The draft of this article was written nearly five months ago. A great deal has happened since then, not least, the firing of President Ilene Busch-Vishniak. A recent comment on the TransformUs Facebook Page that suggested that she deserved to be treated with respect as a former leader persuades me to finally publish this clear demonstration that she was anything but.
The University of Saskatchewan’s new President really showed her stuff at the Wednesday, April 10th, 2014 annual meeting of its the University of Saskatchewan General Academic Assembly. It not a pretty sight. Dr. Ileen Busch-Vishniak is clearly determined to book no opposition or even meaningful discussion during her reign as president. She started by proclaiming her power to chair and maintained her position astride the front-centre podium throughout the assembly.
She began by reading her “speech” full of saccharine platitudes and grand projections. As mind-numbing projected images of vast new buildings, high-tech lasb and vacuously smiling students flashed behind her, she droned on for a full thirty minute. Then she did her best to curtail discussion by encouraging people to leave after another 20 minutes, then again after another fifteen.
This presidential rush to get through the annual meeting of the highest academic body of the university was telling, especially in face of the fact that attendance of voting members almost reached the required 150 person quorum. GAA quorum has apparently only been achieved once in recent history . Most of the 125 or so voting members on the Convocation Hal floor, and most of the hundred or so students and other stakeholders observing from the wrap-around balcony had likely come to discuss the impending decimation of programs and faculty through the U of S administration’s version of the made-in-the USA “Transform US” process. After the Busch-Vishniak/Fairbarn tag-team had succeeded in blocking a meaningful discussion and a proper secret-ballot vote on a motion of non-confidence in this process at the University Council, the Saskatchewan University Act enshrines the GAA as the one broad-based body that could still seriously impede them President in their campaign to corporatize U of S.
Busch-Vishniak was clearly determined to prevent this from happening. The reason that the Saskatchewan University Act requires an annual report – which she mischaracterized as a speech – from the president to the GAA is surely twofold. One purpose of any such address is to detail and account for past actions. The University’s new president repeatedly refused to do this. The very first question came from a forty-two year faculty member who attempted to shame her into actually taking some responsibility. Professor Sharma expressed his deep disappointment with her failure to live up to the assurances she had given him two years before, as he showed her the campus and spoke to her for forty-five minutes about the most vital academic essentials that had to, in the light of his long experience, be preserved. Her brusque and insulting reply was that the university is not a happy place in a time of “necessary change”.
This set the tone. Much in the style of Canada’s Harper regime, Busch-Vishniak did her best to reduce all questions to crude fiscal arithmetic by beating the drum about dubious projected deficits as if it were money already spent or owed. That is, as if a bizarre campaign of cutting faculty, positions and programs – in the midst of a provincial boom and the inevitable concommittent increases in enrollment and a huge construction campaign – were the self-evidently the only logical way to save money. Time and time again, she repeated her tired shibboleths: “transformation”, “partnerships with industry” and “research university”. As if it were somehow an inevitable that her process of “transforming” of University of Saskatchewan, founded as ae “people’s university”, that is a comprehensive public institution serving the people of saskatchewan into a “research university” – that is a high-tech institution competing with all other such to serve the needs of large corporations – must proceed.
What more damning proof of the intellectual bankruptcy of Buschniak-Vishniak can there than the fact that she, as the head of an academic institution, in the course presiding over of its annual academic assembly, answered another question, a cordial request from a student leader for a debate about her “transformative” strategy by insisting that “there is only one side” and “there is nothing to debate”? That there had been “extensive consultations”, but also that nothing that students or faculty could have said or could say would affect her course. It is perhaps relevant to note that the avoidance of meaningful academic debate seems to be essential to the ability of the Dickeson process to proceed in the destruction of academic programs and positions irrelevant or hostile to corporate interests – indeed, of anything that could impede the transformation of public universities into the top-down corporate institutions – that are its real goal and lasting devastating effect, as has been demonstrated in case after case of its implementation.
When questions came that it would have been too obviously outrageous for $400,000 plus a year President Busch-Vishniak to block or refuse to answer , for example when another student asked how yet another 4,5% tuition fee increase could possibly be justified, the answer came – as always when extended derailments into thickets of specious rationales and jungles of outright bafflegab are needed – from “our” $364,000-a-year Provost/VP of everything important Brett Fairbairn. That is, yet another outrageous 4.5% increase to undergraduate tuition fees that had already increased to the point where they are actually covering most of the actual cost of teaching undergraduates (where, then are the tens of millions of tax money we, their parents are paying to fund U of S going?).
Fairbairn droned on and on. Vague allusions were made to complex calculations made by mysterious committees that determine the size of such increases based on the increased “excellence” students derive each year. Apparently they base their calculations on the preponderance of some sort of alchemic ether that whafts out of new construction, grand receptions for government and corporate leaders and the presidential mansion, This ethereal elixir somehow benefits students, as they stagger from minimum from wage jobs and squalid accommodations to threadbare classrooms and poorly maintained lecture halls in numbers that overworked sessionals and faculty can even now barely cope with, often, in a state of such exhaustion that they can barely stay awake, let alone learn. A term of attempting to participate in a language course and having to deal with the idiocy of an “administrative commons”, filthy washrooms, dingy classrooms, worn out equipment and completely stressed out, overloaded faculty made me marvel, yet again, at the Canadian “politeness” that kept the audience silent
Busch-Vishniak was at her most disingenuous in her answers to the obvious question of why she had settled for a 2% funding increase – which actually amounts to a .3% funding cut in a province with a 2.3% rate of inflation – from government that claims to be heading prosperity even as this further extortionate tuition fee increase- to make them the second highest of any province – is being extracted from students. On International Anti- bullying Day, in a classic show of coward/bully behaviour, Busch-Vishniak made it clear that for her, any challenge to such provincial funding cuts or even to ruinously wasteful provincial funding priorities was not even to be contemplated.
The $994 million of our public money being poured into grand new capital projects – including a new graduate residence that graduates students can’t afford to live in – and the lavish funding of high security institutions like Intervac are apparently sacrosanct. Any questioning of such Saskparty government showpieces and cash cows for the huge engineering and construction companies that are its close friends is clearly beyond the courage of our abjectly compliant president and “team”. However, brutal cuts to low-paid cleaners and front-line support staff so severe that they have compromised even basic sanitation and the ability of departments to function properly have been carried out without hesitation. Nowhere in Busch-Vishniak’s address, in her answers to questions, or in anything said by the administration was there even an acknowledgement of – let alone regret for – the destruction to the lives and careers of over 250 employees, some of whom had served the university for thirty years that her draconian regime has already wrought.
Busch-Vishniak proved even more bull-headed in her determination to block any academically meaningful discussion of her strategies for the future, the second half of the reason for the president of a university to be required to annually make such a report. She completely refused to give any meaningful information on the cabalistic discussions that are determining how the arbitrarily-calculated projected deficit will be exploited as a means to cut programs and faculty. But the ominous assurance that there would be such cuts and and the intimation that they could amount to the elimination of dozens of programs and a hundred or more positions was repeated time and again as if it were an inevitability rather than a deliberate choice
As already touched on her answers to questions, all of them as she stood commandingly before the whole assembly ,were perfunctory to the point of being disrespectful, even insulting. To an earnest question from a long-serving mathematics professor about the impossibility of teaching calculus properly to the even larger students numbers – the fundamental issue of student-teacher ratios – was a flippant and insulting, “That’s not what I hear.” Another question from a faculty member who had taken the recent, poorly-planned and academically-destructive “buy-out” but wanted to be able to maintain some involvement with the subject and department he had taught for decades about why he was not being allowed to offer to teach a course or two even at the lowly sessional rates was met with an absurd charge of “double-dipping” and then turned over to Faibairn, who ended by quipping that the Professor could always teach for nothing. The penultimate question from the voting members on the main floor was a question about the degree to which the building of such huge and ruinously expensive projects as Intervac tend to subsidizes corporate needs with university resources. Busch-Vishniak responded furiously, essentially calling that senior and respected faculty member a liar.
In what was supposed to be a General Academic Assembly, real academic issues were never allowed to take the floor, being pre-emptively sidelined or trivialized at every opportunity. In what was supposed to be an annual report and should have been an accounting for action, then-president Ilene Busch-Vishniak and “Ilene’s team” repeatedly failed to take any responsibility, and insisted on acting as if the squalid cutbacks and brutal terminations that she had directed and overseen were not only inevitable, but a normal part of university operations.
As the GAA ended, I could only reflect on the incredulous remarks and warnings of a friend, a long-term Librarian at McMaster who hastened her retirement because of her experiences with Busch-Vishniak as the short-lived Provost at that university. She was incredulous that a person who had so lost credibility as an academic leader that her tenure as Provost was brief and likely foreshortened could be hired as President of another major university. And, recalling such brutal Busch-Vishniak quips as “libraries are just warehouses for books”, she warned that nothing good would come from this “leader”.