Skip to main content

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.

Robert Buckingham never imagined he would become a man at the centre of a firestorm, an academic hero worldwide, the recipient of dozens of phone calls and notes congratulating him for sticking to his principles in a very public, very divisive spat with the University of Saskatchewan.

The forever smiling, bowtie-wearing professor who was fired and rehired for speaking out against his institution says he thought the attention would die down, but he is still being contacted by former colleagues as far away as France and Denmark. All of them expressed their support when Dr. Buckingham was fired Wednesday and their satisfaction when he received an offer to come back as a tenured professor just 24 hours later. Not only that, the professor/dean of the School of Public Health garnered an apology from the U of S president, who admitted the school had committed a "blunder" in how things unfolded.

"An academic hero? I don't know about that …," Dr. Buckingham said Friday. "I think [the issue] is about academic freedom – can deans speak out? What can a university dean do?"

Dr. Buckingham alleged president Ilene Busch-Vishniac said tenures would be cut if anyone publicly bad-mouthed TransformUS, the university's plan to reduce jobs and combine faculties in a bid to slice $25-million from the school's budget. So he wrote a letter criticizing the university's approach, dubbed it The Silence of the Deans and went public with it.

On Wednesday, after reading his letter, U of S provost Brett Fairbairn handed Dr. Buckingham a termination letter. Dr. Buckingham was told his benefits were gone and he was banned from campus. He was escorted out by a pair of security guards.

The reviews of how the university had acted were not kind. "It was an overreaction to criticism," said Laurentian University biology professor Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde. "I don't think the president of the U of S is going to be having a good time after this is said and done."

In media interviews, Dr. Buckingham said he was surprised at being fired instead of reprimanded. Professionally, the Connecticut-born son of a Boston banker and a New York fashion designer was schooled at the University of Arizona before moving on to Yale. He was the dean of public health at New Mexico State University. He has done hospice work around the world and researched HIV/AIDS in Southeast Asia and Central America. He has a resume loaded with grants and awards and papers he's had published.

Personally, he knows how to go the distance. "I've done Ironman and triathlon events, about 300," he said. "I do long-distance cycling."

When Saskatchewan hired Dr. Buckingham in 2009, it was counting on him to start a School of Public Health that would earn heightened status for the university. That's what he did.

So when the university fired him, it turned Dr. Buckingham into a rallying point, with other administration members in other faculties wondering where they stand. For now at least, there hasn't been any backlash from the school's major corporate donors, with several saying they will not take a position.

Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. falls into the $5-million-and-over category on the university's list of donors. "The university hasn't had a great week, but it certainly wouldn't change our association in any way," said Potash Corp. spokesman Bill Johnson.

Dr. Buckingham hasn't decided yet if he will accept the school's offer to return as only a tenured professor, not dean – though he's set to retire in just over a month. He called the IT department Friday asking if his university e-mail could be reopened and was told the school had yet to allow it.

"[Speaking out] is the nature of who I am," he said. "I believe in the ability to express yourself freely without repercussions. Unfortunately, I had repercussions."

But that hasn't stopped him from following his own advice. "I tell my students, 'A smile is a crooked line that puts everything straight.' Smiling unleashes the soul. I do it every day."

With a report from Carrie Tait in Calgary