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Updated: Wed, 14 May 2014 21:23:19 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Prof. Robert Buckingham fired after criticizing Saskatchewan university plan



Dr. Robert Buckingham has been the Dean of the School of Public Health at the U of S since 2009. Madeline Kotzer/CBC

Dr. Robert Buckingham has been the Dean of the School of Public Health at the U of S since 2009. Madeline Kotzer/CBC

The head of the University of Saskatchewan's School of Public Health was fired this morning after he spoke out against the school's TransformUs restructuring plan. 

The university confirmed that it fired Prof. Robert Buckingham, but would not comment further.  

When Buckingham showed up for work this morning, he said he was met by two campus security officers. He said they handed him a note, which mentioned the letter he released yesterday called The Silence of the Deans.

Buckingham said the university claims he breached his contract through the letter, and irrevocably damaged his relationship with the school.

He was escorted off campus by the security officers. He was told to stay off university property, but will be allowed to return at a later date to collect his personal belongings. 

He said his tenure and benefits have been revoked, but said he could not comment further until he obtains a lawyer.

Brett Fairbairn, provost and vice-president academic at the University of Saskatchewan, said in a statement issued today that leadership positions at the institution are roles of trust and stewardship. 

"It is not open to anyone to wear the hat of a leader and a non-leader simultaneously," he said in the statement. 

Fairbairn said that being a leader includes putting the good of the organization ahead of one's own interests or views. He added that deans and other senior leaders had opportunities throughout the TransformUs process to raise their views in small and large group settings.  

Politicians weigh in

Cam Broten, Saskatchewan's Official Opposition leader, said that Premier Brad Wall should be calling for a meeting with university president Illene Busch-Vishniac. He said the provincial government did not hesitate to get involved at First Nations University of Canada and the University of Regina in 2005. 

The leader of the Saskatchewan NDP said this is "not some university in Arizona run out of someone's basement," but a real, reputable university whose reputation will be hurt by this. 

In a public letter Buckingham titled The Silence of the Deans, Buckingham detailed a December 2013 meeting between senior academic leaders at the school. He said deans and vice-presidents were in attendance. Buckingham claims that Busch-Vishniac told the group not to "publicly disagree with the process or findings of TransformUs." Buckingham alleges the university president went on to tell the group that if they did speak out against the cost-cutting process their "tenure would be short."

"I felt, at that time, [the] deans were being threatened," Buckingham told CBC News on Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after his letter was raised by the NDP in question period at the provincial legislature. "If we did share publicly, [president Busch-Vishniac] stated that our tenure would be short. I thought that was a threat. What I am concerned about here is freedom of speech at a university," Buckingham said.

Warned again

Buckingham, who became dean of the School of Public Health at the university in 2009, said it was always his intention to try to improve the school and leave his post at the university after five years. Because of this, he contends university administration, including provost Brett Fairbairn were vigilant in reminding him that speaking out against TransformUs, publicly, would not be condoned; especially as the university prepared to make details of the TransformUs plan public in May 2014.

Buckingham points to an email sent by Fairbairn on April 29, addressed to him and Dr. Ken Sutherland the associate dean and professor of fixed prosthodontics at the university, as evidence that academic leaders were muzzled. 

An excerpt from the email reads: "You are in an especially tough position and are subject to the expectation the president has of all of its leaders, that you will support TransformUs and the university's messaging."

University issues statement

Following the circulation of Buckingham's letter on Tuesday, CBC News requested an interview with either Busch-Vishniac or Fairbairn. CBC News was advised no formal interview would ever be granted on the matter, however the university's communications department forwarded a statement and said it was attributable to the provost.

"The University of Saskatchewan has high expectations of its senior leaders to support the university’s directions and to lead their implementation. Top among current priorities are the university’s TransformUS initiatives. Leaders have opportunities to express personal opinions in leadership discussions. Once decisions are made, all leaders are expected to support the university’s directions," read the statement.

Buckingham said he hopes his decision to speak out publicly against TransformUs will encourage others in similar positions to do the same.

"I certainly felt stifled and muzzled," he said "I think there are probably other deans at this university who are feeling muzzled also, afraid to speak out."

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