Imagine two scenarios. In the first, an academic is threatened with termination if he/she speaks out publicly against the university’s proposed strategic plan. In the second, a manager is fired for disobeying a direct order from a superior about running down the company he/she works for. For most readers, I’d guess the first scenario is abhorrent, and the second quite understandable (if perhaps somewhat harsh). Yet both scenarios describe precisely what happened to University of Saskatchewan’s Dean, Robert Buckingham.
The Buckingham incident goes to the heart of a real live issue in Canadian universities: for whom do deans work – the President and Provost, or the faculty? Are they management’s tool to keep faculty in line, or do they represent the interests of their faculty in the halls of the power?
I don’t think there’s much doubt in a legal sense that Deans answer to senior management rather than faculty. But the way Deans are chosen usually incorporate a large amount of feedback from professors in that department, who want to make sure that the Dean is – to the extent possible – sympatico with their interests. And whether the Dean is a likable figure or not, he/she is very much expected to fight for the interests of that faculty and its members when it comes to things like resource allocation.
So, to Saskatoon where, as part of the university’s restructuring process, the 5-year-old School of Public Health Buckingham headed was slated, along with the School of Dentistry and the college of Medicine, to become part of an enlarged Faculty of Medicine. The School, which at least in its own eyes is pretty hot stuff having just received European accreditation for its program, was less than thrilled with the notion of being under the same roof as the College of Medicine, which has had a rough time with accreditation issues for the past few years.
Buckingham fought his corner spiritedly but quietly for several months. When Deans were recently told that the time for chat was over, and it was time for all the managers to fall in line, Buckingham chose not to do so. Instead, he wrote a letter (available here) that wound up in the StarPhoenix in which he effectively implied that: a) the President and Provost lacked courage, and b) that the College of Medicine was sub-standard. Within the next 24 hours, Buckingham was not only removed as Dean, but was also fired as a tenured professor, and escorted from campus.
Now, given the high level of tension on campus, and that Buckingham was only a few weeks away from retirement, it might have made more sense to let this incident go with a reprimand (and indeed, after much media attention, and an emergency meeting called by Advanced Ed Minister, Rob Norris, the University “reconsidered and reversed” parts of its initial decision). But make no mistake, within a managerial capacity, it was a fire-able offense: you can’t have your Deans going off and running down their colleagues’ departments in public.
Simply put, the freedom of comment that one has as a faculty member doesn’t apply to management. Buckingham’s line about “I’ve never seen academics be silenced like this” is somewhat disingenuous: Deans are management and held to a different standard. Saskatchewan was within its rights to ditch him as a Dean; where they overstepped, and have since clawed back on their decision, was in firing him as a professor, because that raises legitimate issues of academic freedom. As far as I know no professor has been dismissed for speaking out about university management since Norman Strax at UNB in 1968, and that’s not a place we want to go back to.
Both sides stepped over the line here, but it’s easy to see how it happened, and how it is likely to happen again. At the end of the day, deans’ identities and allegiances are split between their role as academics and their role as administrators. It’s a thankless and occasionally dangerous position.