Robert Buckingham saga highlights state of academic freedom

| June 5, 2014
Photo: flickr/Heather M. Ross

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It has been over two weeks since Dr. Robert Buckingham, the former dean of the University of Saskatchewan's (USask) School of Public Health, was fired for criticizing the university's controversial restructuring plan 'TransformUs'. As events unfolded, the case focused media attention on the meaning and practice of academic freedom, especially in the context of organizational change and reduced budgets.

On May 15, the professor was met by two security officers who escorted him off campus and told him to stay away from university property. The officers had handed him a note, mentioning a letter he released, titled 'The Silence of the Deans', wherein Buckingham revealed details of a meeting of the university's academic leadership. The meeting, Buckingham said, included orders by President Ilene Busch-Vishniac not to "publicly disagree with the process or findings" of the restructuring plan, under threat of loss of tenure. 

The university initially defended its decision, saying Buckingham had breached his contract by releasing the letter, which was additionally critical of elements of 'TransformUs' itself. In the letter, Buckingham emphasized why he believed the school of public health should remain independent of USask's faculty of medicine. The university also said that this criticism was contrary to his role as an organizational leader.

After media attention that badly damaged the university's reputation, the vice-provost who ordered Buckingham's firing resigned. Provincial legislators became increasingly critical, and the faculty association eventually pressured the board of governors of the university to fire Busch-Vishniac -- on whose wishes the vice-provost, Buckingham believes, was acting. It has now been reported and confirmed that Busch-Vishniac will return to USask as a professor of mechanical engineering.

Academic tenure is the traditional, contractual right of academics not to have their position terminated without just cause. Tenure is meant to protect academics by giving them the security and autonomy to hold dissenting opinions, report findings honestly and conduct research independently, and thereby foster original ideas and thinking. 

Dr. Steve Fuller, a sociologist and philosopher of science known for his work on academic freedom, told rabble.ca that Buckingham's firing "recalls the dismissals of radical professors in the U.S. by disgruntled governing boards at the start of the 20th century." These dismissals, he said, helped spark the formation of the American Association of University Professors, founded specifically to protect academic freedom, and were also marked by abrupt firings done without faculty consultation.

Importantly, Fuller points out that modern universities now do often draw legal distinctions between the rights and obligations of professors and administrators. Buckingham's firing was initially justified both through a subjective interpretation of his role as an organizational leader and through perceived breach of contract. 

"[A]dministrators do not enjoy the same academic freedom as the academics they govern. One would have to look at the charter of [the university] to see whether the President thought [s]he could dismiss Buckingham on those grounds," Fuller said.

Shortly after his firing, Buckingham's tenure was restored, but he has yet to be reinstated to his deanship. A few days ago, the Globe and Mail reported that the University of Saskatchewan has no plans to restore him to the position, though the interim President appeared to attribute it to planned administrative changes under TransformUs.

Jim Turk, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), finds that explanation inadequate and criticized the new administration for not fully restoring Buckingham to his former position. On Monday he told rabble.ca that the CAUT is "deeply distressed that he has not been re-instated to his deanship. We were outraged when he was fired."

"...There was a great outcry. The president was fired. And yet we're continuing with the policy of the old president", Turk said. "He's still being punished for expressing his views. The former president said 'no deans have an obligation of loyalty to the president.' She has been fired. I think the behaviour of the new administration is outrageous. Why are they continuing with her policies?"

A communications staff member at the University of Saskatchewan said that an official response to Mr. Turk's views would likely not be possible, and highlighted coverage by Saskatoon's Star Phoenix, which reported recently that Buckingham "has himself fired staff who challenged him publicly." Buckingham could not be reached for press time, while the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association did not respond to requests for comment. 

Dr. Fuller says professors themselves often do not realize that academic freedom is a "guild right, not a generalized license to free speech or free action" but lamented that free inquiry is increasingly constrained by economic and political demands. "[Academics] need to be 'flexible', especially as research funding, student demand and the academic labour market itself is subject to fluctuations. So we end up with a pseudo-concept of freedom as the freedom to get as much external funding as possible."

The University of Saskatchewan has already admitted damage to its reputation, and a former dean has worried that the incident may harm its ability to recruit for top administrative jobs. Dr. Fuller, however, is not so sure that the damage will stick, precisely because of the austere realities of academic life that Robert Buckingham was originally addressing. 

"To be honest", he said, "memories are short when it comes to events of this sort[.] Given the precarious market for academic labour these days, I'm sure whenever USask advertises a job, plenty will apply."

Cory Collins is a writer, artist and behaviour therapist. He has also written for the Island Review, Cordite Poetry Review, People's World and Aslan Media. He lives in St. John's and can be reached via corycollins.ca.

Photo: flickr/Heather M. Ross

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