The purpose of academic freedom is simple: It is meant to protect a professor’s ability to research, publish and advance scholarship without interference. It allows professors to pursue academic inquiry with autonomy and integrity. It is the freedom of academics to be academics. It is not the right of anyone working at a university to say or do anything, without limits. And it doesn’t apply equally to professors and senior administrators – two distinct roles, even if the latter are almost always also the former.
Which brings us to the case of Professor Robert Buckingham, former dean of the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Public Health. Last week he was fired, then partly rehired, after publicly opposing the school’s restructuring plan. While the university made many mistakes in its dealings with Dr. Buckingham, infringing his right to academic freedom was not one of them.
Dr. Buckingham, a tenured professor, was ousted after penning an open letter he titled “The Silence of the Deans.” He alleged that he and others had been warned by senior administrators that their deanships would be cut short if they voiced opposition to the school’s plans to shave $25-million from its budget through cutting jobs and combining faculties – including his own.
At the time, he wore two hats. He was a professor, but he was also a senior university manager. Most universities will tolerate all kinds of criticisms from university professors, and they should – even if criticizing the university administration isn’t, strictly speaking, a matter of academic freedom.
But Dr. Buckingham wasn’t an academic taking a shot at the administration. He was a member of the administration taking a shot at the administration. It can’t be plausibly argued that, simply by virtue of being an academic, he had a right to publicly criticize the management team that he was part of. Once he went public with his criticisms, something had to give: Either he had to go, or the senior administrators in his sights had to.
By airing his grievances, he put the university in an awkward position. The school overreacted, summarily firing Dr. Buckingham from both the deanship and his professorship. It could have asked Dr. Buckingham to step down only from his administrative role; to the school’s credit, it realized its error and offered to restore his professorship. Which means that as an academic, he remains as free as ever to pursue his research and to publish. His academic freedom, emphasis on “academic,” remains intact – as it was all along.