University of Saskatchewan's new president a great fit for the role

Dr. Ilene Busch-Vishniac, a U.S.-trained mechanical engineer, is scheduled to take the helm of the University of Saskatchewan as the institution’s ninth president on July 1, 2012.

Having seen Dr. Busch-Vishniac’s work at McMaster University first hand and watching the University of Saskatchewan over the past five years; I strongly think that Dr. Busch-Vishniac’s appointment is a win-win for both parties.

Dr. Busch-Vishniac’s respect for collegial governance, honesty, and determined hard-working nature will make her very popular in the potash province and she’ll be able to accelerate the spectacular growth of one of Canada’s most underrated universities.

The reasons that she faced difficulty at McMaster University will be the assets that make her successful in Saskatchewan.

Dr. Busch-Vishniac was unable to fully integrate into the campus politics of McMaster University and faced many challenges in the McMaster Provost role that resulted in the inevitable announcement that she would only serve one term as McMaster’s Provost.

My interactions with Dr. Busch-Vishniac convinced me that the challenges she faced as Provost were unique to McMaster’s governance culture.

Dr. Busch-Vishniac’s experiences in academic governance were solely American and this experience results in her collegial approach to university governance.

Universities have traditionally been environments of collegial governance with many Anglo-Saxon universities governed in a bicameral manner. The Senate and Board of Governors as equal bodies.

McMaster remains, on paper, a bicameral institution. In reality, the Board of Governors is more powerful and the Senate is increasingly losing power.

(A good read about the decline of collegial governance in higher education is philosophy professor Vanderbilt University John Lachs’ piece “Shared Governance Is a Myth” in The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Dr. Busch-Vishniac understood the financial challenges facing McMaster University and that these challenges could not be solved solely by attempting to issue more bonds or creative accounting practices. She honestly assessed the situation during her first interview with The Silhouette – a refreshing change – and moved to streamline faculties with unsubstantialunsustainable programs.

The University moved to end its Art History program, a program that is unsustainable in its current format. The University planned to  replace it with a new Fine Arts program.

I wrote about the financial challenges leading to the Art History closure on my Globe and Mail blog.

The University botched the attempt to end the program. The closure motion failed to secure enough votes during an April 2010 Senate meeting. The majority of Senators voting in favour of closure did not attend the meeting. The vote occurred during the exam period.

Traditionally, the faculty members on Senate receive a phone call from the University President or Provost reminding them to show up for Senate. The calls were not made. On the day of the vote, they receive a second phone call immediate before the vote. The call McMaster’s equivalent to the bell in Parliament reminding the MPs it’s time to vote as their party expects.

In the United States, most Senates remain influential enough that members attend the meetings. It’s not so at McMaster and due to Dr. Busch-Vishniac’s experience, I do not believe she realised this unique requirement to remind faculty members to attend Senate.

Her tenure at McMaster was time-limited after this, she was seen as the administrator responsible for the failure to pass the motion.

Her relations with faculty and students were mostly positive, no Provost is popular with everyone. As a member of The Silhouette, I know the paper enjoyed a respectful relationship with her unique in my experience at the paper.

The University of Saskatchewan is more similar to an American public university than McMaster University is.

USask is the provincial university with a focus on fulfilling all areas of academic pursuit for its province. It’s flagship programs receive worldwide acclaim.

USask will be lead for the next five years by a President with an impressive understanding of how the academy operates in a collegial manner who possesses experiences that bring a unique perspective to the prairie.