The Buckingham affair Professor’s dismissal sparks controversy at the University of Saskatchewan

The past two weeks have been a difficult time at the University of Saskatchewan as controversy flared over the dismissal and subsequent rehiring of a professor.

On May 13, Robert Buckingham, then executive director of the university’s School of Public Health, released an open letter opposing the amalgamation of the School of Public Health with the College of Medicine. The merger was slated to occur as part of the university’s controversial cost-cutting TransformUs initiative.

Buckingham expressed concern that this would threaten the accreditation of the university’s Master of Public Health program.

At most schools, Buckingham wrote, the faculty focused on the prevention of disease (Public Health) is organizationally separate from the faculty focused on treatment (Medicine). He cited a 2007 proposal by the university’s School of Public Health Steering Committee, which agreed that the School of Public Health should be separate from and equal to the professional health sciences colleges.

Buckingham also expressed concern about the merger due to the College of Medicine’s recent troubles—it was placed on probation by the Committee on Accreditation of Canadian Medical Schools late in 2013. The newly created school gained its accreditation in January of this year, and a merger could cause the Agency for Public Health Accreditation to review the program, Buckingham wrote. The university’s provost Brett Fairbairn responded to these concerns in a statement.

According to Buckingham’s letter, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, the university’s president, had told the school’s deans that they were expected not to publicly oppose TransformUs, and that if they did their “tenure would be short.” He also reproduced an email from Fairbairn instructing Buckingham not to publicly mention any potential threat to the program’s accreditation.

When Buckingham arrived on campus on May 14, campus security personnel gave him a letter informing him that he had breached his contract and damaged his relationship with the school. The security personnel then escorted Buckingham from campus. He was told to stay off university property, but would be allowed back at a later date to collect his belongings.

The very next day, Buckingham was rehired in his capacity as a tenured professor, but was not reinstated as head of the School of Public Health. Martin Phillipson, vice-provost of the university, has taken over Buckingham’s role until a replacement can be found.

Busch-Vishniac apologized to Buckingham, describing the firing as a “blunder.”

“This was not a decision made by one person. This was a decision made by my team. I am very comfortable standing here telling you it was the wrong decision,” she said to the CBC.

“The debate that is raging confuses Dr. Buckingham’s former role as Executive Director of the School of Public Health with the academic freedom associated with that of a tenured faculty member,” Busch-Vishniac added in a press release the same day.

“In his role as an administrator at a level that removes him from the faculty association, Dr. Buckingham is not only permitted but encouraged to have opinions that might disagree with those developed by top administrators. However, once a decision is made at the institutional level, all senior leaders must publicly conform to that decision or resign their leadership role.”

In the aftermath, University of Saskatchewan professor Jim Miller wrote a letter to the Board of Governors calling for the president and provost to be fired. He said they dismissed Buckingham “unlawfully.”

“There are an awful lot of people who are in the same view that I am and there is going to be an enormous amount of unhappiness if they don’t consider our views carefully,” Miller told the CBC.

On May 19, the university’s Board of Governors called an emergency meeting. Shortly before the meeting, it was announced that Fairbairn had resigned as provost. The next day Busch-Vishniac announced that she had no plans to resign. Student organizer Nick Marlatte told the CBC that he was unsatisfied that Fairbairn was made into a “sacrificial lamb.”

“It’s a broader group of people within the senior leadership that’s actually been tainting the university’s reputation,” he said.

The result of the Board’s emergency meeting was inconclusive, and a follow-up was scheduled for May 26 and 27. The Board’s chair Susan Milburn said in a press release that the Board “discussed the leadership of the university in depth.”

“We do not want to act in haste and therefore we have not made any final decisions,” she added.

On May 21, students held a rally against TransformUs. The same day, Buckingham returned to campus and received a “hero’s welcome,” according to the CBC. Buckingham told the CBC he has “no ill feelings” toward Fairbairn or Busch-Vishniac for firing him.

Late in the evening of May 21, the board announced that they had met and decided to fire Busch-Vishniac days before their planned meeting. Gordon Barnhart, a well-known Saskatchewan academic and politician, stepped in as acting president. Busch-Vishniac has the option to continue in a teaching role in the College of Engineering.

Although the board dismissed Busch-Vishniac over the Buckingham affair, it still remains committed to the TransformUs initiative.

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