05/22/2014 10:53 EDT | Updated 07/22/2014 05:59 EDT

Students relieved that University of Saskatchewan's president fired

SASKATOON - University of Saskatchewan students who called for the school's president to resign say they're relieved that she has been fired.

Ilene Busch-Vishniac, who sparked controversy with planned budget cuts and with the firing of a tenured professor who spoke out about them, was herself let go Wednesday night.

Nick Marlatte, who organized a rally earlier this week, said it's a good step towards restoring the Saskatoon-based school's reputation.

"I think it indicates that there's some hope that the quality of the university is going to be preserved and that the board of governors actually understands that people are not only upset, but actually scared about the future of this institution," Marlatte said in a phone interview Thursday with The Canadian Press.

Marlatte said students are pleased to see the university's board of governors change direction, but he's still apprehensive about how things will move forward.

"There's been a lot of talk that things are going to change," he said.

"But I can't say that there's much trust ... and I'm not going to really assume any trust until there is very definite sort of proof that that's the case."

The university released a plan last month that includes cutting jobs, reorganizing the administration and dissolving some programs to try to save about $25 million. The cuts are part of a bigger goal to address a projected $44.5-million deficit in the school's operating budget by 2016.

Marlatte acknowledges that the school has to tackle its deficit. But he argues that students, staff and faculty haven't been respected in the overhaul.

Prof. Robert Buckingham, who was also executive director of the School of Public Health, was fired last week after writing a letter to the government and Opposition about the cuts.

Busch-Vishniac admitted a few days later that the university "made a blunder" in its handling of Buckingham. He was offered back — and accepted — his tenure position, but Busch-Vishniac said he would not be reinstated as head of the School of Public Health.

The board made a "very difficult decision, but very necessary decision" in firing Busch-Vishniac, Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris said Thursday.

"The reputational damage to the University of Saskatchewan was deepening ... the letter and the response in fact was causing increased reputational damage," Norris said at the legislature in Regina.

He said there were concerns from academic leaders and he heard that scholars at the University of Saskatchewan were looking for other jobs.

The issue of tenure "should never have been on the table," Norris said.

"It was a catalyst. It drew unrest and outrage — and rightfully so — not simply at the University of Saskatchewan, but from right across the country," he said.

"I think the University of Saskatchewan realized that with its at least partial reversal, but the explanation about the reversal, about the decision, just left a number of glaring gaps."

University board chairwoman Susan Milburn said a number of factors went into the decision to let Busch-Vishniac go, but fallout over Buckingham's situation didn't help.

"It didn't end up well for the university. The reputation of the university was tarnished during that period of time," she said.

Former lieutenant governor Gordon Barnhart has been named the university's acting president. Barnhart is a graduate of the University of Saskatchewan, served as university secretary and has taught political studies and history classes.

He couldn't say what will happen with the budget overhaul until he reviews the finances.

"Then I would like to also see if there are ways that we can save that money in a less painful way than just laying people off or closing colleges. Emphasizing attrition, for example, or early retirement, those sorts of things, and making it a positive thing in terms of how we're going to be able to make the university a better place, a stronger place, a more efficient place."

Barnhart added that he knows part of his role is restoring confidence and trust.

"Trust is something that you earn over time ... It's going to take a while and that happens any time you have a new president come in."

— By Jennifer Graham in Regina with files from CKOM