University of Saskatchewan deals with firing fallout

Professor’s temporary loss of tenure leads to questions of academic freedom

As a naval officer, Robert Buckingham was told it was his duty to disregard any order from a commanding officer he deemed inhumane.

"We were told you are not to follow it and you are to report it. That’s all I did. It’s a very simple concept," Buckingham said of the military training that informed his decision to publicly speak out against the University of Saskatchewan’s TransformUS action plan.

The action plan — launched in an effort to address a projected $44.5 million deficit in the university’s operating budget by 2016 — outlines 19 projects that are expected to save the university $25.3 million in annual expenses. These savings will be reached through job cuts at the senior administration level and through the elimination or consolidation of programs and services.

Specifically, the action plan proposes the reduction and restructuring of senior leadership, the reorganization and simplification of cross-college programming, the reconfiguration of campus libraries and the reorganization of health science administration structures.

It was this last aspect of the action plan that forced Buckingham to break ranks.

Buckingham — then the executive director at the university’s School of Public Health — feared the amalgamation of his school with the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology in the College of Medicine could threaten its recent accreditation. Any substantive change to the program requires written notification to the Agency for Public Health Education Accreditation (APHEA) and Buckingham believed the proposed changes would lead to the loss of accreditation.

He said he was told to keep his concerns to himself.

"We were given orders, by the president, that if by chance we spoke publicly against the process or the findings of TransformUS we would have short tenure," Buckingham said.

It was an order he couldn’t follow. Buckingham wrote a letter detailing his concerns, titled "Silence of the Deans," and sent it to both the provincial government and opposition.

"I believe deans have the right to speak out," he said of his decision. "Are we yes-men and yes-women for senior administration or do we say ‘I’m concerned that this might affect the future of my school, and therefore I disagree’? Even if we’re just a dissenting voice within the decisions made by upward administration, I think deans have a right to speak out. Most importantly, I think, is that even if we lose the battle, our dissenting voice is on the record for being there."

Within 24 hours of the letter’s May 13 publication, he was fired and stripped of tenure.

Buckingham was told he had damaged the reputation of the university, the president and the school. His termination letter cited egregious conduct and insubordination.

"There were problems before I spoke up," Buckingham said, calling his letter the straw that broke the camel’s back. "It was the issue that brought the people to their feet."

On May 15, senior leaders at the university announced they had reconsidered and reversed part of their decision and offered Buckingham a tenured faculty position.

"Academic freedom and tenure are sacrosanct at the University of Saskatchewan," said the university’s then-president Ilene Busch-Vishniac in a statement. "This case, however, is not about academic freedom. Dr. Buckingham was removed from his executive director position for acting contrary to the expectations of his leadership role."

She added Buckingham’s reinstatement did not mean he would be returning to his leadership position within the School of Public Health.

"The University of Saskatchewan has been on the receiving end of inaccurate and undeserved criticisms launched from across the country," Busch-Vishniac said. "We have set in place numerous mechanisms for people to express themselves on matters related to TransformUS and they have worked well. The initiative has been debated, criticized, amended, changed and disparaged… Our university has been, is and always will be, committed to providing a positive and safe campus while maintaining our academic values of open, unencumbered discussion."

Public pressure on the university continued despite Buckingham’s reinstatement. Students, staff and members of the public demanded Buckingham be fully returned to his role as executive director of the School of Public Health as well as demanding the resignation of many members of the senior administration.

The University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association (USFA) also spoke out against the university’s handling of the situation, with senior professional officer Jim Cheesman calling Buckingham’s firing "the greatest fundamental error I’ve seen in my life."

"The idea behind tenure in a university is completely linked to the notion of academic freedom," Cheesman said. "Within the university environment one must be able to debate and consider and discuss anything, and they must be able to do that with the knowledge that they will not be penalized for voicing their views… Anybody can lose their job for cause. It’s just that one of the causes in the university environment cannot be for criticizing the employer."

Cheesman said Buckingham’s case was the most blatant violation of academic freedom he had ever encountered. The USFA hopes these recent events will shine a light on the university’s ongoing issues surrounding tenure, and hopes Buckingham’s story will embolden other faculty members to speak out against the systemic erosion of academic freedom in the future.

In the immediate fallout, it appears several key players have gone down with the ship. The school’s provost Brett Fairbairn — who also acted as the university’s vice president and signed Buckingham’s termination letter — resigned on May 19. On May 21, the university’s board of governors announced that Busch-Vishniac was terminated without cause, effective immediately.

Former lieutenant governor Gordon Barnhart was named as the acting president, and the board announced Busch-Vishniac will be offered a faculty post in the university’s College of Engineering.

In a statement, the board said the university "is committed to the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression… The board feels strongly that the university’s ongoing operations and its reputational rebuilding efforts will be more effective with new leadership."

Buckingham agreed a new commanding officer is crucial to the university’s future.

"I certainly do believe the school has been wounded, and the wounds are fresh right now," he said. "Hopefully, with change, these wounds will heal. I think we need substantial change and with change — the proper change — the greatness of this university will continue to flourish."

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