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USask crisis raises questions over privatizing our public universities

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Image: flickr/USask

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 By now, most people who follow news in higher education are familiar with the scandal at University of Saskatchewan over the summary dismissal and punishment of Robert Buckingham, who until this May was the executive director of their School of Public Health. Buckingham was dismissed from his position because he published an open letter denouncing University of Saskatchewan's administration over a plan called TransformUS. Much of the public uproar was over the university administration's treatment of a tenured professor. But this scandal expressed a more fundamental problem in our society than the revocation of one person's sacred status of tenure.

 

The disaster of TransformUS

University of Saskatchewan's TransformUS program reorganizes the entire disciplinary structure of the university, ostensibly with the priorities of saving costs while encouraging innovative research. However, the restructuring plan essentially undoes all of the work that Buckingham put into improving and transforming the School of Public Health over the last five years of his tenure, folding its infrastructure into the university's medical school. This would reverse the university's own decision in 2007 to create a separate public health program in the first place.

Saskatchewan's medical school is in dire need of institutional reform on its own account, as Buckingham's public letter attests. The School of Public Health had recently been accredited, and the program looked to continue its course of improvement.

Being folded into the medical school would require another institutional review that would likely result in Public Health having its accreditation reversed. Buckingham faced an administration policy that, in the name of efficiency and innovation, was breaking down its most innovative programs in the name of institutional austerity.

The planned changes to Saskatchewan's humanities faculties also look to be disastrous, merging several largely unrelated disciplines (Philosophy, Modern Languages, Gender Studies, Religion and Culture) into a single department that would barely provide a disciplinary education at all. The university would eventually phase out a number of tenured professorial positions in the name of streamlining the degree program.

While I have my own issues with widespread habits of humanities education at the undergraduate level, such departmental mergers are not the answer, especially if retiring faculty are not replaced with a similar number of tenured professors with the transdisciplinary training and skills to bring the required radical measures to such a program.

A cursory review of the TransformUS program reveals that it is a euphemism-cloaked austerity plan that pays little to no attention to the quality of the university's education and research. It appears, to any reasonable observer, to be the most radical example of institutionalizing the corporatized, debt-driven model of public education and research as a business to arrive in Canada.

 

Corporate secrecy in a public institution

More than this, University of Saskatchewan administration's behvaiour toward the public is ethically repugnant, discouraging all free discussion of the TransformUS program. Most of the program's details were hidden behind passwords that are only accessible to University of Saskatchewan students and employees, essentially ensuring that no members of the wider community, the public in whose interest universities are supposed to act, could see them. Even worse, university administrators at all levels are under orders not to criticize the actions of the TransformUS plan publicly, on pain of summary dismissal.

Criticism is exactly what Buckingham did in May. Not only was he dismissed from his position, he was denied a professorial position at University of Saskatchewan (the offer of which is a standard practice for departing high-level administrators), and worse, banned from the campus. With the publication of his open letter denouncing the university's restructuring plans and the secrecy surrounding them, he was met by campus security officers the following morning and escorted off its grounds. He was officially informed in a letter from the Provost that he was fired, his relationship with the university was completely terminated, and he was never to return, aside from a visit to collect personal belongings from his office.

His employment contract as an administrator included a confidentiality clause, essentially a gag order prohibiting him (and all other administration figures) from publicly criticizing or disagreeing with university policy in any way. His letter of dismissal defined criticism or any departure from the official priorities of the university as a dereliction of his duty to lead. They even denied him the pension associated with his directorship position as punishment for speaking out.

He was re-hired as a tenured professor after the outpouring of public outrage, and outrage from the Canadian Association of University Teachers. The university President, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, was fired. But this is a small consolation, given that the TransformUS restructuring plan will likely still go ahead.

The seriousness of this issue is not just about the unjust treatment of one man. It speaks to the entire political and ethical question of what the university is for. I've had conversations with those who defend the university's right to treat its employees in this way, on the ground that any business reserves the right to keep its employees in line with company policy.

This is largely taken for granted in our society; if you are a whistleblower on the unjust or illegal acts of your employer, the employer has the right to fire you for acting against the company's interests and goals. While such employees can sometimes win wrongful dismissal suits, it is taken for granted that employees who inform on the unjust actions of their companies (or governments) face punishment. If you were concerned about the activities of a company, goes the argument, you should quit on your own, or not work for the company in the first place.

There is a strong case that a university, as a public institution, operates in the public interest, and should not punish whistleblowers for exposing plans that may go against that public interest, or force them to sign restrictive secrecy clauses that effectively ban all whistleblowing activity. I do not agree with this argument, because I do not believe that ostensibly public institutions like universities and governments are the only bodies bound by this duty to the public.

 

A morality of accountability

Public accountability is a duty of all people, all institutions, and all businesses. A political and ethical truth that our society must accept is that the activities of any one of us, whether individual or corporate body, directly or indirectly affect all of us.

Interdependence is a fundamental fact of our existence that obligates us all to transparency and public accountability for the effects of our actions, at all scales where human intentionality plays any role in shaping activity, from the individual to the global.

In this regard, there is no distinction between a private business, a government, a university, or an individual person. Our moral and ethical obligations flow from the effects we generate, not our legal status. 

This morality, in which all people and institutions are responsible for the effects of their actions on each other, subordinates rights to be free from interference, and prioritizes responsibilities to aid, or at least avoid harm. Any right to autonomy that a person or institution may claim against the rest of us is forfeit when harms have been done or public trust has been betrayed. At that point, rights no longer matter; only responsibility, redress, and repair.

The trend of running public institutions like governments, crown corporations, scientific research institutes, and universities according to the rules of private businesses runs counter to the fact of our fundamental interdependence that humanity in the twenty-first century must accept. Any activity with public effects must be accountable to the public, no matter who or what is causally responsible for that act.

Ecological thinking should publicize our private institutions, not in terms of their ownership, but their accountability and transparency. The contemporary trend, which has only gained political momentum since the ascent of the Reagan and Thatcher era, is to privatize our public institutions.

That route lies economic slavery and social, ecological, moral, political, and ethical disaster.

Image: flickr/USask

Adam Riggio is a university teacher, author, philosopher, and playwright living in Hamilton, Ontario. He has a PhD from McMaster University, and tweets at @adamriggio. This article originally appeared on Adam's blog, Adam Riggio writes. It is reprinted here with permission.

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