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Education University of Saskatchewan tries to repair some of dean’s ‘irreparably damaged’ ties to school

Robert Buckingham, until Wednesday May 14, 2014, was the dean of the University of Saskatchewan school of public health. He was subsequently re-hired the following day.

The University of Saskatchewan offered Robert Buckingham the chance to return to work just 24 hours after insisting he had "irreparably damaged" his relationship with the school by speaking out against it.

But Dr. Buckingham said he doesn't know if he will accept the offer made Thursday because it comes with a catch. The university is willing to reinstate Dr. Buckingham as a tenured professor, but it will not allow him to carry on as dean of the School of Public Health.

Not knowing if there are other conditions attached to his return has Dr. Buckingham seeking answers about what to do next. He spoke to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) on Thursday, for advice.

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"I've heard [the university] has rescinded part of the termination letter," Dr. Buckingham said. "They say I can come back as a tenured professor. I still don't know what that means."

Dr. Buckingham drew the wrath of the university's management when he made public a letter headlined The Silence of the Deans. In it, he alleged he and others were warned their tenures would be cut short if they made public comments against the school's TransformUS project. (As part of that plan, jobs will be cut and faculties combined to save $25-million.) If the school had not offered to reinstate him as a professor, its actions could have made it difficult for any academic to take an administration post at the university, fearing their jobs would be at risk if they disagreed publicly with the institution.

When U of S Provost Brett Fairbairn read the letter, he called Dr. Buckingham in for a meeting on Wednesday, then handed him a termination letter. In it, Dr. Buckingham was told he had "demonstrated egregious conduct and insubordination" and that his relationship with the school was "irreparably damaged."

The professor, who is five weeks from retiring, said he was surprised at the severity of his punishment. So were others.

Saskatchewan's Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris pushed the university's officials for answers and sent a letter to their board of governors.

Dr. Buckingham's faculty peers at the university and across the country called, e-mailed or texted their support. U of S students put up posters slamming school officials for their decision. The poster featured a portrait of Dr. Buckingham with a piece of tape over his mouth inscribed with the words "TransformedOUT."

"It was a tidal wave of outrage," said Jim Turk, executive director for CAUT. "And it has come from other countries, France, the U.S. … [Dr. Buckingham] wasn't given rigorous due process. He was fired in 30 seconds, that doesn't sound like rigorous due process to me."

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University president Ilene Busch-Vishniac issued a statement Thursday saying the university had "been on the receiving end of inaccurate and undeserved criticisms launched from across the country." The president added that reports that Dr. Buckingham had been banned from campus were erroneous. "Let me set the record straight," she said. "That was never the case."

As for why the U of S was so hard-line in its initial decision, Dr. Busch-Vishniac said, "Academic freedom and tenure are sacrosanct at the University of Saskatchewan. This case, however, is not about academic freedom. Dr. Buckingham was removed from his executive director position for acting contrary to the expectations of his leadership role."

The university also cited "confusion" for firing Dr. Buckingham from both posts.

For all the hostility flying back and forth, Dr. Buckingham wanted it known he has no plans to sue the university, nor does he have any "ill feelings" over what has transpired. He said that when he took the job at Saskatchewan in 2009, he was going to stay only for five years.

Asked if he had heard about his poster, the one students put up around campus as an act of defiance, Dr. Buckingham replied: "I hope the kids don't get in trouble – but the tape across the mouth, I sort of liked that."

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