A ton of career blood in the cause of clearly defining academic freedom

“This letter is also to advise you that the administration leave scheduled to begin on July 1, 2014 is hereby revoked…You are to receive your final pay on May 30, 2014, as per the normal payroll cycle. You are to leave campus immediately and are not to return to your office, the School of Public Health or the university. All benefits and pension cease as of today. Please contact … Human Resources … to make arrangements for the return of university equipment and your office keys, as well as to arrange a time that is appropriate to collect any remaining personal effects.”

This is how, U. Saskatchewan VP Academic and Provost, Brett Fairbairn, fired the Director of the School of Public Health, Robert Buckingham. And as if the letter was not enough, he had him taken to his office by the University police where he could pick up his things, then escorted from campus, and told not to return. 

For months now, friends and colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan have been giving me the play-by-play about the TransformUS initiative, hoping that I would blog about it. I didn’t, though I alluded last January to that flawed process. I was deterred by the worry of not having a complete and balanced understanding of that situation. Then came the firing of Buckingham via the letter mentioned above. Blogging was too slow for the occasion, and many went on Twitter to call for the immediate resignation of both the President and the Provost.

Fairbairn eventually resigned and the president, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, was fired by the Board. You would think that the only remaining contention is whether she should have been fired with cause. Wrong!

Most surprising and quite alarming was the reaction of some in the administrative class throughout Canada’s post-secondary system. Indeed, behind the scenes many leaders of the so-called U15 were rallying behind Ilene Busch-Vishniac, writing letters to the Board of U. Saskatchewan supporting their beleaguered president-colleague, and trying to counter the open letter signed by more than a thousand faculty member from across Canada.

Other administrators were “fighting back” on Twitter. Here is for example a response to a tweet by Emmet Macfarlane

David Graham ‏@dgrahamqc  May 19 Sanctimonious BS. MT @EmmMacfarlane: Let the @usask fallout be a lesson for administrators who forget about core values of their university.

We were trying to argue that removing a provost for incompetence & lack of understanding of his position is not lynching. The response was swift.

David Graham ‏@dgrahamqc  May 19  The ad hominem attack is one of the most pathetic and intellectually bankrupt there is. Let’s all point fingers, shall we? Disgraceful.

David Graham ‏@dgrahamqc  May 18  And don’t forget the tar & feathers! MT @NGhoussoub: Canada’s Academics Invited to Sign Letter to U of S Board Chair http://wp.me/p22btO-1pt 

David Graham ‏@dgrahamqc  May 18  Get out the pitchforks! RT @NGhoussoub: Fairbairn’s Firing of Buckingham Must Not Go Unanswered http://wp.me/p22btO-1nX 

This leads me to believe that this episode may be one of the most important milestones in Canada’s relatively short history in post-secondary education. This refresher of a lesson for administrators about core values of their university looks like it has been needed big time. The Board of the University of Saskatchewan took the lead, did the honorable thing and reminded us of some basics.

“The University of Saskatchewan is committed to the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression. It would also like to stress that it believes that tenure is a sacrosanct principle within this university.”

It is fitting to end this sad but extremely useful episode with the following remarkable tweet.

Les Perreaux ‏@perreaux  12h I guess as a #usask grad I can be proud the university spilled a ton of career blood in the cause of clearly defining academic freedom.

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3 Responses to A ton of career blood in the cause of clearly defining academic freedom

  1. Peter Bates says:

    Wow! How did this start?

  2. Phil Hultin says:

    The only thing I found surprising about this whole story is that the Board of U Sask actually sided with the academics and fired the president.

    Deans are in a strange situation. On the one hand they are usually still practicing academics, members of a department, and colleagues. On the other hand, they have administrative responsibilities and powers over the rest of their Faculties. Deans are regarded by senior administration as the lowest rung on the administrative ladder, but faculty often see Deans as the interface between academic and administrative matters. The question is, does a Dean represent his/her faculty to the Central Administration, or his s/he the messenger and hatchet-bearer for the Administration?

    The U Sask situation clearly showed that their Admin regards Deans in the latter context. And, there is some merit in their argument that members of an administration must back a decision once made. But where did they get the idea that they could fire a tenured faculty member for disagreeing with them?

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