Jan 302014
 

Whether public or private, the single most important defining characteristic of a university is its faculty. Faculty transform both the university and the generations of students they teach by means of the advancement and dissemination of shared knowledge.

As is the case at many universities, some faculty at the U of S were educated here, while others received their university education elsewhere in Canada or abroad. Travel is an integral part of the research, scholarship, and artistic work in which we are engaged. We come into contact with a diversity of colleagues from around the world at conferences, academic meetings, on sabbatical leaves, and through scholarly collaborations. The knowledge, insight, and understanding we gain is reflected in our teaching and the learning of our students.

We are fortunate that eminent scholars from other countries have chosen the U of S at which to teach. One such faculty member is Franz-Viktor Kuhlmann of the department of mathematics and statistics who is a graduate of Heidelberg University. Founded in 1386, it is the oldest university in Germany. Its seal has a gothic backdrop and shows a sitting Saint Peter holding a key, flanked by two kneeling knights bearing the arms of the electors palatine – quite the contrast from the three wheat sheaves and open book on our logo. Here and in the next issue of VOX he writes about TransformUS and how it typifies the relationship between the senior administration and the College of Arts and Science at the U of S. His perspective is that of someone educated in a different cultural and academic tradition from which we can learn a great deal.

The Editors

STOP THE ADMINISTRATIVE AND POLITICAL INTRUSION INTO THE ARTS AND SCIENCES! (Part One)

Professor Franz-Viktor Kuhlmann
Department of Mathematics & Statistics
University of Saskatchewan

I was brought up academically at the University of Heidelberg, which has a six times’ longer tradition than the U of S. I was strongly exposed to the values that traditionally make up a university: academic standards, academic freedom, culture and knowledge. I would never have expected to witness in my lifetime these academic values baldly cast aside, neglected and abused at an institution at which I work, an institution that calls itself a “university”.

Note that all of these notions are absent from our “university priorities”. That is why several of our programs have problems aligning to the “priorities”, as the notes of the Task Force state, while they have no problem aligning with the traditional mission of a university, including ours. Make no mistake: these “priorities” are supported by fewer people on campus than you may think. Their existence and content are due to a silent majority of scientists who are too busy with teaching and research to care for what they see as a new fashion that simply has to be tolerated. Now our silence backfires on us. Well, we should have seen it coming.

The following sentence from the “Message from the Academic Program Transformation co-chairs” told us: “This may involve decisions to scale down or eliminate programs which have made important contributions and which are making effective use of their resources. Our task is to provide an indication of where existing programs fit in terms of university priorities as stated over time through the planning process and in other ways.” I find this sentence revolting, to say the least. Academically, it makes no sense at all to terminate flourishing and cost-efficient programs only because they do not fit into these “priorities”. It reduces the diversity in what our university can offer to science and the community, and thus it goes against the explicit mission of the U of S.

It seems all but forgotten what the word “university” actually means. It comes from “universal”, meaning a universal coverage of our culture and knowledge. A university (and certainly a U15 one) has to offer a breadth of programs in order to provide optimal education. A statement does not become true by being repeated often, but unfortunately in the mind of those who hear it, it does – that is the essence of propaganda. It is repeated often by our administrators, including the president herself, that small programs are costly. But often at the U of S, several small programs use the same courses that have to exist anyway! It is just an additional service to the students to give them high flexibility in choosing their program.

After the global financial crisis five years ago, resources were withdrawn from academic units under the pretense of a lingering crisis in the pension plan. Academic units struggled with reduced funds while announcements were made about increased funding to administrative units that do not directly support academic programs. (http://www.usask.ca/ipa/pcip/academic%20innovation.php). This was a sin against the mission of our university, and it happened without consulting the main bodies of the universities: professors and students (as so many other things our administrators do).

In the TransformUS report “elite programs” have been put into quintile 5 because of a low head count. But society needs elite programs; there are professions which are needed, but only a few people in these professions are needed at any one time. It is part of the mission of every good university to provide elite programs. It appears that our administrators would like to see dozens or hundreds of students in an elite program, which is absurd. I know of an elite undergraduate program that is presently taken by five of the best students that I have ever seen in my classes. These students will go on into graduate programs, and if they continue their studies at other universities, they will be excellent ambassadors of our university. At the same time, the program uses courses that are also taken by other students and are part of other programs, so they do not use up any additional resources. It would be very detrimental and at the same time save no money to delete such programs. It is equally misguided to put a centre in quintile 4 whose aim is to increase the international visibility of research at the U of S and to provide a framework for conferences, while the only resources it devours are the after-hours volunteer time of some enthusiastic faculty.

For centuries, the mandate of universities was the preservation of culture and the procurement and propagation of knowledge. As mentioned already, the two words “culture” and “knowledge” are conspicuously absent from our university “priorities”. Academic freedom has been an important principle in the history of universities, and wherever it was violated, this had very adverse consequences or was a symptom of a distorted political system. The University of Heidelberg saw its darkest times when administrative intrusion, for political reasons, was the strongest.

In every good university it was understood that administration was there to support the main body of the university, professors and students, and not to boss them around. Administrators are support staff, and there were times when most of them understood this and showed some decency. Now the professors have to serve the administrators. Academic self-government was a system used in the best universities around the world. The departure from this and the other high goods of the traditional university will serve neither science nor society.

It is a principle, well accepted in many countries, that the state should be separate and thus independent of the churches. In the same way it has been accepted for the most time in many centuries and countries that the universities have to be independent of the state. Only in this way can they fulfill their mandate to the benefit of the society. Only in this way can culture be preserved and scientific truths be told, some of which can be very uncomfortable for governments. Half a century ago many of us thought that the big atrocities of mankind would be eradicated because we had an “informed society”. We now have to realize that more and more information is hijacked. Die Medien werden gleichgeschaltet – and I write this in German to remind you of a certain time when this worked so efficiently that it helped bring about one of the worst atrocities the world has ever seen. Political intrusion into the once (more or less) free media withholds or alters information unwanted by governments and administrators. The muzzling of scientists is one of the outcomes. Another is the systematic damage to their reputation that is brought about by the government-friendly media, for the purpose of shielding governments with (no longer) hidden agendas from the unpleasant scientific truths. Many people do not resist this because they also want to be shielded; mundus vult decipi – the world wants to be deceived. The universities traditionally worked exactly against this trend, to the benefit of society and its future generations. Half a century ago many of us thought that 1984 and its Minitrue were the past – yes, we lived in the past.

Our university is now taking over the same information policies, the same approach to what administrators call “communication”. Key members on campus are now told that their communication with the outside world should go through the communications office. The associate vice-president (!) communications, a newcomer, tells a professor, who has long been at our university, in the StarPhoenix “to learn about the progress being made by the many people dedicated to the long-term success of the U of S” – as if the professor would not be devoted himself, now and for a long time, to the success of the U of S. That is actually why he wrote his letter. In the same letter the communications specialist writes: “Faculty and students continue to be our top priorities.” Obviously this is not true. “We hold to our continuing goal of an institution where everyone wants to come to work, to learn, and to teach.” I believe they have failed miserably.

Now we have our own little Minitrue. Instead of engaging in open and critical discourse, the efforts of our higher administration to tell us what we have to think of our university are ever increasing. Documents are written telling us how wonderful our university is. We are told which successes to celebrate and when. Large posters are put up on campus praising the university, painfully ending all attributes on US. They tell us about successes like small class sizes, something that for so many underfunded programs can only be a dream, telling us about an almost non-existent reality that with the further reduction of resources will be even more eradicated. These efforts can only be labelled attempts at brainwashing. But sorry, my dear administration, you have hired people who are actually using the brains they have been born with, people who have been trained to see and analyze the reality and to engage in open and critical discourse.

Instead of open discourse, we now have propaganda. People off campus have been made to believe that our university has big problems and now the new president is the saviour and TransformUS is her weapon. The propaganda makes them believe that the academic programs and the salaries of the professors are the problem. But when I joined this university in 1997, it did not have the same problems as it has now. It was still a place with a lot of potential. There is nothing much wrong with its academic programs or its faculty. Faculty salaries are not the problem. It is rather the salaries of the ever growing number of administrators, highly paid but often inefficient or uncomprehending consultants, lawyers and public relations experts.

The president proudly reported that other institutions call her up to say that they are very interested in the outcome of TransformUS. At first glance, that sounds good. But it is just propaganda, as it is most certainly the administrators and not the faculty of those institutions who are inquiring. And these administrators will not be interested in what I am writing up here. Goodbye to open discourse and the dream of having leaders who describe things as they really are.

Only an independent university, governed by professors, driven by open scientific and academic discourse, coming with a breadth of offerings, can serve the society and the community well. But “service for the community” is one of the lip services of our administrators. For instance, this is shown by administrative intrusion into the programs which offer important second languages of our province, some of which have even been deleted. This intrusion has been heavily opposed by students and the community some years ago – to no avail, much to the consternation of the students and proponents of these languages.

Another lip service: in the past years we have been told over and over again to celebrate our successes. Now it is suddenly the opposite: a large number of successful people in this university are offended and frustrated by the ranking of their programs in TransformUS and by the often inappropriate “notes” that came with them. Is this the way to encourage the members of this university to work hard, often investing even their free time, the late hours of the night and early hours of the morning, for their teaching, research and service initiatives, all for the benefit of their university?

The true successes of this university have been and are constantly generated by its members, even in the smallest programs, who are increasing the visibility of the U of S all over the world. A large number of such members have been thanked for their efforts and have been “celebrated” now by having their programs put in quintile 3 and worse.

The debt, if it at all exists, was imposed on us by administrators who have their heads in the clouds (or was it “clouts”?), who pushed through their big pet projects without adequately calculating the running costs that are not sufficiently supported from third parties. But a main and very important ingredient of a university is all the small initiatives, programs, even just individuals who put it on the map. Twenty years ago I did not know the U of S, had not even heard of Saskatchewan. I came to know about it by meeting one single man who is one of the most well known and admired in his research area. When I later joined my department at the U of S, I found out that it was the home of numerous researchers of that type. There are many of us with an international reputation, working hard to strengthen international ties and increase the visibility of our university – all doing so without interference from administration. This needs no big programs dedicated to internationalization, it is all there already, just give enough support to those researchers who have worked for it for many years.

Never before has the detachment of the upper administration from the foundation been as deep and detrimental as it is now. If academic mobility were higher, we would see many very productive faculty leave this university. In any case, the frustration will cost the university immeasurably. A quantification of this cost at this point in time is impossible, and it will probably only be clearly visible at a time when the administrators who brought it upon us are gone.

Speaking of successes, my department went through a severe crisis not long ago but it then healed itself, in spite of the crippling lack of resources (only a tiny part of the huge tuition income it generates through service teaching is given back to the department). It has rebuilt its PhD program and has successfully hired wonderful young faculty. The trend over the past years is very positive and upward-directed, yet it is “celebrated” by putting all of its programs in quintile 3 and worse. The true success can certainly only be adequately judged by peers (as has taken place in the past, to no avail), but there were no peers in the Task Force.

Never before has the morale on campus been so low. In this situation, employees even have to face the impertinence of being advised by broadcast emails to use the Employment Assistance Program in order to manage their anxiety. I can only hope that many of us now will cast their anxiety aside and replace it by outrage. Is the employer no longer responsible for allowing the workplace to degenerate so much that the employees suffer from anxiety and, as a consequence, even from illness? Doctors in the city can tell you about that because they know what is going on at the U of S. Again, this comes with large costs that cannot be measured at this moment.

Administrators seem to forget that professors and students are human beings, and that the administrator’s job is to support them. Some years ago, employees in Financial Services were advised by their superiors that it is not their job to help faculty when they have problems filling their forms, e.g. for reimbursements. The university has now lost a lady who was admired by many of us as she was always willing to advise us when we had such problems, and who was very efficient in her advice. And we were just about to nominate her for the President’s Service Award…

The old and obvious wisdom that an employee is most productive when he or she is happy, not stressed out, and supported by the administration, seems to be all but forgotten. Instead, the atmosphere is poisoned by inappropriate evaluation systems and by those who believe they know how to make a complex system more efficient by micromanaging it. The outcome is decreased productivity and disgruntled employees. I recommend “The Ant Story” for viewing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejw9Coycfcw.

In recent months we have seen some deplorable effects of the debt craze that has captured our university: departments being deprived of their department offices, professors being kicked out on short notice from their offices like animals from their cages, secretaries being literally arrested from their offices because they are fired a few months before their retirement (which then costs the university additional money). Measures that do little to save money (and in some cases even have generated additional costs), but a lot to make more and more people lose their faith in our university. Those responsible for such useless and ill-advised measures should carefully read the detailed analysis given in a recent open letter of University of Michigan faculty to their president, available at http://um-openletter.eecs.umich.edu.

Another lip service: the administration talks a lot about improving the student experience. The messages sent by the TransformUS results to our students are doing just the opposite. I have heard of many students who now fear that their programs will be shut down while they are still enrolled in them. I know of students who would wholeheartedly recommend their programs to potential newcomers but will now tell them to go to other universities. This has already happened in the past when several students suffered from abrupt changes brought upon them by administrative intrusion. Some were kicked out without warning from their programs that were “transformed”, finding themselves abruptly unenrolled when they logged into PAWS. I know about students who then switched to University of Regina. I know about students who switched into another program that is now facing the same administrative intrusion. One of these transformations is noted in the TaskForce report as “now increasing student enrollment”. The reality is that the earlier transformation forced out a considerable number of students who were in despair and disbelief. It is only to the merit of the hardworking professors that that particular situation is slowly healing, and for that they are rewarded with a low ranking!

And who will talk about the “professor experience”? Was recruitment and retention of excellent faculty not one of the goals of this university?  (Another lip service!) What message does it send to them? Will we recruit and retain them if the corresponding programs are classified as deserving only reduced resources? The very positive trend of hirings in my department in the past years has already been reversed. One of the most excellent researchers our university could have been proud of went to another Canadian university. One of the reasons for that was a stunning administrative mistake which even ruined the chance to hire another excellent faculty. Right now we are losing a young and promising researcher to a British university – lucky him! And what about recruitment? If the situation for new PhDs almost everywhere in the world were not so difficult, you could be sure that hardly anyone would choose to apply for a position at the U of S after looking at the TransformUS outcome.

Another lip service: the research intensive university. More and more burdened by administrative duties and by teaching more classes because resources are scarce, the researchers have less time for research. Research needs graduate students, but most of the researchers and their departments are lacking the resources to recruit and retain them.

Can anyone explain to me why lots of programs for which the notes read very favourably are then recommended to be kept with “reduced resources”? By the way, surely this label is an intrinsic contradiction as many programs will die when their resources are reduced. And how shall departments that have already been starved almost to death in the past run in the future with “reduced resources”? This reminds me of the Middle Ages with the practice of trying to heal a weak patient by bloodletting. How could graduate programs that have a low headcount because of lack of resources (more funding was promised by the university years ago but never happened) ever be improved with “reduced resources”? Programs that are not optimal in their performance because of lack of resources are put into quintile 3 or worse because their performance is not optimal, and will further suffer by another reduction of resources. This university is spiraling downward.

About VOX

VOX is a forum for the expression of opinions of members of the USFA on topics of general interest to the membership. Submissions to be considered for publication should be sent to the USFA office to the attention of the VOX Editorial Board or they may be sent by email to usfa@usaskfaculty.ca, or to any member of the Editorial Board.

VOX is sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association and is published by an independent Editorial Board, whose members are:

George Khachatourians
Brian Pratt
Howard Woodhouse

VOX may appear up to eight times a year, depending on the volume of submissions. All articles remain the property of the authors, and permission to reprint them should be obtained directly from them. All opinions expressed in VOX are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the position of the USFA or the Editorial Board.

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