Thursday, May 15, 2014

Memo to the University of Saskatchewan: Reinstate your Professor/Dean, and open the doors to investigation and public debate

Tenure has long been seen as a virtual guarantee of lasting academic employment, but it may be under threat after the University of Saskatchewan fired a popular dean for criticizing the institution's budget cuts. (By Matt Kwong, CBC, May 15, 2014)
Whether one considered a university professor's job security as an arcane testament to the middle ages, providing some security for those whose professional lives involve research into any subject those professors consider relevant to their academic field of study, or another of the symbols of elitism that is no longer relevant to a democratic society, this little story, sure to be writ large on the bulletin boards of all faculty lounges this morning, needs some attention.
This tenured professor, also Dean of the School of Public Health, was stripped of both of his titles, and ushered off the campus "for life" by campus security officials, according the CBC story quoted above.
And for what? For publicly disagreeing with the budget policies, the allocation of funds, in his university. He apparently wrote a six-page report outlining his "opposing opinion" (something every court permits dissenting jurors for every case) and that report was made public.
So, rather than take the position that his specific arguments deserved a reasoned debate, and taking the opportunity to engage in a public discussion of the various reasons for their budget decisions, another of the legitimate processes that have for centuries characterized the university culture, the university administration chose the "corporate" and public relations route, (once dubbed the "Russian method" of solving a problem by elimination by a former Comparative Education instructor of Russian origin at the University of Ottawa, Professor Ramunus) as their "wise" and rational approach.
How tragic that this is now becoming normalized in the pseudo-corporate-university labour relations world.
We all know that corporations behave in this manner if and when one of their executives "colours outside the line" fearing that internal disagreement will only damage the public reputation of that perfect corporation. We also know that in politics, cabinet solidarity is a cornerstone of conduct for those appointed to the lofty position of the inner circle in a parliamentary democracy. If and when one publicly disagrees with government policy on a specific issue, as a member of the cabinet that has to sell that policy to the general public, one is expected to resign from cabinet, not necessarily from the elected position that provided the path into cabinet.
We also know that the rights of workers, including their public safety, are being eroded daily, in a downward spiral toward budget cuts, in a highly competitive world in which balance sheets trump the interests and legitimate needs of workers. However, we did not know that publicly funded universities would or had to resort to firing one of their academic deans because he disagreed with their policies.
So now, not only is debate repressed about those budget policy decisions; one also has to be concerned that the contractual relationships between universities and their academic faculty has changed, and will never go back to its former "tenured" relationship, once this genie has been let out of the bottle.
This 'canary in the coal mine' portends very dangerous and highly suspicious outcomes, in which universities will lose their public respect and dignity, while preserving their public persona (mask) as the corporate culture takes over. Like the Russian incursion into Ukraine, it is happening without the shedding of blood, but by the mere boardroom decision of frightened people charged with the responsibility of providing leadership at the University of Saskatchewan.
Historically, universities have been seats of debate, openly and honourably, not only in specific cases, but also as role models for young people who are learning how the 'world works'. And, as the world shrinks, in this most visible and prominent situation, eroding the potential of the learning institution to serve its primary purpose, to educate, not only in the lecture hall and in the laboratory, but also from the prominence of the executive suite, we are all losers.
And, if we are courageous enough and honourable enough, we will stand beside this professor/dean, taking all available steps to restore him to his position, and provide the public with both the arguments of the boards of governors for their budget decisions, and the professor/dean's paper outlining his position.
These are, after all, public institutions, funded by public dollars, and the degree of transparency and accountability that the public is afforded is directly dependent on the degree of pressure the public imposes on the institution.
A very small story, in the 'big picture' but a very critical one from the perspective of the long-term authenticity of not only this one university, but of the university system in Canada.
UPDATE
From CBC, May 15, 2014
The University of Saskatchewan said today it will offer Prof. Robert Buckingham a tenured faculty position, but he won't be returning to his old job after he was fired for speaking out against the school's cuts and restructuring plans.
In a news release, the university says Buckingham won't be given back his job as head of the university's School of Public Health.
U of S president Ilene Busch-Vishniac told CBC News that Buckingham should never have been fired from his tenured position, calling the dismissal "a blunder." She said the university is looking into how it happened and those involved will be disciplined.
“Academic freedom and tenure are sacrosanct at the University of Saskatchewan. This case, however, is not about academic freedom," Busch-Vishniac said in the release from earlier today. "Dr. Buckingham was removed from his executive director position for acting contrary to the expectations of his leadership role.” 
Buckingham was fired Wednesday morning for criticizing the institution's budget cuts as part of the TransformUS restructuring plan.


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