Update: The Situation at the University of Saskatchewan and the Academic Freedom of Academic Administrators

Yesterday the University of Saskatchewan partly reversed the decision its Provost, Brett Fairbairn, took on Wednesday morning in regard to the position and tenure of the Dean of the School of Public Health, Robert Buckingham. On Wednesday morning, Buckingham was deprived of his position as Dean, fired from his position as a tenured professor, and apparently informed he could never return to campus for a letter that he had written to members of the Government of Saskatchewan and others the day before. The letter charges the University of Saskatchewan’s President with subjecting administrators, especially Deans, to a regime of silence in regard to the restructuring process, “TransformUS,” underway at the University of Saskatchewan. Yesterday, asserting that the principle of tenure is “sacrosanct,” the President declared in interviews that the University had “blundered” and Professor Buckingham would now freshly be “offered a tenured faculty position.”

With this decision, the President of the University of Saskatchewan seems to affirm that faculty at the University of Saskatchewan have academic freedom. The President’s decision leaves entirely in question, however, whether the University of Saskatchewan’s administrators do. Asked by the CBC’s “As It Happens” whether she stood behind the Provost’s declaration in his letter of 14 May 2014 that by issuing a public statement about his disagreement with the administration’s plans Professor Buckingham had engaged in “egregious conduct and insubordination,” the President declared “I do, I do.” (“As It Happens” audio recording: Remarks are at 10-minute mark.) As of mid-day on Friday, May 16th, there has been no statement to indicate the possibility of Professor Buckingham being restored to his position as Dean.

USask Provost letter to Buckingham detail

Provost Brett Fairbairn’s letter of May 14th to Professor Robert Buckingham of the University of Saskatchewan (detail)

Most striking about President Busch-Vishniac’s statements yesterday is their omission of any reference to the charge in Buckingham’s letter to the Government of Saskatchewan, “The Silence of the Deans,” that last December the President threatened any Dean who spoke out about the “process or findings” of the restructuring process in place at the University, “TransformUS,” with “short” tenure.

The position taken by the Executive of the University of Saskatchewan’s Faculty Association in a public statement on Wednesday evening thus remains not just correct, but urgently pertinent. In its statement, USFA’s Executive notes that Professor Buckingham, while in his post as Dean, is not a member of the Association. USFA’s Executive nevertheless affirms that in its view “the steps taken by Senior Administration [are] contrary to the CAUT Policy on Academic Freedom for Academic Administrators and an attack on the principle of academic freedom.”

Every clause of CAUT’s statement on the academic freedom of academic administrators, as issued in 2010, is relevant to Professor Buckingham’s situation, but the most pressingly relevant of them read as follows:


All post-secondary institutions’ administrators who continue as members of the academic staff of their institutions while fulfilling administrative roles enjoy the full protection of academic freedom as described in CAUT’s “Policy Statement on Academic Freedom” and related CAUT policies. This protection extends to all academic administrative staff, irrespective of rank, up to and including the Presidents and Vice-Presidents of post-secondary institutions. It extends to all academic staff excluded from the academic staff bargaining unit by virtue of administrative office.


The exercise of academic freedom serves the common good of society and should not be constrained by appeals to such notions as loyalty to administrative leadership, cabinet solidarity, management rights, commitment to a team, or speaking with one voice.


Where a decision has been achieved by consensus, by majority vote, or through the exercise of legitimate authority, that fact does not constrain members of the academic staff, including those holding administrative appointments, from exercising their academic freedom by criticizing the decision.


Where academic administrators are not free to communicate freely and fully with the members of the unit of the university that they represent in their administrative capacity or not free to share their critiques of administrative decisions and policies with members of the university community and the public, no member of that institution can truly be said to have academic freedom, for in such an environment all members of the university are subject to decisions taken in a fundamental state of unfreedom by the university’s administrators. As others have already noted, this is a situation that affects both the public and students as gravely as it affects members of any such university’s academic staff. (See, for example, Robyn Urback’s 15 May 2014 column in the National Post and more extensive commentary on the impact on students in Luke Maynard’s blog post, “Saskatchewan, Academic Freedom, and the Tarkin Doctrine (or, Why Reinstating Dr. Buckingham Solves Nothing.”)

The President of the University of Saskatchewan may assert, as she did yesterday, that “this case is not about academic freedom,” but that does not make it so, and the decision taken yesterday — that Professor Buckingham could be offered a new tenured position but his dismissal as Dean reaffirmed — does not resolve the situation at the University of Saskatchewan. As of Wednesday morning, the Canadian academy had before it a woeful example of the conduct of a Provost at one of Canada’s major public universities. As of yesterday afternoon, it now has before it evidence that suggests that at least one university administration in Canada does not understand the full scope of academic freedom, and the vital importance to our universities of the academic freedom of academic administrators. In such a situation, moreover, collegial governance cannot be properly operative, for the institution is in fact proceeding according to executive fiat. Busch-Vishniac is claiming that “nothing can move forward” at the University of Saskatchewan “without going through rather slow-moving and tortuous [sic] governance processes,” but if her alleged ban on public critique from Deans were to hold, such processes would go forward without the University community getting to hear of the difference of opinions in administration and take their own decisions in accordance with an understanding of a full range of positions on the issues. The authority of universities in Canada lies properly, after all, with the collegium at each institution, and that collegium needs always to be in a position to make fully informed decisions in all academic matters at its university. Supporting her Provost in his declaration that Professor Buckingham’s choices have constituted “insubordination,” the President of the University of Saskatchewan supports him in a view of where authority lies at Canada’s universities and how it is to be pursued. In his final remarks on “As It Happens” yesterday, Professor Buckingham asserted the contrary:

I do believe that Deans have a right to disagree with senior administration . . . .

I think it’s important in university that people have a voice not just to play a yes-game — to be a yes-man or yes-woman — but to say you know, I disagree. And, yes, I have disagreed privately but I am going to disagree publicly . . . . We need to fight for our units, and we need to represent our faculty and our staff and our students, and their interests, so when a Dean thinks the movement in the University is going in the wrong direction, in the best interests of their college, I do think a Dean has the right to speak up — and even though they may lose the decision, at least voice the opinion.

Professor Buckingham told “As It Happens” that he will continue to fight the merger of the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Public Health with its College of Medicine.

Meanwhile, certain airwaves are crackling with white noise, no voice to be heard.

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3 Responses to Update: The Situation at the University of Saskatchewan and the Academic Freedom of Academic Administrators

  1. Laurie Adkin says:

    This is a brilliant analysis, Carolyn, as we have come to expect from you. Bringing in the CAUT document was most helpful. I must say that I have been very disappointed by the silence of the deans at the U of S with regard to the treatment of their colleague, Dr. Buckingham. Why has none among them spoken? And yes, it would also be reassuring to hear confirmation from our own chief administrators of the democratic principles of representation and freedom of speech.

  2. dereksayer says:

    Reblogged this on coastsofbohemia and commented:
    More on Robert Buckingham’s firing/unfiring and the disturbing implications that remain for academic freedom. Another excellent analysis from Carolyn Sale at the University of Alberta.

  3. Terry Matheson says:

    In response to Laurie Adkin’s pertinent observation concerning the silence of the U of S’s other deans, I think the answer is obvious: they are themselves ambitious individuals who have designs on “higher” and more prestigious administrative positions. As such, they are simply afraid of being fired, and lessening their chances of moving beyond their present well-paying and prestigious jobs for positions that give them even more prestige and more money. The real question is how can any of them look at themselves in the mirror every morning, assuming that they can still cast a reflection in one.

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