Where are the details?

In the past few days, this is the question we’ve been asked most frequently—where are the details in the action plan?

We believe there are some significant details in the action plan released to the campus community this week. There will be a reduction in our senior administration (23%) and by the end of 2014 two administrative units (Centre for Continuing and Distance Education and eMAP) will be closed. We will be seeking the disestablishment of the College of Graduate Studies and Research and changes so that two other academic units will no longer be standalone entities (School of Public Health and College of Dentistry). In addition, we are looking to merge a number of small departments. We have committed to reorganize services to best support our students and faculty. We have outlined the principles to make reinvestments in specific priority areas beginning in 2015-16.

At 30 pages the plan in fact exceeds the level of detail that PCIP was aiming for and committed to over the past months. In an organization like a university, this is what an action plan looks like.

It’s important to remember that universities have widely distributed authority and responsibility. The idea that one committee can specify how everything is going to go for everyone is quite foreign to our culture. Our university needs its leaders, students, faculty, staff, alumni, governing bodies and others to shape and determine the best ways to make changes such as those outlined in the action plan. Our university’s leadership team, including our deans and associate vice-presidents, will be the leads of the projects and will ensure that those who have the most knowledge are involved in developing final proposals to decision-makers and governing bodies.

We are at approximately the midpoint of the TransformUS process, the time when recommendations and discussion shift over toward action. Over the course of the next year, our campus community can expect to be engaged in further discussions of how many of these projects will come to life. As we know more details, we will share these with you.

Brett and Greg

27 thoughts on “Where are the details?

  1. I am not sure if this is the proper thread to voice the concern over the recent article in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix “Professor suggesting University of Saskatchewan intimating faculty over cuts”. I understand the argument from the administration side that there should be a collective voice coming from the University. However, who makes the determination of this collective voice?

    I am also very curious to hear more about this “gag order” imposed on deans instructing them to respond to a certain way. Kind of defeats the liberality that one would expect from a University, no?

    • Hi, and thanks for posting your comment. I will address it briefly here for now. Deans are among the senior leadership of the U of S (about three dozen people in total) and participate in shaping major institutional decisions. The responsibilities of senior leaders are different from those of other members of the university community and this is reflected in job contracts that set out expectations of confidentiality and leadership competencies. Management works out its collective positions in places like deans’ council, PCIP, and similar meetings. Governing bodies of the university set directions in their meetings. There is free and wide-ranging discussion in all these forums and outside them, which is part of the values of academic culture. Like leadership teams in other organizations, deans are expected to support the direction of the organization once one is set; if they can’t do so they can’t perform their role.

  2. The action plan talks about “reorganizing and simplifying related cross-college progamming” and “reorganizing programs and department structures within selected colleges”. This is a good idea, but it seems that an important opportunity was missed. There are many programs that require courses in mathematics and particularly statistics, and there are many departments that offer statistics courses under various labels, as well as courses which are essentially mathematical. This leads to much duplication and lack of coordination, and requires a number of departments to devote resources to instruction outside its core mandate. In the process of reorganizing programs, would it not make sense to achieve efficiencies by mandating that all courses in statistics and mathematics be offered under a unified umbrella of a department whose very existence depends on these disciplines?

    • I wish to express my support for this course of action. Redundant teaching is an issue that we can and should address at this point in time. Departments outside of MATH/STATS have concerns about the instruction of discipline-relevant materials. I sincerely hope that we can engage in discussions between MATH/STATS and other academic units to find some common ground about providing our students rigorous training in statistical methods that are relevant to their chosen disciplines.

      • I think this is an important debate to have, but to looks at all sides. As a quick analogy, well after my undergraduate degree I was told I require a calculus class to enter into graduate studies. The class was a huge personal challenge, and I could not grasp the relevance to what it meant to the overall picture. One day a TA came in and explained the day’s agenda, gave a real-time scenario where it applies, which allowed me to grasp why I was there. If it were not for this TA giving context to calculus, I would not have passed. That being said, if there were to be a common ground there must be a learning space within the design to ensure that the relevance and application of the subject is captured, otherwise it will be seen as a waste of time and detract from the quality of learning for the individual. This means engineering applications for engineering students, finance for financial students and so on.

        • Instructors of “service” courses should be cognizant of the applications to which their subject will be applied. This requires serious and regular interaction between service and client departments.

          If you want to build a concert hall, you would want an architect who appreciates music. But if you can’t find such an architect, you would not be better off hiring a musician who knows a little bit about construction. It makes more sense for an architectural firm to hire architects who understand music, then for an orchestra to hire musicians competent in architecture.

          Relevance is a slippery concept. The big picture may take time to come into focus, and students should not expect to see the direct relevance of everything they learn, any more than governments or funding agencies should expect to see immediate commercial applications of the research they sponsor. (Sadly for the university, both students and governments are more focused on immediate gratification these days.)

          An education should expand the mind, and should not be solely teleological. An educated populace (isn’t that what we’re all about?) should have a broad perspective and not be channeled into narrow stalls of learning where they are fed no more than what they need to graduate and become a cog in the economic engine. Engineering students need to hear about financial applications, and finance students should hear about engineering applications. At a time when “inter/multi/cross/trans-disciplinarity” is emphasized and celebrated it is important that students recognize the commonality among diverse problems.

          If we require students to study English as part of their “breadth requirements”, do we put engineering students in special sections where all the poems and novels are about engineering? If someone wants to be a brain surgeon, can he skip learning physiology or even anatomy from the neck down, because he can’t see the relevance of that to his chosen profession? If he is forced to study biochemistry, should he expect that every example be related to the brain?

  3. I completely fail to see how the action plan Revitalize selected humanities departments and programs in the College of Arts and Science (project 8.4) represents a move to a ‘new department will have a critical mass of faculty to enable a focus on the core missions of teaching and research.’ The research and teaching done in the department of philosophy has practically nothing to do with that in the department of religion and culture or the department of modern languages (which is in fact non existent, did the people tasked with writing this particular action plan not consult the *actual* departmental make-up of the division?) or the others included. The core missions of teaching and research about what? How can there be a critical mass of faculty more able to so focus when what they research and teach are in actual fact not the same topics, subjects or disciplines and they do not even share basic methodologies? If such masses can be achieved in this fashion then perhaps the university should consider amalgamating the department of physics with the college of kinesiology and the medical faculty who focus on internal medicine, as they are all after engaged in the pursuit of knowledge related to movement.

    And what exactly are the costs that the small programs housed in these humanities departments impose *which will be reduced by the proposed amalgamation*? All support staff have already been removed from these departments as Robert Hudson points out. The activities of a department consist in both development and delivery of academic programs and the collegial processes required by the collective agreement. If the proposal is to retain current programs and add new ones, then the costs in faculty time will increase hugely, especially given that this amalgamation is the creature of higher administration not the faculty in question. If the proposal is to delete certain programs, then I say have the balls to come out and declare the University of Saskatchewan cannot afford to fund programs in Philosophy, or in French, or in Linguistics, or in German, or in Ukrainian or in Women and Gender Studies or in whichever of the many small programs currently on the chopping block are the ones creating the frightening deficit we have been ordered to scurry around trying to reduce.

    And what of collegial processes? Well they will certainly become much more time consuming and frustrating, as the proposed department struggles to develop a guideline document for the assignment of duties across faculty who now work in programs and disciplines that make disparate, possibly incommensurable, demands, and attempt to cobble together a standards document for the review of salaries knowing that colleagues will have little knowledge or expertise with which to assess research contributions or professional activities, and I shudder to think about the hundreds of faculty hours that will be required to develop standards for renewal, tenure and promotion with such a hodgepodge of disciplines represented in this new critically massive department. Search committee work will also surely become that much more fractious and divisive, as will allocation of resources to graduate students, sessionally taught courses and all the other day to day administrative requirements of running programs. All in all it seems a nightmare scenario. Not one that makes even the tiniest shred of a scintilla of sense to me.

    What is it that this amalgamation will achieve that will help increase the sustainability of programs going forward? Please explain.

  4. Just a quick question about changes in nomenclature: Am I correct in my recollection that the task forces were tasked with preparing “reports” that would lead to PCIP “recommendations,” and that the current Action Plan now refers to task force “recommendations” that inform PCIP’s “plan”? This seems an important rhetorical shift, and one worth glossing.

    • Thanks, Kevin. I don’t think there has been a shift. The task force recommendations were referred to as such many times. PCIP’s document contains a mix of things, generally best described as projects. Some projects will culminate in a proposal to a governing body. Others are about carrying out decisions of a leader within that leader’s unit and area of responsibility. The whole set of things in PCIP’s document has been called a plan from the beginning. I have also described it as a road map of which ideas and proposals go where for decision or implementation.

  5. All the departments in the Humanities and Fine Arts (HUMFA) have lost their department secretaries and the support structure for these departments is now centralized in the HUMFA Admin Commons. So I fail to see how amalgamating the smaller departments in HUMFA will do anything further to reduce administrative costs and economize on faculty time. If “experience has shown the difficulties and costs of maintaining small units” (Action Plan, p. 13), then HUMFA has already learned from that experience. Creating new departments from former departments that have basically nothing in common with one another does nothing to save the university money, and I thought the purpose of TransformUS was to save money, pure and simple, not engage in integrated planning. The Action Plan aspires to “define sustainable units” by “disestablishing some existing departments, programs or majors in favour of fewer new ones based on creative re-imagining of departments and programming using the best available ideas” (p. 14). But there is no justification or even discussion in the task force reports of the merits of such amalgamations for HUMFA, and it is hard to (even creatively) imagine how amalgamating disparate departments into a new department, where the faculty themselves do not voluntarily initiate this amalgamation, will do anything to enhance faculty research profiles or lead to valuable, innovative programming. I’m not sure what it means to “consider the relationship of departments to disciplines or interdisciplinarity”, but if it’s all about “the significance for students of the titles of courses, majors or degrees, and the significance or not of co-location of groups of faculty and staff” (Action Plan, p. 14), then we’ve reduced the academic mission of the university, as regards at least HUMFA, to a very simple state: giving students fancy names for their degrees and creating innovative programs by having people sit closer to one another.

    • Robert,

      I empathize with colleagues in HUMFA anticipating the challenge of department/program amalgamation. Faculty-directed change, such as the co-operation and collaboration that brought the CMRS program into being is one thing: the merger of departments with little in common is quite a different situation. These mergers will place demands on staff and faculty time related to curriculum development at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and departmental governance (e.g., leadership, assigned duties). The challenge lies in sustaining activities in the currently existing programs and governance structures while simultaneously working towards innovative integration of the various disciplines represented in the “new” department.

      I can appreciate actions that create a critical mass of like-minded faculty, regardless of their disciplinary home, to support innovative programs in research and teaching. My home department is facing the prospects of reduced resources and “strategic amalgamation” through various TransformUS projects. Fortunately, we have strong teaching and research collaborations in place and we can anticipate some positive outcomes.

    • Thank you for posting your thoughts. I can see that you are trying to figure out what the plan may mean and imagine possibilities. The university is going to need your help to do so. I suggest talking to your dean or vice-dean about what the ideas in the plan can mean for your area of the university.

      Concerning the plan as a whole, it clearly states that it is not only about saving money now. It is also about finding ways to shape programs, units, structures, and ways of doing things that will be sustainable into the future – making strong units based on the kind of resources currently available, limiting future cost increases, and ensuring effective use of what we have.

      • Mr Provost:

        I completely agree, the plan `clearly states that it is not only about saving money now’. What is not entirely clear to me is what you exactly mean by “sustainable” when some recommended actions do not lead to cost savings, and how are you `making strong units’ by grouping programs that are inherently different. Yes, `simplifying and amalgamating’ structures is helpful and positive when it makes sense, but it might turn out to be dissastrous when it goes against common-sense.

        What I find most troubling is the persistence in applying the reductionist approach of `one-size-fits-all’ without recognizing the plurality of what makes the university. The use of uniform templates was detrimental to small programs. Instead of revisiting the assessment tools that are clearly not suitable to all programs, small programs will be lumped together without any evidence of why this is helpful aside from better conforming to the TransformUS templates. This might be positive if program prioritization a la TransformUS is applied periodically without addressing its flaws, but then, such a repeated application will be based on ideology rather than evidence or reason.

        I am also concerned that by repeating the plan `is also about finding ways to shape programs, units, structures, and ways of doing things that will be sustainable into the future – making strong units based on the kind of resources currently available, limiting future cost increases, and ensuring effective use of what we have’, without giving defensible arguments how this will be achieved beyond the application of Occam’s razor, you are engaging in what Karl Popper referred to as philosophical reduction,

        `which is a matter of giving an account of things without referring to what one wishes to eliminate. Popper elsewhere explained the same idea, by way of drawing a parallel with the way in which an infestation of lice was dealt with
        in Vienna, after the First World War: the problem was solved, by simply not talking about lice!’ [1]

        I wish `reality’ is so simple:
        `only if Plato’s beard is sufficiently tough, and tangled by many entities, can it be worth our while to use Occam’s razor.’ [2]

        [1] J. Shearmur, `Popper versus Analytical Philosophy?’, in Karl Popper: Critical Appraisal, edited by P. Catton and G. MacDonald, 2004
        [2] K. Popper, `A Realist View of Logic, Physics and History’, in Objective Knowledge, 1972

        • Will, I appreciate your post though I do not understand all of it. I can say that by sustainable I mean that activities of the university are effective without running ongoing deficits or requiring ongoing growth in resources beyond what can be expected. Ensuring effectiveness, avoiding deficits, and having structures that are not predicated on growth are all aspects of sustainability. Currently we are concerned particularly with financial sustainability but similar concepts in my view apply to social and environmental sustainability. I believe we need simplification of structures and programs, but this is not equivalent to saying and I have not said that every simplification is good. Of course we should pursue the ones that make most sense. This is why there are projects and project leaders who are given the task of leading discussions and engaging with different groups about what to do and the best ways to do it. From my experience in the university I would say we do have too many small programs, and that the multiplicity of them hinders academic impacts and raises costs, notably with respect to faculty time. Again, this does not mean any particular small program is bad. I would say the unit responsible for a small program (or any program) needs to be very clear on the positive impacts and the costs of the program, and be sure that the allocation of resources to the program is informed and deliberate. We can offer programs that consume more resources than they generate (which I suspect a number of small programs do) as long as the unit concerned sees it as a priority important enough to cross-subsidize it from other programs. We should just be transparent where we are cross-subsidizing, and intentional about why we do it.

          • This seems to me to be a very thorough and fair-minded response. I’m particularly struck by the statement about “having structures that are not predicated on growth,” which seems to me very sensible. I wonder how that intersects with the university’s interests in having growth in other ways (e.g., enrolment).

          • Of course, philosophy programs at the U of S do NOT consume more resources than they generate. The calculations have been done several times over in anticipation of the implementation of the Transparent Activity-Based Budget System (TABBS), and the implication that the department is in any way a drain on the College or Institution as a whole is utterly false.

          • Surely the university has some empirical measurements which would be helpful here. As the comment above noted, according to TABBS calculations the Philosophy dept. is not a net drain on the resources of the college, so I fail to see why it is prudent to remove a financially positive program and replace it with an amalgam of neglected humanities programs, especially considering that this amalgamation is not driven by common research interests. Mr Fairbairn mentioned in his reply to Beth Horsburgh below that ideally the university would like to move towards “more graduate students with shorter times to completion.”
            Given that this amalgamation proposal is NOT driven by common research interests or even shared methodological approaches I fail to see how it fits with the above statement.
            To put it more bluntly, who in their right mind would come to the UofS and take a graduate degree in a program that is not widely offered elsewhere, shares no common research methodologies or even coherently similar academic project metrics to established academic disciplines, and does not sensibly lead to further study or recognizable qualifications?
            Surely the University has some empirical data that shows that this program is academically and financially feasible? They must have evidence that there are students out there who will take a undergraduate and graduate degree programs in this HUMFA hodgepodge?
            I would very much like to see such evidence, as right now it looks like a plan without any semblance of merit, whilst scuttling a current dept. that is a financial net positive for the college.

  6. Wondering if Transform US isn’t a good opportunity to also consider a strategy to build and diversify U of S revenue streams. There are many universities that have done this successfully – particularly in USA. Our big box Preston Crossing is one example. Could we set a goal to reduce dependency upon provincial funding – say move it from 60% to 50%?

    • Great question. There are some opportunities in TransformUS, and some in other university projects. I recall that the support services taskforce ranked highly for possible investment alumni relations and fundraising. Investments in student services figure, because better retention and student success are good for everyone. Greater numbers of international students and professional masters programs are things our peer universities are pursuing, and which we should consider. Generally more graduate students with shorter times to completion would help. Land developments, lease revenues, licensing and so on are part of the picture. I am sure I haven’t covered everything. Basically, you are right and we need to work on diversifying our revenue. This will help us no matter what, and particularly if public finances do remain tight well into the future.

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