It’s not all that often that we see a case study in Canadian university crisis communications and in particular, where a crisis happens because of a conflict involving fundamental ideas about what universities are for and how they should be governed. That’s one way to look at the recent events at the University of Saskatchewan, where actions by the administration have brought unwanted international attention to the university, sparking a nationwide debate about the nature of academic freedom, administrative and professorial rights and responsibilities, and university politics and funding.
For those who missed out, the most visible event in the timeline is the firing of professor Robert Buckingham (on May 14), who was the dean of the university’s school of public health. Dr. Buckingham was dismissed and escorted off campus by security personnel, and told not to return. This happened less than 24 hours after Dr. Buckingham circulated a letter titled “The silence of the deans” in which he described the senior administration’s attempts to shut down criticism of the university’s strategic planning process, TransformUS.
In the letter, which Dr. Buckingham sent to the premier of Saskatchewan and to the NDP opposition, he describes being instructed by the president and the provost to “support university messaging.” This was a problem for Dr. Buckingham because the school of public health had recently earned APHEA accreditation for its Masters of public health program; he argued that the changes planned by the administration would require re-assessment, and as such the school might lose its accreditation. Along with his open letter, Dr. Buckingham attached documents including an email from the provost requesting that he not discuss the accreditation issues in public.
Dr. Buckingham’s dismissal and the resultant public outrage led to a chain of events that included an apology from President Ilene Busch-Vishniac and the rapid reinstatement of Dr. Buckingham to a faculty position (though not to his role as dean) on May 15; the resignation of provost Brett Fairbairn and an emergency meeting of the board of governors on May 19; a major student rally on May 20, and ultimately the board’s decision to fire Dr. Busch-Vishniac on May 21.
Strategic planning in universities and the Dickeson model
While Dr. Buckingham’s specific complaint was about changes to the school of public health, the larger point (one echoed loudly on social media) was clearly a criticism of the strategic planning exercise overall. It’s important to point out that when strategic planning happens at universities, it almost always generates or provokes conflict and resistance. Not only that, but the problems are often expressed along particular lines that reveal a lot about the way that governance styles (especially academic vs. managerial) come into conflict in universities. Bearing this in mind, it’s clear that what the U of S experienced was a “smouldering crisis”, an internal one that gathered heat over time and eventually was sparked into a conflagration by Dr. Buckingham’s dismissal – it was a catalyst rather than a cause.
While strategic planning in general brings strife, the specific model being used by the U of S – Robert Dickeson’s program prioritization process (PPP) – is one that’s been a target of recent critiques as it’s been taken up at more universities in Canada (including Guelph, Brock, Nipissing, and Laurier).
The model is designed to deal with funding cuts by reducing university expenditures through “reallocation” of resources. As outlined in his book Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services, Dr. Dickeson’s argument is that if cuts must be made for institutional sustainability, there’s no sense in penalizing all organizational units equally. Thus the organization’s internal units (both academic and non-academic) are required to self-assess within a specified framework, such that the university can make informed sacrifices while maintaining quality in select areas of strength. Dr. Dickeson’s model is a kind of internal differentiation – and it’s no coincidence that there are parallels happening at different levels of governance.
Instead of supporting weaker areas so they can improve, these areas have resources reduced so that targeted programs can prosper; the internal assessment is what guides these decisions. Funding goes from an assumed rising tide that lifts all boats, to a zero-sum institutional game in which departments must prove their “excellence” and relevance to the university’s unique mission. Dr. Dickeson himself points out that the “egalitarian” nature of academe means this kind of ranking exercise goes against the grain of the institutional culture, wherein collective governance by faculty and equal treatment of the disciplines are ideals. Universities, in turn, aren’t designed to shrink when resources dry up, so any reduction in funding is bound to cause pain.
Communication and the university – crisis and strategy
Saskatchewan is a unique example of a university crisis wherein the role of communication in governance is clear for all to see. I’ve argued in the past that universities’ communication strategies are often based on the assumption of control and boundary policing. Rarely does a conflict rapidly traverse the communicative boundaries of the university in the way this incident has; within 48 hours of Dr. Buckingham distributing his letter, he had been fired and re-hired; within 10 days, both the president and the provost were out of the picture altogether. Such drama is even more likely to make the news because universities aren’t known publicly for their internal strife (ironically enough!).
Communication has played a direct part in all aspects of this crisis. News of the university’s swift and extreme reaction to Dr. Buckingham’s letter was fed directly into online media, where the outrage was amplified as it spread through networks. The letter was circulated quickly in part because it was discussed during the Saskatchewan legislature’s question period, tweeted about by the NDP, and then covered by the StarPhoenix the same day (May 13). It also served as a press release full of punchy, critical statements that could be (and were) easily quoted by the media. On Twitter, existing hashtags (such as #USask and #TransformUS) were appropriated and put to use, while the @USask handle received direct “feedback” as the tweeting public responded to the news.
Another document that circulated widely was the letter from provost Brett Fairbairn to Robert Buckingham, informing him of his dismissal. No amount of official equivocation could dispel the force of a letter in which Dr. Buckingham is told that both pay and benefits will be cut off (and which shows the provost’s signature at the bottom). On May 15, Dr. Fairbairn also defended the restructuring decision and dismissed the critiques expressed in Dr. Buckingham’s letter.
During this period the university’s president, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, took a good deal of direct criticism and hardly helped her own cause by committing several PR gaffes. For example when questioned in a CBC radio interview on the evening of May 15, she dismissed the decision-making process as “complicated” and attempted to shift the blame onto a group – including HR and university lawyers – rather than taking it on herself as leader. She also subsequently stated publicly that she had no intention of resigning. When asked when she had realised there was a problem, Dr. Busch-Vishniac responded: “at the point that…I was talking with everybody and said wait a minute, we did what just now?”
Based on what I’ve described, I think it’s fair to assume that the U of Saskatchewan administration was unprepared for a crisis – particularly one that was generated through weak internal decision-making (as opposed to one that was beyond the organization’s control), and facilitated by social media. The situation revealed a serious problem with decision-making, which was not ameliorated by Dr. Busch-Vishniac’s vaguely robotic assurances that “we will make sure that we fix whatever went wrong, and that it will never happen again.”
No matter what actions are taken next, the University of Saskatchewan has already projected an image of a tense, top-down and low-trust organizational climate, wherein there is a lack of consensus on – indeed, active resistance to – a program of internal change. Dr. Buckingham’s firing was not merely one bad decision; it was the latest (and possibly the culminating) incident in a flawed process that reflects larger, ongoing problems with organizational culture and power dynamics. This means not just strategic planning, but the process of organizational becoming, the ongoing making and re-making of the organizational culture that happens over a much longer period. What we’ve seen is a point where this becomes visible in a way that reflects back negatively on the institution.
As a result, the U of S has also incurred serious reputational damage. Public airing of these problems is a communications failure for the university, and it’s also an opportunity for critics to bring attention to events at the U of S and to connect these to broader themes of under-funding, corporatised governance, and academic freedom.
In the reaction to Dr. Busch-Vishniac’s firing, many critics have drawn on the close association between the president and the strategic plan, TransformUS; there’s been a lot of hope expressed that the plan would end with her departure. But while it’s often the case that the president becomes a synecdoche for the strategic plan (so close is the association between them), it’s very unlikely that the TransformUS plan will be abandoned after so many months of development, or that a new president would be chosen without some guarantee of making the plan work. However, Dr. Busch-Vishniac’s interim replacement, the well-liked Dr. Gordon Barnhart, has said that the plan will be reviewed (and its pace slowed). There will be no public inquiry into Dr. Buckingham’s firing and he will not be reinstated as dean.
The University of Saskatchewan will take a long time to shake off the events of the past month or so. Other institutions will consider as an example (not one to follow) the way U of S mis-handled its internal problems and thus generated a much wider, public debate about models of university governance and academic freedom. Yet given the tensions and crises that continue to emerge both from strategic planning and from the overlapping roles and conflicting loyalties for faculty and administrators, I think this is a conversation we really needed to have, and it’s one that should continue – as difficult as it may be.