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Robert Buckingham, until Wednesday May 14, 2014, was the dean of the University of Saskatchewan school of public health.

A tenured professor defied a gag order on speaking out against the University of Saskatchewan's plans to cut staff and cancel programs, leading not only to his dismissal but to a debate over the duties of management versus the privileges of academic freedom.

Robert Buckingham, dean of Public Health, was fired Wednesday for criticizing the university over its TransformUS project, which would see jobs lost and faculties combined in a bid to save $25-million. Dr. Buckingham believed his freedom of speech allowed him to express his concerns over how the university was restructuring. The university said senior leaders were expected to publicly support the school even if they felt otherwise.

That didn't sit well with Dr. Buckingham, who wrote a public letter Tuesday entitled "The Silence of the Deans" alleging that university president Illene Busch-Vishniac told a group of senior staffers their tenure "would be short" if they publicly opposed the plan.

When Provost Brett Fairbairn read "The Silence of the Deans," he arranged a Wednesday morning meeting with Dr. Buckingham. It lasted less than 30 seconds.

"He handed me a letter that said I was fired, my tenure was taken away, my benefits were taken away," Dr. Buckingham said. "I was expecting a reprimand. I couldn't believe they fired me over something like this."

Dr. Buckingham's staff at public health has been told not to talk him, he said. His peers at the university – and other universities, too – have called or e-mailed their support. Some admitted they were instructed not to talk to Dr. Buckingham.

In the termination letter, Dr. Fairbairn said Dr. Buckingham had "demonstrated egregious conduct and insubordination," adding that Dr. Buckingham's relationship with the university was "irreparably damaged."

"The University of Saskatchewan has high expectations of its senior leaders to support the university's directions and to lead their implementation," Dr. Fairbairn said. "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."

Dr. Buckingham responded by saying he didn't think "deans should be muzzled. It is a university. We should be able to have discussions. My staff has been told not to talk to me or they'll be fired."

Dr. Buckingham's termination letter was sent to the provincial government and read by the NDP. The university's statement noting that all school leaders are expected to publicly support the school's decisions was also read. It created a lively debate.

NDP Leader Cam Broten argued the provincial government needs to know what is happening at the university. Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris has said issues of organization and renewal are "the purview" of the university. He added that the accreditation [of the school of public health] "is not at stake."

The university is planning to merge public health with the college of dentistry under the college of medicine. Dr. Buckingham insisted it was better to keep the three schools separate, especially since public health had recently earned international accreditation. "Why complicate it by bringing in dentistry and public health when we have very strong independent schools?" he wrote.

Dr. Buckingham has spent 40 years in academics and has worked in hospice care. He has also spent time in Southeast Asia and Central America treating people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. He was appointed dean of Public Health at the U of Saskatchewan in 2009.

Last month, the U of Saskatchewan revealed its reorganization plans for this year and beyond. They included reducing staff, cancelling some programs and reorganizing administration. This was done in anticipation of a projected operating loss of $44.5-million by 2016.

With a report from the Canadian Press

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