For many at TRU, preserving academic freedom is preserving the university’s way of life. While TRU is like any major institution and must uphold its reputation, many here realize that quashing dissent simply leads to lower morale for faculty and more stress for students.
When Brett Fairbairn was announced as TRU’s next president last month, TRU’s board of governors chair Jim Thomson said that Fairbairn had all the attributes the search committee was looking for.
What Thomson didn’t reveal at the time, was that Fairbairn had previously been involved in a tenure scandal at the University of Saskatchewan. Though the issue is now four years old, it recently resurfaced in an article published by Mel Rothenburger, the former editor of The Daily News, in CFJC Today.
In the spring of 2014, provost Fairbairn fired Robert Buckingham from his position as the head of the School of Public Health as well as his position as a tenured professor. Buckingham was then escorted off campus.
This came after Buckingham had published a paper voicing his concerns over the University of Saskatchewan’s new cost-cutting plan TransformUS, as well as criticizing his fellow deans and directors for their silence on the matter.
Whether or not Buckingham went overboard in his criticism of the University of Saskatchewan is up for debate, but nonetheless his firing caused an uproar over academic freedom. However, with a veritable firestorm emerging on Twitter and the reputation of UoS already damaged, Buckingham’s tenure was restored and he returned to work as a professor, though he later resigned.
Fairbairn also resigned from his position as provost, at the behest of then president Ilene Busch-Vishniac.
In a letter at the time, Fairbairn said that he was told by Busch Vishniac that — if he resigned — at least one of them “could survive the crisis.”
Not long after that, Busch-Vishniac was fired without cause by the board. Though both Fairbairn and Busch-Vishniac would return to UoS to teach, Busch-Vishniac eventually quit and sued the university for $8.5 million for unfair termination, that case is still being adjudicated.
Despite this, TRU board chair Thomson said that search committee had fully explored the issue.
“Our board of governors chair, Jim Thomson, said that the search committee had engaged Dr. Fairbairn on these issues from Saskatchewan, they were well aware and they were satisfied,” said TRUFA president Tom Friedman.
Friedman himself has his own concerns over the issue, yet believes that the controversy served as a learning experience for Fairbairn and universities across Canada in preserving academic freedom. As such, Friedman added that he’d like to personally talk with Fairbairn in the coming months before he takes his position as president.
“I welcome having that [discussion], but at this point he doesn’t become president until January,” Friedman said. “But if he would like to make an attempt to talk before then, I’m available and I think it would be really helpful to have those discussions before he takes office.”
While Friedman believes that this opportunity presents a fresh start for Fairbairn, he’s left wondering what exactly the search committee told Fairbairn about TRU’s own issues over the past few years.
“We have gone through a very difficult time over the last few years, we had a non-confidence vote in senior admin,” Friedman said. “Was Fairbairn informed of this, was he informed about what led to that non-confidence vote? What reassurances was he given about maybe a new attitude on the part of our senior administrators.”
While Friedman says that TRUFA and senior administration have been working together to repair the damage caused by the non-confidence vote, it is still something to be discussed. Alongside that, Friedman added that issues surrounding low faculty morale still need to be addressed.
“I keep getting indications from a large group of faculty that they are not particularly happy and that they need to have a greater say in determining what their programs are and that is not happening to the degree that it should be,” he said.
Looking into the future, Friedman concluded that academic freedom is something that needs to be protected at all levels of post-secondary education.
“There are so many examples across the country of violations of academic freedom, either by boards of governors or by administrators and I think we have to be really conscious that there are pressures and that there are reputational issues involved in running a university, but we are all stronger if we can air our criticisms in a respectful way in a mutually respectful environment,” Friedman said.