Robert Buckingham's U of S firing a case of tenuous tenure

The notion of academic tenure as a virtual guarantee of lasting employment may be under threat, labour experts and teachers say, after the University of Saskatchewan fired a popular dean for criticizing the institution's budget cuts.

Tenure was like 'armour' for job security decades ago, fired U.S. professor says

Tenured prof. fired after criticizing university

9 years ago
Duration 1:43
'What happened at the University of Saskatchewan is anathema to what a university is and should be. It's unprecedented and, left unchecked, the impact of this could be really chilling.': Jim Turk

Tenure has long been seen as a virtual guarantee of lasting academic employment, but it may be under threat after the University of Saskatchewan fired a popular dean for criticizing the institution's budget cuts.

So say teachers and labour experts who believe that the dismissal of Prof. Robert Buckingham could have a chilling effect on other faculty who openly question top administrators.

"I'm actually staggered," Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said from Ottawa.

"What happened at the University of Saskatchewan is anathema to what a university is and should be. It's unprecedented and, left unchecked, the impact of this could be really chilling."

Turk said tenure doesn't necessarily translate to "having a job for life," but achieving that contractual right should protect a senior academic from being terminated without "a just and rigorous process."

Security guards escorted Buckingham out of the building on Wednesday, the same day the Saskatoon-based university stripped him of his tenured faculty position. A termination letter reasoned that by speaking out against the school's restructuring plans, Buckingham "demonstrated egregious conduct and insubordination" and was in breach of contract.

He was also banned for life from the campus.

Others kept jobs in face of scandal

Toronto labour lawyer Don Eady said it was highly unusual that Buckingham not only lost his post as dean of the School of Public Health, but was also removed from his tenured faculty position.

Tenure used to be an armour back in the '50s and '60s.—Fired University of Illinois professor Louis Wozniak

"My general understanding is tenure allows you freedom to speak out in any and all issues," he said.

Eady said the purpose of tenure in the first place is to protect academic freedom, "allowing you to go down whatever research rabbit holes you want, to explore what might be unpopular, and to have job security."

As for what it should take to lose tenure, Eady said an offending professor would have to go so far as to "commit some crime or significant breach, or show a personal moral turpitude."

Buckingham's supporters argue his public disagreement with the university's use of resources — shared in a six-page letter titled The Silence of the Deans — are tame compared to the actions of professors such as James Barsness, a University of Georgia professor who lost his tenure last year for having public sex with a student.

Still others managed to cling to their jobs and tenure despite public controversy or their expression of outrageous views.

University of Western Ontario psychology professor J. Philippe Rushton appeared in the 1980s on the TV programs Geraldo and The Phil Donahue Show to argue that different races had different brain sizes.

In Buckingham's case, Eady said, "I can't imagine that he crossed any sort of line — if there is a line."

'Popular' professor fired in Illinois

Yet Rushton kept his tenure, even while facing allegations of racism and calls for him to be turfed.

Frank Underhill's anti-imperialist writings nearly got him sacked at the University of Toronto in the 1930s, but administrative attempts to fire him were blocked by Underhill's tenure.

The University of Illinois fired former engineering professor Louis Wozniak in 2013, after the popular instructor clashed repeatedly with school administrators. (Courtesy Louis Wozniak)

In the 1990s, a committee at Harvard University investigated professor and psychiatrist John E. Mack owing to Mack's eyebrow-raising research on alien abduction experiences. Although some still consider Mack to be an embarrassment to the school, he also kept his post and his tenure.

Less fortunate was Louis Wozniak, a former engineering professor who made headlines last year when the University of Illinois fired him for launching disputes over being denied a student-voted teaching award.

Wozniak, described as a "popular" teacher who had won the award several times in the past, said he could sympathize with Buckingham over losing tenure. Over Wozniak's 52-year career at the university, he developed a history of being combative with administrators.

"It sounds familiar. A different cause, but the results are the same," the 76-year-old retiree said from his home in Mahomet, Ill.

'There's no winning'

"Tenure used to be an armour back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Not anymore."

Told that Buckingham has retained a lawyer, presumably to mount a case for a wrongful dismissal, Wozniak warned the legal fees will be steep.

"Tell Buckingham that he'd better have a lot of money, and he'd better be willing to flush it down the toilet," he said. "You know what it cost me to go through all the way to a hearing on academic freedom and tenure? One hundred and twenty thousand dollars to take me from Day 1, all the way to where the board of trustees are. And there's no winning."

Turk, with the Canadian Association of University Teachers, was more optimistic.

"What we hope is the senior administration at the University of Saskatchewan will realize they've made a serious mistake," he said, adding that he wants administrators to understand they can't expect instructors not to engage in a free flow of ideas in a campus culture, even if those ideas are contrary to a university's position.

"But they can fix this, reinstate Buckingham and apologize, and everybody will move on," he said. "Or we'll pursue this with whatever's necessary to restore the integrity of the university."


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