We all remember this spring’s controversy at the University of Saskatchewan over the firing of Robert Buckingham, which resulted in the resignation of the University’s Provost, Brett Fairbairn, and the firing of the President, Ilene Busch-Vishniac. Despite all the coverage, a number of key questions were never answered, like “how could anyone possibly think firing a tenured professor was a good idea?” And, “who’s idea was it to fire him anyway – the Provost’s or the President’s?”
We now have more insight, as Fairbairn recently released a five-page letter providing his perspective on events. Two key points from his account:
- The decision to fire Buckingham as Dean was a group decision. The Provost, “leaders responsible for Faculty Relations, HR internal legal expertise and Communications”, and the President (by phone) were all present. But the key question of whether to dismiss him from the university altogether was referred to HR for further study. At this point Busch-Vishniac told Fairbarin: “I will stand behind any actions you deem necessary and will not second-guess”.
- The decision to fire him from both jobs was the HR department’s recommendation.
How HR came to this conclusion isn’t clear; Fairbairn notes that it had happened before at U of S in a case where there had been an irreparable breakdown in relations between employer and employee. Without knowing the case to which he’s referring, it’s hard to know what to make of this. Certainly, the employer-employee relationship with Buckingham as a dean was irreparably damaged (which is why they were correct to fire him); it’s not at all clear that he couldn’t have remained as a faculty member since he wouldn’t have had any real contact with any of the superiors whose trust he had abused as Dean. For whatever reason, Fairbairn decided to take the “expert advice” from HR, and did so without looping back to the communications people to get their input (which might have been valuable) or checking with Bush-Vishniac.
Far from backing up Fairbairn as promised, Busch-Vishniac threw him under the bus and asked for his resignation three days later. That was emphatically the wrong call. From the moment she gave the go-ahead for Buckingham’s dismissal, it was clear that either both of them would stay, or neither would. Fairbairn decided to go, astutely noting that “the only thing worse than blame and recrimination among senior leaders is mutual recrimination among senior leaders”.
Fairbairn’s letter is a valuable peek into how crises get managed at universities. I think it shows him as a manager with mostly the right instincts, but who erred in accepting some terrible advice from professionals who should have known better. Others – mostly people who genuinely have no insight into how major organizations function – will probably see this distinction as irrelevant since the real crime was firing Buckingham as a Dean in the first place. Former CAUT director James Turk, in particular, has made the “managers should have a right to criticise each other publicly” case – to which the correct response is: “and how much freedom did Turk allow his staff and executive to criticise his management as CAUT director?”.
If I were at the University of Saskatchewan, though, my main question after reading Fairbairn’s letter would be: “how is it that the HR department got off comparatively lightly?” Food for thought.