University of Saskatchewan students call for president to resign or be fired
Jennifer Graham and Jeff Davis, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, May 20, 2014 9:59PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, May 20, 2014 10:47PM EDT
SASKATOON -- Hundreds of angry students, staff and alumni of the University of Saskatchewan staged a noisy protest Monday, demanding the school's president resign amid a controversy over budget cuts and the firing of a professor who was later offered his teaching job back.
Students banged pots and pans and wore red felt squares on their breasts as they marched through campus until they arrived at the doorstep of University president Ilene Busch-Vishniac's office.
"We won't be Busch-wacked," they chanted.
"We want to see the current leadership of the administration gone," said protest organizer Nick Marlatte. "That means the president specifically. On top of that, the board of governors definitely needs to, in some way, show that they've been held accountable."
Marlatte acknowledged that some cuts have to be made to avoid a deficit, but he said changes are "being forced through" by administration at the top.
"They provided consultation, but I would say it was at best an exercise in consultation," he said.
"There seems to have been no meaningful ... student involvement. On top of that, faculty really isn't involved in any sort of decision making, not importantly or not significantly, at least."
The cuts are part of a bigger goal to address a projected $44.5-million deficit in the school's operating budget by 2016.
Karlynn Dzik, a third-year biosciences student, said she marched to protest cuts that are directly undermining her educational experience.
Since some required courses are no longer offered every year, she said she will not be able to finish her undergraduate degree in four years. Classes that are offered have ever-increasing numbers of students, she said.
"I've been in a class with 500 people," Dzik said. "I've had profs tell me they can't address 500 students' emails so don't email me."
Marlatte said firing Robert Buckingham last week as head of the School of Public Health and stripping him of tenure was the tipping point.
Buckingham was escorted from campus by police last Wednesday after writing a letter to the Saskatchewan government and Opposition New Democrats about the overhaul.
"There's been an outcry in terms of the manner in which the administration is willing to deal with faculty and really try to silence any sort of academic freedom here on campus by silencing any dissenters to the process," said Marlatte.
Peter Purdue taught art history at the university for 27 years before retiring last year.
"I'm here to stand up for the university against this autocratic nonsense," he said at Tuesday's protest. "They're really taking the brains out of this university."
Allowing a university president to revoke tenure is unheard of in academic circles, he said, and abruptly firing an internationally respected scholar like Buckingham will make it harder to recruit the best professors.
"I think it's really a bloody shame," he said. "This was a serious university."
Busch-Vishniac has said the school "made a blunder" when it fired Buckingham. He was offered back his tenure position, and has indicated he is willing to accept it, but the president said he would not be reinstated as head of the School of Public Health. She said leadership at the university is expected to align behind the decisions of the administration.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said he wanted an urgent meeting between the province and the university board.
Just minutes before the board meeting Monday night, Brett Fairbairn, the school's provost and vice-president academic, resigned. Fairbairn had signed Buckingham's termination letter.
Marlatte said Fairbairn's resignation is not enough.
"It really, at best, just has offered maybe some sort of sacrifice to allow president Ilene Busch-Vishniac to stay in," he said. "But really I don't think that that's going to be satisfactory to a lot of people who feel that she needs to be held accountable and a lot of people who feel that she needs to be removed from her position, if not resign herself."
Faculty are also speaking out.
The University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association said there are indications that tenure "is under full attack." It said it has learned that the board has given the president the power to veto tenure decisions.
"Clearly, if you're going to have a president who is going to exercise veto over all of those collegial decisions, then that is just simply unacceptable. It's an embarrassment," association chairman Doug Chivers said in an interview with CJWW radio in Saskatoon.
Board chairwoman Susan Milburn said in a statement Tuesday that its members are aware of the public outcry over Buckingham's firing and have discussed university leadership "in depth."
"We do not want to act in haste and therefore we have not made any final decisions, other than to maintain our strong commitment to financial sustainability and renewal," she said. "We will conclude our due diligence before a decision is rendered on university leadership."
Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris said Monday that the university is an independent organization, but he's concerned about whether the University of Saskatchewan Act has been violated.
Norris said the ministry is reviewing whether the board delegated veto power to Busch-Vishniac. He called it "a very serious allegation."
With files from CJWW