Gordon Barnhart, U of S acting president, pressed by council

Gordon Barnhart's first address to the school's council since the furor created over the firing of a tenured professor turned into a heated exchange between the University of Saskatchewan's acting president and members of the school's council.

Gordon Barnhart in 1st address to University of Saskatchewan council after Robert Buckingham firing

Gordon Barnhart was appointed interim president of the University of Saskatchewan, and addressed his first University Council meeting Thursday in what turned into a heated question-and-answer session. (CBC)

University of Saskatchewan acting president Gordon Barnhart delivered his first address to the University Council, his chance to set a new tone following the furor set off last week by the firing of a tenured professor.

Judging by the questions from the audience, Barnhart, made acting president following the firing of Ilene Busch-Vishniac this week in light of the Robert Buckingham controversy, has lots of homework ahead of him.

Barnhart on Thursday told the council — made up mostly of deans, professors and students who oversee academic affairs — that he wants to focus on moving forward.

But one speaker asked him to look into how the debacle came to pass, and how to keep it from happening again.

Barnhart said perhaps lessons can be learned from the experience.

Others urged him to find an alternative to the controversial restructuring project TransformUS in dealing with the university's projected deficit.

Barnhart pledged to try to "minimize the hurt," if cost savings must be found.

Busch-Vishniac was terminated without cause after a flurry of criticism surrounding the firing of Buckingham for criticizing the university's leadership. Days later, Buckingham was given back his tenured academic position after Busch-Vishniac conceded the move was a "blunder".

Busch-Vishniac was also criticized for the university's controversial cost-cutting plan, TransformUS. The project aims to reset spending priorities and find $20 million in savings in an attempt to head off a $44.5 million dollar deficit that is expected by 2016. 

Security escort issue raised

Critics of TransformUS argue it is taking academic decision-making out of the hands of faculty and that more consultation is needed before the university looks for areas to cut. 

Prior to Thursday's meeting, Barnhart had already promised to take a fresh look at the university's financial picture.

As the meeting continued, there were plenty of questions about how he would ensure open debate and transparent decision-making.

He was also asked to re-examine the university's policy on tuition increases, as well as procedures in granting tenure.

Most often, he responded with a promise to look into the matters raised.

However, the gathering's most vocal response came when he was asked to stop security staff from escorting people off campus.The question stems from the morning Buckingham was fired. When he showed up for work on May 14, Buckingham said he was met by two campus security officers and escorted off campus.

Loud and enthusiastic applause broke out, and Barnhart replied, "I agree with you wholeheartedly".

"We need to treat people here with great dignity," he continued, adding that marching out people won't happen under his watch.

Finding solutions

Barnhart said he wants to project a positive image in light of the controversy. 

"My goal right now is to first put those controversies behind us and then, secondly, turn to all of the good things the U of S is doing, particularly educating students," he told Saskatoon Morning today. "That's our primary focus."

He said he wants to emphasize one word — "listen."

"There are people on campus that have very good ideas on what we should be doing, what we are doing, and so my goal is not to do all the talking, not find all of the solutions, but to listen and help people find solutions," he said.

Barnhart is expected to remain the acting president for about a year.

Replay the live chat below, or if you'd like to weigh in, leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Join online host Matt Kruchak from Monday to Friday between 6-8:45 a.m. on cbc.ca/saskatoon for a lively and engaging live chat. While chatting, tune into Saskatoon Morning on 94.1 FM with host Leisha Grebinski.


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