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Education Thompson Rivers University economics professor Derek Pyne returns to post after suspension

Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.

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A professor who was suspended after writing about colleagues who published work in low-quality academic journals will be allowed to return to teaching at Thompson Rivers University in January.

Derek Pyne, an economics professor, has been banned from the Kamloops campus since the spring. He has accused the university of violating his academic freedom, a claim the university denied.

His reinstatement comes days after the arrival of a new president at the university. Brett Fairbairn, a former administrator at the University of Saskatchewan, began his new job at TRU last Monday.

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In an interview, Mr. Fairbairn said Prof. Pyne’s return to teaching is the normal result of an internal process, although he’s unable to discuss the specifics of the situation. Privacy legislation prevents the university from discussing the reasons for Prof. Pyne’s suspension, TRU said.

Prof. Pyne said he believes the lifting of the suspension is a result of the attention his case has received in the media.

“They’re getting tired of the bad press,” Prof. Pyne said in an interview. Articles about Prof. Pyne’s case have been published across Canada, in The Economist and The New York Times.

Prof. Pyne published an article in 2017 in which he described the practice of publishing in “predatory journals,” a term for low-quality academic journals that are often not refereed or lack peer-review, and its impact on career advancement. He found it led to greater financial rewards than publishing in traditional journals and was correlated to receiving internal research grants. He has also said that some of his colleagues publish in such journals, including a candidate for an administrative job at TRU.

The university’s human resources department told Prof. Pyne last week he would be able to resume teaching in the winter term.

But Prof. Pyne believes the university is still trying to limit his academic freedom. They have asked him to stop writing Facebook posts that are “disruptive, threatening and defamatory,” he said. He interprets the request as a constraint on his efforts to discuss his research.

“They still don’t want me talking about these predatory publications,” Prof. Pyne said.

Prof. Pyne said the university’s justification for his suspension seems to change. At one point he was told it was because he had made allegedly defamatory statements about colleagues, and at another point he was told his colleagues were fearful of him, he said.

Mr. Fairbairn said the university’s expectations of Prof. Pyne are no different than those for any professor at TRU. He said he is committed to academic freedom and hopes in his new role to encourage a discussion on the topic.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is investigating whether TRU’s actions amount to a breach of Prof. Pyne’s academic freedom. The university has declined to participate, and has said the discipline has nothing to do with Prof. Pyne’s research.

In documents provided by Prof. Pyne to CAUT, in which he details some of the complaints against him and provides a response, it’s clear he had a strained relationship with some colleagues and administrators.

In 2014, an e-mail to the economics department announced the chair had won an award for leadership. Prof. Pyne replied to all his colleagues, “Actually I think that award must have been given out sarcastically.” He later apologized, he said in his report.

When a colleague expressed concern in 2015 that declining enrolment might lead to job losses in the economics department, Prof. Pyne said, “closing down a department is better than letting it get to the point where it is offering undergraduate programs as crappy as ours.”

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In December, 2017, he says he was allegedly overheard yelling at a student accused of plagiarism and getting within inches of the student’s face. Prof. Pyne denies yelling at him.

A few weeks later, the dean sent an e-mail requesting a meeting with Prof. Pyne, saying he was concerned about his dealings with colleagues. Prof. Pyne replied that he was busy, but referred the dean to the office hours posted outside his door.

The TRU Faculty Association has filed a grievance on Prof. Pyne’s behalf. Although he is being paid while suspended, he is seeking the repayment of two weeks' lost wages.

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