When I first saw the letter below circulating on Twitter as of mid-day, seemingly issued on the letterhead of the office of the Provost and VP Academic at the University of Saskatchewan and signed by the current occupant of those positions, Brett Fairbairn, I paused for a moment to question whether it was real. Could any Provost or VP Academic in Canada truly believe that s/he can charge a colleague with “egregious conduct and insubordination” for his or her expression of concern about decisions being taken by administrators at his or her institution, and issue the kind of summary judgment to which this letter speaks?
The presumption of this letter and the decision taken by the University of Saskatchewan’s Provost and VP Academic is that members of the administration of a public university in Canada are not members of a collegium responsible to the public, but rather members of a secretive corporate elite that is free to require loyalty to itself over commitment to the academic values of reasoned critique and public declarations in the public interest. Whose interests does any such Provost believe he is serving when he issues such a letter in such haste that its mere twelve sentences can contain two noun/verb agreement errors? And from what authority does he believe he acts when he claims that he can not only fire a colleague who has questioned an administrative decision but declare that colleague “banned” from campus “for life”?
This is the action not of an academic defending the academy against “conduct” that he believes is threatening to it, but action akin to that of a feudal sovereign.
The letter is the clearest evidence yet this year that something has gone terribly awry with how public universities are being conceived of and run in Canada in 2014. In the face of it, University administrations across Canada should affirm their commitment to academic freedom and the fullest range of democratic critique from all of their academic staff members, including their administrators. If what Saskatchewan’s Provost claims is true — that Professor Buckingham is in breach of a contract that he would not “release or divulge any confidential or proprietary information” with which he had been “entrusted,” and the administration at Saskatchewan defines its plans for restructuring the University as falling into this class of “information” — then the University of Saskatchewan is requiring its administrators to sign a contract that no administrator at a public university in Canada should be required to sign, for any such contract is anathema to the principles of the academy. All aspects of any proposed reshaping of any of Canada’s public universities should always be fully public matters.
It is going to be interesting to see what the evening and tomorrow bring by way of further news from Saskatchewan. Here let us hear as swiftly as possible from the University of Alberta’s administration that our administrators are not required to sign contracts that keep them from engaging in public critique of administrative decisions. For let us not forget that the administrative decisions of a public university are primarily academic decisions, and in the academic decisions of the institutions of which they are a part every professor should have as full and as free a voice as he or she desires. Where anything occurs at a public university in Canada to suggest that anything other than this is true, all Canadians should be alarmed, for any assault on the free speech of an academic speaking up out of concern for his or her institution is an assault on the capacity for critique upon which the health of every democratic polity depends.