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Opinion When you're a university dean, 'toe the party line' isn't your job

Lindsay Tedds is an Associate Professor of economics in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria. You can follow her on twitter @LindsayTedds.

On Wednesday, Dr. Robert Buckingham, a full professor and Executive Director of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan, learned he had been fired from his position when he showed up to work that morning. He was met by two police officers and escorted from campus.

What was Dr. Buckingham's offense? He publicly spoke out about the president of the University of Saskatchewan 'threatening' deans and vice-presidents at the University of Saskatchewan not to "publicly disagree with the process or findings of TransformUS." In Dr. Buckingham's public letter entitled 'The Silence of the Deans', he indicates that the president suggested that any public dissent would be met with termination.

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While expecting employees to 'toe the party line' is common in most work places, it is not in academic institutions. In fact, academic staff are covered by what is commonly referred to as 'academic freedom.' While many think this policy of academic freedom only covers research activities, in many cases it also includes the freedom to criticize the university and its administration. This is true at the University of Saskatchewan where the collective agreement with its academic staff states that academic staff have the "freedom to criticize the University…without suffering censorship or discipline."

Where Dr. Buckingham's case gets a bit murky is that while he was academic staff at the time he made his comments, he was also a senior manager at the University. As a senior manager, he may not be covered by the collective agreement. That said, the collective agreement states that the University if free to manage its resources and affairs provided that "all decisions and actions taken [by the University] are not inconsistent with the provisions of this Agreement." Requiring senior managers to support actions of the University that they disagree with and terminating Dr. Buckingham for publicly criticizing the University for this behavior seems at odds with this language.

However, Dr. Buckingham's termination letter from the University also seems to suggest that Dr. Buckingham breached his confidentiality clause in his employment contract. Confidentiality clauses are common place for senior managers. While his employment contract is not publicly available at this time, such a clause would have to detail what is considered confidential information and to detail procedures for maintaining confidentiality. Whether releasing an e-mail that did not contain a confidentiality clause and reporting on the statements of the president of a public university constitutes a breach of this clause is a matter for the courts.

The role of a dean, such as Dr. Buckingham, is to provide leadership for and protect the integrity of their unit. Dr. Buckingham did exactly that in his criticism of the university regarding the treatment of his unit through the TransformUS process. I expect that his actions were likely met with a great deal of support from his unit, as well as from many academics across this country who wish their deans were equally courageous. In the eyes of many academics, the only ones who 'damaged the reputation' of the University of Saskatchewan were those complicit in attempting to censor senior academic staff and the firing of Dr. Buckingham. After all, the University of Saskatchewan is a public institution, supported by taxes and student payments. Debates regarding its management of these resources should be held openly and freely in the public sphere.

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