Skip to main content

Dr. Robert Buckingham was the Dean of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan who was fired and then re-hired.David Stobbe/The Globe and Mail

The university's president should be able to veto decisions over tenure in some circumstances, the University of Saskatchewan is arguing, as revelations over the process that led to the spring firing of professor Robert Buckingham are once again raising tensions on campus.

On Wednesday, an appeal court in Saskatoon will hear the university's case for allowing the president to weigh in, and even overturn, tenure recommendations, in what could be a precedent-setting battle.

The legal fight comes in the midst of new questions about the termination of the former dean of public health after he penned an open letter criticizing the school's budget review process. Last week, in a four-page letter that became public, former provost Brett Fairbairn argued that he and former president Ilene Busch-Vishniac were not in control of the firing.

An arbitrator ruled in March that then-president Peter MacKinnon did not have the authority to overturn a tenure recommendation for a sociology professor made in 2008 by committees tasked with that job. In late June, the university filed an appeal of that decision.

Launching the appeal has undone the "modest amount of goodwill" that had built up from the faculty since an international firestorm enveloped the school after Dr. Buckingham's firing, said Len Findlay, an English professor at the university and the chair of the academic freedom and tenure committee of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. The decision of the court is being watched by faculty associations across the country, Dr. Findlay added.

The university should not have sought an appeal of the arbitrator's decision, said Eric Neufeld, an executive member of the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association. "Rather than parties getting together and having a rational discussion, we're moving to a situation where we're fighting it out in court."

The court ruling was sought because the administration needs clarity on how powers can be delegated between the president's office and the board of governors, said Gordon Barnhart, the university's acting interim president.

"It's not an issue I am pushing either way."

Dr. Barnhart was appointed after Dr. Busch-Vishniac was terminated without cause after intense scrutiny from academics, students and even the provincial government over the decision on Dr. Buckingham.

Dr. Fairbairn, who delivered the dismissal letter to Dr. Buckingham and resigned shortly after, said in his letter that his "inclination" had been to only strip the former head of the school of public health of his position as dean, not of his professorship. At the time, Dr. Busch-Vishniac was away from campus and wrote by e-mail that she would stand behind "any actions" Dr. Fairbairn deemed necessary, before reportedly adding, "I supposed I should rule out beheading, although it is tempting right now." The letter goes on to attribute many of the most controversial aspects of the firing to the human resources department.

The university needs to have an inquiry into what happened, many faculty members say. "There's a mess, maybe even a crime scene and no one is to blame," said Dr. Findlay.