Note: I originally wrote this article in June 2014 when I was the Leadership Content Director for a consulting firm in higher education. However, the principles discussed are broadly applicable. Enjoy!
What started as an initiative to restructure, gain efficiencies, reduce administrative bloat, and make some necessary budget cuts at the University of Saskatchewan led to the resignation of the provost and the firing of the president.
A Little Background
It all started in January 2013, when the university president initiated TransformUS, a strategic effort to prioritize both academic and administrative programs to cut about $44 million from the budget. If you’re interested in the full timeline, head over to the University of Saskatchewan website »
In mid-May 2014, things got interesting:
- One of the recommendations for implementation involved moving the School of Public Health under the College of Medicine. The Executive Director of the School of Public Heath, Robert Buckingham, had previously voiced concerns that this move may impact their accreditation.
- May 13: Robert Buckingham published an open letter documenting what he dubbed the “Silence of the Deans”. It included a recounting of a meeting in December 2013 with the senior leadership of the university in which the president said that if anyone disagreed publicly with the findings of TransformUS their “tenure would be short.”
- May 14: Robert Buckingham was fired as the head of the School of Public Health, stripped of tenure and barred from campus.
- May 15: The university admitted it “blundered” and re-instated Professor Buckingham’s tenure.
- May 19: The university’s board held an emergency meeting. At that time, the Provost submitted his resignation.
- May 21: The board announces they have fired the president.
The StarPhoenix offers a detailed timeline of the events »
Fundamentally, the fiasco at the University of Saskatchewan was a failure of change management on the part of its now former president. Prioritizing programs and cutting budgets is not an inherently bad thing. The initiative itself was not the problem. The execution was the problem.
Change Management 101
Change management is a nice buzzword, but let’s step back and think about what we mean by it – the process by which you execute large-scale change and guide your staff through a period of transition to achieve a desired vision. There are four distinct phases:
- Visioning: This is, by far, the most important part of the process and the stage in which you set yourself up for success or failure. In this step, you develop a clear vision, assess the context you’re working within, communicate it broadly, and generate buy-in from your community.
- Execution: When the switch is flipped, and the proposed change begins to become a reality.
- The Transition Trench: When they say that it’ll get harder before it gets better, this stage is exactly what they’re referring to. It immediately follows the execution of the plan, and involves a period in which staff morale and productivity dips below what it was prior to the change. The goal of change management is to work through this process as efficiently as possible, to reduce the depth and duration of the transition.
- Sustained Progress: If you manage the transition trench well, you’ll graduate into a period where you realize the benefits of the change that was implemented.
What Went Wrong
So, what happened? We’re lucky – the University of Saskatchewan has very detailed documentation on their website, including videos of each of the town halls and over a year of blog posts complete with comments from the community. This gives us an inside look at what information was available, and the community reaction to it. Based on that information, here are a few thoughts:
Numbers are Not a Rallying Cry
Big change requires bringing the community together to push through to a common vision. On this point, the University of Saskatchewan missed the mark, but did so in a way that is fairly common in higher education. This was an opportunity to create a rallying cry to unite the campus, break down silos, operate more efficiently, and better serve the community. A rallying cry can be many things…but what it shouldn’t be is a number. It’s hard to get people excited about the idea of meeting a budget number, which is exactly where the former president focused. At the January 9, 2014 town hall, she went as far as to comment that this was purely a financial exercise and the only goal was to reduce the budget.
The question here is not whether or not a budget reduction was necessary – it was. The question is with regards to how you frame the message to get the community (faculty, staff, students, alums, etc.) to support the process. Reducing administrative layers and bloat…great! Creating a better student experience by making the academic experience more integrated…great! These are ideas that people can get behind that align with their core values. And guess what – you’ll also probably end up reducing the budget in the course of meeting either of these goals.
Higher education, particularly at large research institutions, is the land of peer review and faculty governance. This context needs to be considered as a part of that visioning stage.
In undertaking any change effort that impacts faculty and academics at this type of institution, how your faculty perceives the process is critical to gaining support. In other words, if your faculty doesn’t perceive something to be “fair”, based on the qualities they value – like academic rigor and peer review – then you are going to have a problem. Attempting to weather the storm is certainly an option, but it’s a lot easier to head it off at the very beginning of the process.
An item of particular concern in this case was the template that was utilized to make determinations about how to prioritize programs and assess their value to the institution. The full template is available as a part of the academic programs report.
In the town halls, this issue came up over and over again. With faculty voicing their perception that the template did not collect the right data to be useful, was not as thorough as it needed to be, and was not peer reviewed and therefore suspect. One glance at the template makes it easy to understand why. For example, the assessment of external demand for the program limited the response to a 100-word maximum, less than the size of this paragraph. As a point of comparison, when Eduventures delivers an academic program feasibility study to one of our clients, it can be several dozen pages in length! Put yourselves in the shoes of a faculty member who has never written a single paragraph of less than 100 words in their entire academic career, and ask them to summarize the value of their program (essentially, to fight for their job) in that limited space. It starts the entire process off on the wrong foot.
Transparency Does Not Equal Buy-In
Transparency in a situation like this is critical to success. Without it, you create your own rumor mill, which only undermines the process. On the surface, the University of Saskatchewan attempted to establish a very transparent process, complete with a website with regular blog posts from TransformUS leaders discussing the various components of the plan and allowing the community to give ongoing feedback in the form of comments. This is something the university did very well.
However, putting out a significant amount of information on a website IS NOT the same thing as generating buy-in from your community of stakeholders. Asking for feedback should not be confused with a genuine exercise that utilizes the talents of the community to develop an execution-focused plan. In fact, when the full timeline of events is considered, they illustrate a shocking lack of interest in accepting and considering feedback from the community. Consider the following:
- The full reports on prioritization were delivered to the community in December 2013.
- Town halls for community response – in which the president emphasized that these reports were “recommendations, not decisions” were held in January 2014.
- However, according to the Silence of the Deans open letter, in December 2013 – one month before the open town halls when, allegedly, no decisions had been made – the president held her meeting of the senior leadership when she emphasized that senior leaders should not publicly disagree with the process or findings of the TransformUS reports. The letter noted that “although the initial publicly released TransformUS documents were vague, behind closed doors the president and provost planned major changes.”
We can’t know what happened behind closed doors, but this timeline certainly begs the following question: If the university’s senior leaders are not permitted to give feedback and engage in the process, then how could their teams be expected to do so? They had no one’s behavior to model. Watch the town hall meeting of January 8, 2014, and you’ll see leadership struggling to find individuals who were willing to get up and ask a question or offer an observation.
The reality with buy-in is that generating it is the ability to transcend a lack of consensus. And that has everything to do with leadership. Most people are surprisingly reasonable. They don’t need to have their own ideas implemented to buy into a decision. What they do need is to have their ideas heard, understood, considered and explained within the context of that decision.
More Than a Buzzword
Taking the human element of change management into consideration isn’t just a warm fuzzy thing to do – it will guide your organization through a period of transition more effectively. Assessing your context during the visioning stage, and generating buy-in from your stakeholders, are steps that you should skip over at your own peril…a lesson the (now former) leadership at the University of Saskatchewan learned the hard way.
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