The University of Saskatchewan’s self-immolating “transformation”

Like the cynical Newspeak* titles of the Harper regime’s many schemes to plunder the public good and to “streamline government” by dismantling regulations and scientific and democratic checks, the very title of the University of Saskatchewan’s “Transform US” is a lie.  “Transformation” suggests a creative process, a renewal.  The awkward juxtaposition of the collective pronoun “us” suggests a voluntary, self-generated project.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The projection of huge deficits is essentially the university’s senior administration jumping up and down, waving its arms, screaming “fire” and jettisoning essential technical and support staff willy nilly, in a concerted campaign to stampede faculty into a competitive race to the bottom.  The alarming figures involved are fabrications that are disputed, not only by the Faculty Association and every union on campus, but even by former President Peter MacKinnon who stated that he left behind no operating deficit.

The disingenuity with which the University’s new president and Provost/VP have promoted the fatuous cost-cutting formulas of US failed-academic-turned-managerial-consultant Robert Dickeson, as the framework for a supposedly professional evaluation process, suggests either willful ignorance or utter incompetence.  Are they truly unaware that larger, more prestigious Canadian universities have rejected this whole approach out of hand?   Have they not noted – or read – the many serious articles and papers that have demonstrated that the real goal of this process is to “transform”  independent centres for higher education and intellectual inquiry into service institutions synchronized to corporate needs?

The cornerstone of Dickeson’s  appeal to the credulous – apparently very much including President Busch-Visniak and VP/Provost Fairbairn  – is based on the simplistic truism that excessive costs arise because it is easier to create programs than to abolish them. That universities are wasting money because programs have proliferated without any real measure of their actual importance.  So he produces a simple, seductively numerical  – hence “objective” – panacea for cost-reduction.  Like other purveyors of monetarist pseudo-science based on blind faith in market forces, Dickeson’s process, by imposing a crude and arbitrary numerical ‘rating’ regime, completely avoids addressing the profound and ancient raison d’etre for universities: the value of their faculty and their accumulated knowledge, and even more importantly, the value of their objectivity and independence in leading intellectual inquiry.

This scheme is a further chapter in an ongoing war that conservative elites have continuously waged against the growth of an educated, potentially critical and assertive body politic.  Their central strategy was long one of restricting access to higher education, a calculated process some have uncovered behind the 1965-67 planning and launch of Ontario’s community college system, in order to divert demands of universal accessibility to higher education.  Seeking to ride on the reactionary American wave that elevated the Tea Party to political power, Dickeson’s onslaught goes much further.  It essentially seeks to change the universities into institutes of applied arts and technology: a sort of extended community college and glorified vocational institute.  And, of course, business colleges.

The cudgel used to propel departments and faculty into wasting time and resources on the grotesque verbal and mathematical gymnastics involved is the same “austerity” and “cost-cutting” rhetoric that we keep hearing elsewhere.  It is the mantra that the Harper regime drones on and on about, as it slashes everything from effective food safety regulation to railway safety, to (potentially embarrassing) science and even its stored data, to support for suffering veterans.  It is the same dishonest rationale that is used to cut jobs, wages and pensions in the weakest European countries, even as income equalities and the share of the world’s wealth have reached levels never before approached in human history.

The real, Machiavellian purpose is exactly the same: to eliminate all potential obstacles to corporate growth and all potential sources of opposition to growing social inequity,  to plunder the public good through privatization and to “transform” it to serve corporate need.  Pseudo-academic scheissters like Dickeson offer the special service of providing schemes to facilitate the subjugation and exploitation of such stubbornly public infrastructures as universities to private interests.

The gullibility of the faculties of some US colleges in abetting this process, by accepting the cost-cutting “challenge” posed by the crude PowerPoint presentations based on Dickeson’s specious assumptions, is depressing indeed.  Can people with Ph.D.’s in economics, political science, history and so forth really be that stupid?  (Apparently, some at U of S even see the fact that six-dozen tenured faculty have accepted a buy-out to eliminate them, and in many cases their positions, as an accomplishment!)  Does it require special genius to understand that this process  inevitably undercuts that validity of exactly the kind of programs that most differentiate a university from a glorified trade school or business college?   That the programs that end up being”pruned” will time and again be in areas like Women and Gender Studies and Cultural Anthropology, whose work tends to undercut patriarchal stereotypes?  Or Geography and Environmental Studies, which identify and analyze profound problems in our interaction with our suffering planet?  Or International Studies and  Modern Languages, which equip students to look beyond national borders and jingoistic rhetoric, and communicate beyond fortress America?  And of course Political Economics, Classical Studies and Philosophy which – most dangerously of all – teach people to think critically?

Basically, these are the programs that don’t fit the short-term needs of corporate America, that actually challenge its fundamental assumptions (its intellectual hegemony) and endanger its expansion.

An important part of this process is the destruction of tenure and tenure-track positions; that is, any real job security for faculty.  The clever thing about administratively “removing” programs is that this effectively also removes positions without obvious job-cutting or lay-offs.  For administrators, who fancy themselves as CEO’s, the attractions of the Dickeson meat-grinder is obvious. The cost of production of a course, a program and a degree can be slashed by exploiting a ready reserve of interchangeable contract-to-contract “instructors”, whose threadbare chains can readily be yanked, should they, in even the smallest way, slow down the volume and speed of the enrollment and processing of desperate trainees. (Desperate because an undergraduate degree has become what a high school matriculation once was).

It is a sad reality and an open secret that far too many courses are already taught by non-tenure track “Sessional”, ” Part-time”, “Sabbatical Replacement” and “Adjunct” faculty, even now.  In the US, there are one and a half million college and university faculty.  Two-thirds of these are such “Part-time” instructors earning an average of $20,000 a year from their teaching, as they move from teaching assignment to teaching assignment and contract to contract, often competing fiercely and desperately for these academic crumbs.

The end result of the Dickesonian rampage is the sort of for-profit institution run by the the Apollo group, whose flagship, the University of Phoenix, has managed to reduce academic salaries to a fraction of their budget, no larger than their advertising costs – or profits.  Far from being an effective or an efficient institution, it apparently charges its students three to five times what public institutions do, suffers from a student loan default rate (26%) much higher than its graduation rate (17%) and has been the object of numerous successful state prosecutions and private lawsuits.  The kicker is that last year, it closed almost half its campuses.

There much more at stake here than just the elimination of programs and faculty jobs.  Further neo-conservative corporate success in eliminating universities as sites for truly independent research, thought and criticism would, in some ways, return them to what many of them were centuries ago.  Institutions like Oxford, for example, were long autocratically run denominational training grounds for priests and government officials.  Their explicit function was as much to inculcate their subjects – and through them, society – with ways and means of suppressing and ignoring dangerous truths, as they were to spread  “approved”  knowledge.  (Sounds familiar, does it not?)

Centuries ago, this did impede intellectual progress, but mainly in terms of local and regional negative effects, because they existed in a world of only about half a billion humans and limited hand and animal powered technologies.  In a world of seven billion of humans, equipped with destructive powers that we are even now barely controlling, such imposed and willful blindness could prove to be apocalyptic.  We need independent, culturally comprehensive, intellectually profound universities – now and in our future – even more than we needed them in the past.  To study gender, to study geography, to study languages and to study the profound connections between apparently separate disciplines – the disparate things that make us human –  is most essential in order for us to protect and preserve our cultures, through the crises and difficulties that are coming.  That is the real innumerable bottom line, and the one that is central to our survival as a civilization.


* Excerpt from “The Principles of Newspeak”An appendix to 1984, Written by : George Orwell in 1948

Newspeak was the official language… and had been devised to meet.. ideological needs. In the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication, either in speech or writing. …  [but] it gained ground steadily, all party members tending to use Newspeak words and grammatical constructions more and more in their everyday speech.

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought …. should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. 

Some interesting further reading:

Robert Dickeson: Right for Ontario?

And also some excellent articles on the wider issues involved (including some repudiations of the fiction that and Arts or Humanities degree is worthless)


And on the situation in Britain, which tends to expose the international nature of this monetarist assault.


I was born in Germany, grew up and have lived most of my life in Canada, but was back there from 1986 to 1990 to marry, help to have a daughter and see the wall fall. Attended elementary schools and St. Michael's College High School, Northern Secondary & Jarvis Collegiate in Toronto. Started U at Carleton in Ottawa, but completed my degrees in Anthropology and English at York U in Toronto, where I was also a Teaching Assistant and Research Assistant to Prof. Norman Penner and studied in the Graduate program in Social and Political Thought. Much more recently I completed MA courses in English Literature and worked as a Teaching and Research Assistant at University of Saskatchewan, but became a Program creator and Facilitator and Employment Counsellor at the Saskatoon Open Door Society. I have long been politically active,, have a strong interest in photography, literature and the arts, and am lucky enough to be married to a world-class pianist and to have a beautiful and talented daughter and a brilliant son-in-law,

4 Responses to “The University of Saskatchewan’s self-immolating “transformation””

  1. Ron
    February 20, 2014 at 23:56 #

    I read your discussion on the changes at the U of S. This clearly is an outcome of globalization where money is transferred from the public to private enterprises. As money is stripped away from the public purse the programs that help to keep us a civilized society fall away as well. I strongly reproach the Faculty Association for not taking a stronger stance against the sea-change in education imperatives. Instead many Profs.saw the inevitable and took the golden handshake and they will not be able to even continue in an advisory capacity. What a loss this is in knowledge and store of wisdom. This removes a group with huge critical value from the process. Slowly those who could observe and speak out are silenced as the widening gap between rich and poor inevitably widens further and the middle is gutted falling along with the poverty stricken. Yes we are living in a time of great abundance and it is largely being locked up into the hands of the few.

    Even as short a time ago as Sunday when CBC’s “Cross-country Checkup” was largely an exercise in pitting callers against the public service employees where they were used as a scapegoat in order that the corporate structures would be exempt from paying their fair share. it is a ploy to exempt corporations from being responsible for having to contribute their share toward pensions and benefits that encourage workers to feel like human beings.

    The rub is that investors who need to be appeased in the shortest possible instance (shorter than a quarter would be finer in the diner) have no appetite for delaying gratification even when that means a race to the bottom then move over and on to the next location to take advantage of cheap labour until it too is used up or the people have asked for a decent living. E.G. the debacle of the rise and fall of the Irish Economy.

    Finally I would have liked to see this essay provide a cogent,cohesive and practical plan to counter this administration’s assertion that no comprehensive alternative has been presented.

    • February 21, 2014 at 11:39 #

      A quick and cogent (Webster dictionary definition): “very clear and easy for the mind to accept and believe” and practical plan is:

      1. For a) The Faculty Association, b) The Sessional Faculty union, c) the Student Association , d) the Graduate Students Association, e) the Admin support staff union, f) the Technical and maintenance support staff union to
      form and send representatives to a coordinating body

      2) To hold town-halls, teach-ins or whatever sessions at which the manufactured nature of the real motives behind the “desperate deficit” plan – and its actual effects- are exposed

      3) To move further motions of non-confidence in the President and VP/Provost and their process, to supplement the one that the Student Association has passed.

      4) Most important: to hold visible imaginative protests to inform the public of what is being done to the university education so many of them aspire to, for themselves and their children.

      That program of action, parts of which have indeed taken place, would be a very good start. The next step would be to demand that the U of S President finally show some real leadership by following the example of Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde in dealing with a $2 million federal funding reduction. He proposes to cut all four or five Vice Presidents.

      Millions could be saved immediately by pruning positions and salaries of one of the most bloated and overpaid university bureaucracies in Canada. The President could inspire us even further by the cutting her own half million a year cost, in salary and perks, by 20 or 25%.

      The last measure might, by itself, save enough to rehire sufficient personnel to at least clean the stinking, trash-filled washrooms with which U of S now confronts its students and greets its visitors.


  2. February 22, 2014 at 18:16 #

    So where is the action? We have heard lots of nice ideas for action, but nobody is doing it. If it were not for a handful of people, the open letter to the President would never have been written and the Free Academia blog site would never have been created. We still witness the silence of the lambs on their way to the slaughterhouse.

    In a recent email to us a well known Canadian author wrote to us that he is not sympathetic to our campaign because for 30 years professor stood by and did nothing against the destruction of the traditional values of a university and against the tuition hikes that now leave our students with high debt after finishing their studies. The danger is that professors and all other stakeholders will again fail their responsibilities while talking about theoretical actions.

    Enough has now been written about the nonsense of TransformUS. VOX is full of shocking articles. The blog sites and now also the list of signers of the open letter has many critical comments. Enough good actions have been suggested. Let’s see at least some of them now!

    Der Worte sind genug gewechselt, nun lasst uns Taten sehen.

    The Free Academia Team

    • February 23, 2014 at 00:21 #

      A simple, dramatic action would be to have a group of volunteers from each association – faculty, students, sessionals, support staff join together in an informational picket carrying signs and a few banners to dramatize concerns to people driving by as well as into the university, “Keep your university a university”, “Start cuts at the top” or “Start cuts with the biggest salaries”, or “Defend the future of our children”, and also such more specific slogans as “Languages are important – the whole world speaks them”, “French is needed in a bi-lingual country”, “Humanities keep us Human” are a few off-the-wall suggestions. Keep the message as concise and clear and united as possible.

      The key is to start and keep people working together. The cynical divide-and-rule, buy off the opportunists and pick-off-the-weak strategy is already being implemented and has already weakened the whole university. You are right, the best antidote to lonely fear for one’s individual career and job future is united action.

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