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
…Now, to my reasons for returning my award. The University of Canterbury is a wonderful organisation and I have enjoyed my time here more than any other appointment I have had. I am supported in my teaching and research as well as have great friends here. However, there is an underbelly of hate that raises its head from time to time. My earliest experience of this came in my first semester of teaching at UoC when I was reading the anonymous feedback from students. In the section where it asked “what should be changed to improve the course” one student wrote “his ethnicity”. I’ve been brown all my life, so I’m used to racism. Whether it’s the ignorant throwaway comment or the overtly aggressive act, I’ve seen it and experienced it and I know one day my daughters will see it and experience it. This is why I’m taking a stand. Because I don’t want my girls to live in a world where hate exists and I know I’ve done nothing to try and stop it….
Since the 1950s, universities have also been seen as places of research that can contribute in the long run to society, especially to our economy, culture, public policy, and health. Over the past 15 or so years, support for university research has expanded enormously just as the system was expanding at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Federal research funding grew fourfold; provincial funding tripled.It is hard to imagine how we might give universities a higher priority and standing. Their central place in a knowledge-based society is acknowledged and secure.Are our universities today civic universities? Certainly a civic university must be publicly supported, and our universities have received major increases in public support.But many people would answer that they are not. There is concern, tending toward deep disquiet, and some would argue a crisis. Our universities and the way we think about them have been changing.Universities are thought of more and more as institutions of the economy.
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.”
The New York Times, Slate and Al Jazeera have recently drawn attention to the adjunctification of the professoriate in the US. Only 24 per cent of the academic workforce are now tenured or tenure-track.
Much of the coverage has focused on the sub-poverty wages of adjunct faculty, their lack of job security and the growing legions of unemployed and under-employed PhDs. Elsewhere, the focus has been on web-based learning and the massive open online courses (MOOCs), with some commentators celebrating and others lamenting their arrival.
The two developments are not unrelated. Harvard recently asked its alumni to volunteer their time as “online mentors” and “discussion group managers” for an online course. Fewer professors and fewer qualified – or even paid – teaching assistants will be required in higher education’s New Order.
Lost amid the fetishisation of information technology and the pathos of the struggle over proper working conditions for adjunct faculty is the deeper crisis of the academic profession occasioned by neoliberalism. This crisis is connected to the economics of higher education but it is not primarily about that.
The neoliberal sacking of the universities runs much deeper than tuition fee hikes and budget cuts.
“I think it is an important and worrisome reality today that Canada is backing away to a certain extent from investing in higher education at the very moment other powerful systems are investing heavily.”