As the two of us reflect on the last eight weeks of conversation about TransformUS, a couple of points stand out.
The first is the wide interest in our community regarding the TransformUS process. Some 28,000 individuals appear to have viewed the web pages, watched the live streaming of town halls or attended meetings in person. A smaller number, 800, made individual, group or anonymous comments. The comments were diverse, and in many cases quite lengthy. Overall the tone was professional and constructive.
A second salient point is that those who submitted comments generally did so to express various concerns. Some are afraid for the consequences for programs in which they work or study, or from which they have graduated. Some are upset with the possible impacts of an open and public prioritization process on reputation and attitudes. Others worry that an imperfect process or flawed data might determine critical decisions that affect us all. Behind these concerns, we perceive a deep attachment to the University of Saskatchewan – a sense of respect, love and ownership. The same concerns seem to have motivated those who wrote in or spoke to support the process and to support the need to make choices.
We hear and understand these signals. We sense people’s deep attachment to our university and its historic programs and services. What we can do about the concerns is to prepare the best possible implementation recommendations – ones that are judicious and that best safeguard or enhance important programs and characteristics of our institution.
Following the release of the TransformUS task force reports to the campus community on 9 December 2013, President Busch-Vishniac invited any and all comments during the eight weeks that followed. A 48-page analytical and thematic summary of the commentary is now available.
The summary of feedback indicates a significant volume of response, with diverse modes and topics. The largest numbers of responses were those that criticized or contested the process; criticized or contested specific academic or support-service rankings; pointed to issues in interpretation of data; or drew attention to the degree of participation by students.
Given that the consultation period was about the task force reports, it is striking how relatively few comments engaged the overall reports, and particularly the themes identified by each task force in their respective executive summaries. We take it as a sign of the anxieties associated with an era of budget constraints that discussion focused on specific aspects of process and detailed recommendations. This was perhaps reflective of a desire to figure out what it would all really mean in practice for areas of the university.
We note that a degree of feedback centred on matters we feel are speculative or largely unfounded. We see no meaningful signs that the reports are biased, though they do have some patterns that are worth thinking about (see the preliminary analysis of selected aspects of the reports). We do not agree that a budget process can be based on discipline-specific peer review, because in Canada budgets involve allocation among the programs within a single university. Again, we take these and other concerns as saying that people want to make sure that decisions honour and respect the actual accomplishments of programs and services.
We note interesting discussions that our academic councils might undertake concerning the uses of three-year degrees and the significance of small programs. The task forces and various discussants have highlighted these issues.
We accept the criticisms and suggestions about the data and process in the spirit that while such things can never be perfect in organizational decision-making, they can be better. All effective organizations know how to make decisions under conditions of incomplete information; and they also work to improve and share the information available.
Finally, we would like to repeat two observations we have made about the task force reports. First, they are the work of several dozen of our colleagues who spent hundreds of hours and considerable thought and care to produce the first-ever comprehensive, simultaneous comparison of all of our programs and services in terms of priority. The reports are unique in the history of our university and are sure, in our view, to be influential.
But second, the reports are not decisions, only stages in a process. Nothing will happen automatically or arbitrarily. Assisted by the feedback from the discussion phase, by follow-up discussions with college and unit leaders, and by targeted additional analysis, PCIP will now be working on recommendations that will go to governing bodies and decision-makers. The two of us are committed to doing this work with respect, sensitivity and professionalism that honour the cares and concerns that have been expressed by our community.
Brett and Greg