English Matters

Of Insubordination and Academic Freedom

By Ann Martin, ACCUTE campus representative, University of Saskatchewan

The day after Robert Buckingham, the now former Executive Director of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan, was stripped of his title and tenure, and escorted off the campus by security, my cousin—Managing Director of the Canadian arm of a multinational corporation—sent me a short e-mail: “Wrong thinking is punishable?”

I trust that the SF specialists in our association (I’m looking at you, “Jaslynn” Haslam) will pick up on this reference to the Star Trek pilot episode and Christopher Pike’s encounters with the Talosians’ “spike of pain.”  What I’m struck by, though, is how my cousin demonstrated the real connection between academic institutions and the public sphere, and, in his application of everyday textual analysis to administrative practices, revealed the interrelated nature of research, critical analysis, teaching, communication, and collegial governance.  These are the relationships that have been threatened by recent administrative decisions here at the University of Saskatchewan, which undermine the principles and practices of academic freedom.

The context for the Buckingham story is TransformUS, a program prioritization plan modeled on Robert C. Dickeson’s theories of resource reallocation.  The plan is being implemented in order to make strategic rather than across-the-board budget cuts, given a projected deficit that has itself been the subject of some debate.  To determine where restructuring and cuts should take place, taskforces comprising faculty, staff, and—after protest—students analyzed academic programs and services, and categorized them according to five quintiles, with quintiles three through five destined for significant change.  Consultation with stakeholders ensued.  In January 2014, the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union passed a motion of non-confidence in TransformUS, citing a lack of student involvement in the process.  A similar motion was brought to University Council in February by Professor Len Findlay of the Department of English and was defeated.  At the end of April, the Action Plan was presented, with projects regarding budget cuts and restructurings being assigned to Colleges for implementation.

Not all of these projects have been embraced whole-heartedly.  In the College of Arts and Science, for example, debates continue, especially regarding the proposed merger of “small departments”: Philosophy, Women’s and Gender Studies, Modern Languages, and Religion and Culture.  The project to place the College of Dentistry and the School of Public Health within the College of Medicine is what Dr. Buckingham challenged publicly through his piece “The Silence of the Deans.”  But while his letter speaks to the restructuring or consolidation of programs and colleges, it also addresses the actions of senior administrators, which have been viewed as excluding faculty, staff, and students from meaningful and ongoing discussions regarding the stakes of transformation.

Academic agency and academic freedom have been, it seems to me, behind many of the concerns expressed regarding TransformUS.  The Provost’s dismissal of a tenured full professor has brought those concerns into sharp focus, and though the President of the University of Saskatchewan has apologized for what she has termed a “blunder” and has offered Dr. Buckingham tenure once more, his swift removal from the position of Executive Director of the School of Public Health points to what can been seen as a flawed understanding of academic freedom as that concept applies to administrative service and colleagues beyond the scope of our Collective Agreement.  To state, as our President has stated, that “once a decision is made at the institutional level, all senior leaders must publicly conform to that decision or resign their leadership role”[1] is to place artificial constraints on the ability of academic administrators to communicate analyses and alternative perspectives in a continuing public dialogue.

Instead of being guided by CAUT’s Policy on Academic Freedom for Academic Administrators, especially section 2,[2] the Provost and President seem to be following the 2011 AUCC Statement on Academic Freedom to the letter.  That statement asserts that “faculty must be free to take intellectual risks and tackle controversial subjects in their teaching, research and scholarship”[3]—but remains silent on the role of teacher-scholars in collegial processes, community activism, and university governance.  In this regard, the Provost and President have set a dangerous precedent for Canadian academic institutions and their administrators.

Their precedent has already had negative effects.  In my own case, an inter-institutional dissertation committee, which I arranged for one of my doctoral students in order to draw upon regional strengths in Modernist studies, may no longer be possible.  My faculty colleague at the University of Regina has, regretfully but with impressive integrity, indicated his intention to withdraw from his adjunct position in our College of Graduate Studies: he is not willing to be seen to support administrative practices that would punish a scholar for speaking publicly about a public institution.

To return to the TV episode my cousin has used, I believe that interpretations of AUCC guidelines that would end debate represent an illusory understanding of academic freedom as it applies to the spectrum of our responsibilities and activities.  The reality—pleasant or not—is a need for broad and unsubordinated participation in collegial governance, as well as in national and international organizations committed to academic freedom in all its guises.

Please note: the views expressed in this opinion piece are not intended to represent the perspectives of my colleagues in the Department of English.


[1]See: https://pawsapps.usask.ca/announcements/attach/1135125/University%20of%20Saskatchewan%20reconsiders%20part%20of%20decision%20-%20FINAL.pdf

[2] “The exercise of academic freedom serves the common good of society and should not be constrained by appeals to such notions as loyalty to administrative leadership, cabinet solidarity, management rights, commitment to a team, or speaking with one voice.” – See more at: http://www.caut.ca/about-us/caut-policy/lists/general-caut-policies/policy-statement-on-academic-freedom-for-academic-administrators#sthash.2oYhuSwE.dpuf

[3] See: http://www.aucc.ca/media-room/news-and-commentary/canadas-universities-adopt-new-statement-on-academic-freedom/


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