Across the globe, a new historical conjuncture is emerging in which the attacks on higher education as a democratic institution and on dissident public voices in general – whether journalists, whistleblowers or academics – are intensifying with sobering consequences. The attempts to punish prominent academics such as Ward Churchill, Steven Salaita and others are matched by an equally vicious assault on whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond and Edward Snowden, and journalists such as James Risen. 1 Under the aegis of the national surveillance-security-secrecy state, it becomes difficult to separate the war on whistleblowers and journalists from the war on higher education – the institutions responsible for safeguarding and sustaining critical theory and engaged citizenship. 1aMarina Warner has rightly called these assaults on higher education, “the new brutalism in academia.” 2 It may be worse than she suggests. In fact, the right-wing defense of the neoliberal dismantling of the university as a site of critical inquiry in many countries is more brazen and arrogant than anything we have seen in the past and its presence is now felt in a diverse number of repressive regimes. For instance, the authoritarian nature of neoliberalism and its threat to higher education as a democratic public sphere was on full display recently when the multi-millionaire and Beijing-appointed leader of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, told pro-democracy protesters that “allowing his successors to be chosen in open elections based on who won the greatest number of votes was unacceptable in part because it risked giving poorer residents a dominant voice in politics.” 3
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 professor Robert Buckingham, but would not comment further.
When Buckingham showed up to work this morning, he said he was met by two police officers. He said they handed him a note, which talked about a letter he released yesterday called ‘The Silence of the Deans.’
Buckingham said the university claimed he breached his contract through the letter, and irrevocably damaged his relationship with the university.
He was escorted off campus by the pair of 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.and cannot comment further until he obtains a lawyer.
U of S reaction
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.
Sask. opposition weighs in
Saskatchewan opposition leader Cam Broten said that Premier Brad Wall should be calling university president Illene Busch-Vishniac in for a meeting. 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.
‘The Silence of the Deans’
In a public letter Buckingham titled “The Silence of the Deans”, he detailed a December 2013 meeting between senior academic leaders at the school. He said Deans and Vice-Presidents were in attendance. Buckingham claims that president Busch-Vishniac told the group not to “publicly disagree with the process or findings of TransformUs”. Buckingham alleges President Busch-Vishniac 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 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.
Buckingham, who became Dean of the School of Public Health at the U of S in 2009, said it was always his intention to come to the school, 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, was not condoned; especially as the university prepared to make the details of the TransformUs plan public in May 2014.
Buckingham points to an email sent by Provost Fairbairn on April 29, 2014, addressed to him and Dr. Ken Sutherland the Associate Dean and Professor of Fixed Prosthodontics at the U of S, 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 President Busch-Vishniac or Provost Fairbairn. CBC News was advised no formal interview would ever be granted on the matter, however the university’s communications department forwarded the following 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.
However, Buckingham hopes his decision to publicly speak out against TransformUs will encourage others in similar positions to do the same.
“I certainly felt stifled and muzzled,” Buckingham said “I think there are probably other Deans at this university who are feeling muzzled also, afraid to speak out.”
Canadians are forever being informed, explicitly or implicitly, that the solution to the crisis of the day, or decade, is a freedom-sounding word called “privatization”. This, the free-marketeers tell us, will solve our problems.
The reality is invariably the opposite. “Privatization” – also known as bailed-out, highly subsidized corporatism – is in fact the problem, not the solution.
Furthermore, the crises being addressed are often manufactured for the express purpose of rolling out a parasitical regime of corporatization that profits from calamity, even as its “host”, the public, is fleeced.