On Wednesday, former University of Saskatchewan President Ilene Busch-Vishniac filed an $8.5 million dollar wrongful-dismissal/defamation lawsuit against Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, former Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris, and a half-dozen members of the University’s Board of Governors. Yeah, really, $8.5 million. And if you read her affidavit (available here) she has a decent case. Not an open-and-shut one, but a case nonetheless.
What’s new in this affidavit? Three things:
1) There was a communication gap between then-provost Brett Fairbairn and Busch-Vishniac. We already knew the two spoke on the Tuesday night of the affair, agreeing that School of Public Health (SPH) Dean Robert Buckingham should be relieved of his position, though they remained undecided as to whether additional measures should be taken. Busch-Vishniac empowered Fairbairn to decide, promising she would back whatever decision he made. Later that evening, on the colossally stupid advice of the HR department, Fairbairn decided to dismiss Buckingham from the university, altogether.
We already knew that Fairbarin updated Busch-Vishniac by email on Tuesday night, and sent another email the next morning following Buckingham’s dismissal. However, Busch-Vishniac claims that despite these two emails, it was not until late the following afternoon, hours after the story had broken, that she understood Fairbairn had dismissed Buckingham outright.
This point is central to Busch-Vishniac’s claim that there was no cause to dismiss her, because, according to her, she was never in favour of outright dismissal, and she moved to reverse the “blunder” (her words) as soon as she discovered it. However, the only way she could have moved as quickly as possible was if Fairbairn’s two emails had both been unclear. But this is not what she says, specifically; rather, she claims she “did not understand” that this was the decision, which suggests that Busch-Vishniac simply skimmed the emails, and didn’t grasp or process their full content.
Truthfully, this seems a bit weak as a defence. Fairbairn’s account of the Tuesday meeting is clear: at that meeting, the possibility of dismissing Buckingham outright was discussed, and there is no indication in either his or Bush-Vishniac’s account that this option was ruled-out. In other words, a priori, she doesn’t seem to have had a problem with the idea of firing Buckingham outright.
2) Busch-Vishniac really dislikes the MacKinnons. It’s no secret that Busch-Vishniac’s predecessor, Peter MacKinnon, preferred Richard Florizone (now President at Dalhousie) as his successor, and it’s no secret that the transition between MacKinnon and Busch-Vishniac was slightly less than serene. It is also a matter of public record that Janice MacKinnon, the province’s former finance minister, who held an academic position in the SPH, was pretty much first-out-of-the-gate to defend Buckingham, and blast Busch-Vishniac, on the Wednesday, after the story broke.
However, Busch-Vishniac’s affidavit accuses the pair of something far more sinister: namely, the affidavit claims that the MacKinnons co-wrote Buckingham’s “Silence of the Deans” document, which instigated the move to dismiss him, and that they also instructed him on the timing of the document’s release, and its distribution list. All of this was – and I quote – “specifically intended to undermine Dr. Busch-Vishniac”. No evidence for this claim is offered, and both MacKinnons fervently deny the allegation.
Thing is, neither of the MacKinnons is listed as a defendant, and the actual authorship of “Silence of the Deans” is immaterial to the case. There was simply no reason for Busch-Vishniac to place these accusations before the court, other than to give a two-fingered salute to a couple she doesn’t like. Weird.
3) Brad Wall and Rob Norris may have some ‘splainin’ to do. Busch-Vishniac claims that Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris and Premier Brad Wall pressured the board to do some things that were hasty and rash: such as pressuring the Board to hold a meeting with inadequate notice (this is already a matter of public record), as well as – allegedly – asking for a second meeting that day, and excluding the President from it, or indeed firing her without cause. Whatever you think of Busch-Vishniac’s handling of the affair, she makes a decent case in the affidavit that she did not receive due process. One might argue that this is also true of Buckingham, but in law two wrongs don’t make a right. And of course, it should be worrying to everyone if – as she alleges – a theoretically independent board bent to government demands so quickly and completely.
There is one final, related note: the genesis of this whole mess was Buckingham’s claim that SPH shouldn’t be merged into another faculty as part of the TransformUS prioritization process. Many people at U of S backed this claim, while having no intelligent view on the matter because, hey, everybody hated prioritization, and supporting Buckingham was a way to stick it to The Man.
Post-affair, the University called in an external panel of experts to advise on the fate of the School. They reported back last month, saying SPH wasn’t fulfilling its mission, and needed to be merged with another unit, pronto. In other words, it turns out the TransformUS process (not to mention Busch-Vishniac and Fairbairn) was right about SPH all along. How embarrassing.