Fairbairn’s Firing of Buckingham Must Not Go Unanswered

When I first saw the letter below circulating on Twitter as of mid-day, seemingly issued on the letterhead of the office of the Provost and VP Academic at the University of Saskatchewan and signed by the current occupant of those positions, Brett Fairbairn, I paused for a moment to question whether it was real. Could any Provost or VP Academic in Canada truly believe that s/he can charge a colleague with “egregious conduct and insubordination” for his or her expression of concern about decisions being taken by administrators at his or her institution, and issue the kind of summary judgment to which this letter speaks?

USask Provost Letter to Dr. Buckingham 14May14The presumption of this letter and the decision taken by the University of Saskatchewan’s Provost and VP Academic is that members of the administration of a public university in Canada are not members of a collegium responsible to the public, but rather members of a secretive corporate elite that is free to require loyalty to itself over commitment to the academic values of reasoned critique and public declarations in the public interest. Whose interests does any such Provost believe he is serving when he issues such a letter in such haste that its mere twelve sentences can contain two noun/verb agreement errors? And from what authority does he believe he acts when he claims that he can not only fire a colleague who has questioned an administrative decision but declare that colleague “banned” from campus “for life”? 

This is the action not of an academic defending the academy against “conduct” that he believes is threatening to it, but action akin to that of a feudal sovereign.

The letter is the clearest evidence yet this year that something has gone terribly awry with how public universities are being conceived of and run in Canada in 2014. In the face of it, University administrations across Canada should affirm their commitment to academic freedom and the fullest range of democratic critique from all of their academic staff members, including their administrators. If what Saskatchewan’s Provost claims is true — that Professor Buckingham is in breach of a contract that he would not “release or divulge any confidential or proprietary information” with which he had been “entrusted,” and the administration at Saskatchewan defines its plans for restructuring the University as falling into this class of “information” — then the University of Saskatchewan is requiring its administrators to sign a contract that no administrator at a public university in Canada should be required to sign, for any such contract is anathema to the principles of the academy. All aspects of any proposed reshaping of any of Canada’s public universities should always be fully public matters.

It is going to be interesting to see what the evening and tomorrow bring by way of further news from Saskatchewan. Here let us hear as swiftly as possible from the University of Alberta’s administration that our administrators are not required to sign contracts that keep them from engaging in public critique of administrative decisions. For let us not forget that the administrative decisions of a public university are primarily academic decisions, and in the academic decisions of the institutions of which they are a part every professor should have as full and as free a voice as he or she desires. Where anything occurs at a public university in Canada to suggest that anything other than this is true, all Canadians should be alarmed, for any assault on the free speech of an academic speaking up out of concern for his or her institution is an assault on the capacity for critique upon which the health of every democratic polity depends.




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10 Responses to Fairbairn’s Firing of Buckingham Must Not Go Unanswered

  1. dereksayer says:

    Reblogged this on coastsofbohemia and commented:
    This is a deplorable, almost unbelievable instance of hubris on the part of university management that deserves worldwide publicity and worldwide condemnation. I am reblogging here an article by colleagues at the University of Alberta, where I am a Professor Emeritus. Unfortunately I do not believe such high-handedness or threats to academic freedom are confined to Canada or the University of Saskatchewan. Please publicize as widely as possible.

  2. Marc says:

    Well stated!

  3. Laurie Adkin says:

    “[L]et us hear as swiftly as possible from the University of Alberta’s administration that our administrators are not required to sign contracts that keep them from engaging in public critique of administrative decisions.” Yes, please; we need to hear this.

  4. Even though I am a severe critic of the corporate university, I have to disagree with you on one aspect of this: his being fired as a senior administrator. I don’t believe it is incorrect for there to be some expectation of cabinet solidarity on administrative decisions within any administration.

    Administrations meet to hash out strategy; at a certain point a decision is made and the meetings stop. The tradeoff you make when you go into administration is that you gain greater influence on decision-making (and higher salary and benefits) but you lose some academic freedoms, including the right to criticise the people who are now emphatically your boss.

    Where I think USask went overboard was in removing him as a professor as well and in banning him from life from Campus. First of all, a professor has no obligation to intellectual obedience (and, indeed, arguably in exchange for tenure an obligation not to suppress criticism). And secondly, once the person was fired as dean, he became a member of the larger university community: the price of admission to a university community is a commitment to education and research, not obedience to a VPA.

    The only place where I am a little uncomfortable about his dismissal as an administrator has to do with my belief that dean is something different from Associate VP or Associate Dean (in the same way that I think Provost is different from VP). This is a traditional academic position as well as administrative and you could argue that it carries with it obligations to the university that trump cabinet solidarity.

    • Arts Squared says:

      Thank you for your comment, Daniel.

      Over the last hour or so, Jim Turk, Executive Director of CAUT, is reported as declaring that he “admits there is a place for ‘cabinet solidarity’ and . . . can understand if this incident involved someone higher up who was a part of the school’s top leadership team, like a vice president. But he believes, in this case, the vow of silence should not extend to the school’s deans.

      ‘When there’s a debate going on about what direction the university should go, you would want the leading academic figure in each of the different colleges, or faculties to have a full voice so that you can hear the diversity of views,’ Turk said.”

      [See http://cjme.com/story/canadian-assoc-university-teachers-may-censure-u-s/343448.%5D

      To this I would add that where any institution is choosing to have its administrators sign contracts that would subsume the rights and responsibilities of academic freedom under one or another notion of “confidentiality,” the entire institution should have full knowledge that this is what is occurring and should — through its faculty councils — decide whether they choose to let such practices continue.

  5. Patricia Clapp says:

    Until I see a massive reaction from other University Administrators, I will assume that they are all “Holding themselves to a Higher Standard”….of dishonesty and unethical behavior. Totally disgusting.

  6. Andy says:

    This president and executive seem like tyrants. I’m very disturbed with this happening at my old school.

  7. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    At first I was rather thrilled by this whole thing and was even joking that Fairbairn must be a CAUT sleeper agent because the whole incident made a marquee display of everything academics have been saying for years about the martinet silliness of university administrations in the contemporary academy. That Fairbairn looks pretty much like a villainous high school principal from a 1980s teen movie seemed like almost too much good luck to be true.

    Now, though, with the hasty backtracking and apology by USask’s president (does anybody suppose Fairbairn is going to go unsacked for long?) I foresee more depressing sequelae: university administrations everywhere, including our own, are going to rally around their disavowal of Fairbairnery, and in fact are going to be painting giant halos around their own stopping short of the issuing of “banned for life” letters to excessively squeaky academic wheels. I am surprised that a chest-pounding message of that variety has yet to emanate from our own dear leaders. That in fact Fairbairnery is everywhere (and often more fashionably garbed and given to considerably more velvet maneuvering) is the point we need to keep insisting upon in the face of what is sure to be a yowly chorus of administrative disavowals.

    • Patricia says:

      At the elementary school level, removing principals from the bargaining unit has had the same disgusting effects. Instead of being “Head Teacher” (as in Britain), Principals are now often in the position of holding their noses and adjusting their blinders…… while our province of BC continues on it’s merrie olde way of having the worst? per pupil finding, the highest level of child poverty, and is run by a bunch of “Country clubbers” who are worried about funding for violin lessons!!!! Apparently none of them have ever actually SEEN the makeup of our classrooms in this province. It’s the same nonsense wherever you go….AND IT IS ROTTEN MANAGEMENT, if you want to use the corporate model.
      Patricia. B.Ed, M.Ed, MBA.

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