departments and I've discovered new interests."

Every day Barnhart made a point of visiting a new place on campus and meeting new people, something he calls management by walking around.

"I would go to centres and departments that I never knew existed. I can't believe the things we are doing here. I remember when I met Dr. Ivar Mendez and learned about his incredible work on the brain—implanting stem cells into the brain that can help those with Parkinson's disease. Isn't this amazing that in Saskatoon we have this happening?"

Barnhart did not just visit faculty and researchers; he searched out staff from all across campus. He thought it was important to talk with the people—like electricians, plumbers, welders, and heating and cooling technicians—who keep the university running.

"There are so many good things happening here," said Barnhart. "It is complex and requires a complex mix of individuals and groups, from supports, to research to teaching, to keep it going. One is not more important than the other because Dr. Mendez, for example, couldn't do his work without a good computer system, electrical system or plumbing."

Visits from Barnhart certainly helped restore some of the calm to a campus that had been through a rough period, and he admits that a big part of his mandate from the Board of Governors was to help the university turn the page and move forward.

He and Ernie Barber, interim provost and vice-president academic, did just that on Sept. 9, 2014 when they presented eight priorities for the year ahead.

"Thankfully Ernie agreed to step in," said Barnhart. "We presented those priorities that mapped out problems. They presented change, but change through consultation and input."

More than a year later, Barnhart sees that presentation in the Health Science Theatre as a turning point.

"We established calm without complacency. We've been working hard on bringing necessary change. We have our books in order financially through some very tough years of cutbacks and increased revenue. The picture is now $37 million better."

Another highlight for Barnhart is the childcare situation on campus, an area that has needed to be addressed for a long time.

"This is so important because more students now have children and if they can't find daycare they might not be able to attend."

Over the past year, with the development of a new building next to Souris Hall, the number of childcare spaces have almost doubled from 110 to 200, Barnhart explained, adding that so many have been working on this initiative for a long time.

"We are also looking at refitting the Williams Building to add more spots. The space we have for our little ones needs to be top notch and in a relatively short period of time we can go from 110 to more than 200 spots."

But without a doubt, Barnhart said his favourite part of the job was all the people he met, whether colleagues on campus or alumni and donors from around the world. "I'm a people person and I really felt encouraged meeting and working with people whether here on campus or in Weyburn or Beijing. I grew very fond of our donors and helping them contribute to the university financially based upon their belief in the university."

Indeed, during his time as interim president and vice-chancellor of the U of S, Barnhart showed that hard work, honest effort, humour and an interest in people has seen him through every challenge he faced.

"It's been good; I've really enjoyed it. I have a few more days left. I'm doing some travelling and I am saying thank you and good-bye to everyone I've met as interim president. The U of S will always hold a special place in my heart and I will always watch it with great interest."

Barhart's term as interim president ends on October 23.


Setting Priorities at the University of Saskatchewan

Setting aside TransformUS, Interim President Gordon Barnhart and Interim Provost Ernie Barber presented eight university-wide priorities on September 9, 2014 to replace the program prioritization initiative.

"We arrived on these priorities through broad consultation with all members of the campus community," said Barnhart. "These areas were highlighted as critical to the teaching and research mission of our university."

The priorities are:

1. Advance the reorganization and strengthening of graduate studies and support for graduate students.
2. Focus on the creation of interdisciplinary and cross-college academic programming.
3. Complete the reorganization and revitalization of centrally organized teaching and learning activities and functions.
4. Accelerate the delivery on the commitment to Aboriginal achievement.
5. Continue the capital project for the transformation of the library collections, facilities, capital and services.
6. Continue restructuring of the College of Medicine.
7. Deliver on the promise of inter-professional health education and interdisciplinary health research.
8. Align administrative services culture to support and facilitate the academic mission.