University of Saskatchewan dean fired, banned for life from campus after speaking out about cuts

September 2014

SASKATOON — A University of Saskatchewan dean who says faculty are being told to keep quiet about cuts has been fired, stripped of tenure and escorted off campus by police.

The Opposition New Democrats say Robert Buckingham, executive director at the School of Public Health, has told them that he was called into a meeting Wednesday morning and banned for life from campus.

“In publicly challenging the direction given to you by both the president of the university and the provost, you have demonstrated egregious conduct and insubordination and have destroyed your relationship with the senior leadership team of the university,” reads a termination letter addressed to Buckingham and signed by provost Brett Fairbairn.

The letter was released by the NDP.

“You have damaged the reputation of the university, the president and the school and have damaged the university’s relationship with key stakeholders and partners, including the public, government and your university colleagues.”

The letter says he is being terminated “for just cause” and concludes by telling Buckingham he is to make arrangements with human resources to turn in his office keys.

“I think there are huge issues of academic freedom involved. I think it’s very, very serious situation at the university,” public health professor Janice MacKinnon told The StarPhoenix.

Buckingham was executive director at the School of Public Health when he spoke out Tuesday about an overhaul at the university known as Transform US.

He said university president Ilene Busch-Vishniac told senior leaders not to publicly disagree with the overhaul.

“Her remarks were to the point: she expected her senior leaders to not ’publicly disagree with the process or findings of TransformUS’; she added that if we did our ‘tenure would be short,”’ Buckingham wrote in a letter to the provincial government and the NDP.

Buckingham said never in 40 years of academic life has he seen faculty being told that they could not speak out or debate issues.

“It’s a very sad commentary on this university leadership right now,” Buckingham told the StarPhoenix on Wednesday.

“It’s sad. Of all places, a university should be a place to disagree and disagree publicly and not have repercussions of being fired from your job because you speak out.”

The Saskatoon-based university released a plan last month that includes cutting jobs, reorganizing the administration and dissolving some programs to try to save about $25-million.

The cuts are part of a bigger goal to address a projected $44.5-million deficit in the university’s operating budget by 2016.

The plan calls for the School of Public Health to be rolled into the College of Medicine, but Buckingham worries that could jeopardize the college’s recently earned international accreditation.

“Much of what has been built over the last five years is threatened by the TransformUS plan to place the School of Public Health under the College of Medicine,” he wrote.

Buckingham questions why the university would want to put the successful school under the College of Medicine, which is struggling and on probation.

NDP Leader Cam Broten has said the provincial government needs to find out what is happening at the university.

Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris has said issues of organization and renewal are “the purview” of the university, but that accreditation is not at stake.

Norris said professors should not be told to keep quiet, but he added that he needs to find out if different rules apply to those in administrative roles.