Saskatchewan, Academic Freedom, and the Tarkin Doctrine (or, Why Reinstating Dr. Buckingham Solves Nothing)

An apology forced under duress is worthless.

You are aware of this already if you’ve ever been the parent of two small children who fight. It’s one thing to reprimand a child who acts without empathy or consideration, and teach him or her how to express remorse in the form of an apology. It’s another thing altogether to get very angry until a frightened child, in the spirit of self-interest, spits out an apology he or she doesn’t really mean.

Parents of small children know what kind of bitterness and misgivings still smolder under the surface of the coerced apology. They know that no lesson has really been learned here, and that the same inappropriate anger that prompted the first outburst is still there, waiting for another opportunity to assert itself as soon as Mom and Dad aren’t looking.

Toddlers, like certain executive administrators, are really really really sorry, as long as you’re looking right at them.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the recently-reversed firing of Dr. Robert W. Buckingham, the affable, quietly courageous professor at the University of Saskatchewan whose about-face reinstatement is a personal victory for himself and for outraged academics who rallied around him, but does little to address the festering concerns that got him forcibly ejected in the first place.

 EDIT: USask’s president, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, now states it was “never the case” that Dr. Buckingham was banned from the university for life. Now I just don’t know whom to believe—a disgraced administrator desperately backpedaling in full-on public relations damage-control mode, or every major reliable news service in Canada, all of whom seem completely unafraid of libel when they publish that he was indeed banned for life. She further states the case was “not about academic freedom,” a desperately normative statement that will not become descriptive no matter how sincerely she might actually believe it.

Whatever the specifics of Dr. Buckingham’s case are, we need to see them as a symptom rather than a disease. We are a culture that praises larger-than-life heroes, and our first instinct is to make one out of Dr. Buckingham—perhaps to his surprise as much as anyone’s. But his firing reveals some terrible things about how the University of Saskatchewan is administered—perhaps even about how all of Canadian academia is administered—and an offer to rehire him amounts to treatment of the symptom, so that the disease can continue to metastasize unchecked. To couch it in a different metaphor, Dr. Buckingham’s firing pulled up the carpet of academia to reveal the rotten floor and termite infestation we suspected was there, but never really had to confront. I’m relieved to see him rehired, but this amounts to hastily hammering the carpet back down. It undoes the shocking act that revealed the rot, but does not amount in any way to addressing the reasons the carpet was pulled up in the first place.

Of special concern in Dr. Buckingham’s letter of dismissal is the offense of “egregious conduct,” given as one of the reasons for his termination and forcible ejection from the grounds. Egregious, as philologists/Classicists know, comes from the Latin e + grex, or “out of the flock.” In no uncertain terms—in fact, rather literal ones—the reason given for Dr. Buckingham’s dismissal was “for conduct counter to the uniformity of the flock.” Dr. Buckingham was fired, as his letter of dismissal proudly proclaims, for daring to stand apart from the sheep.

Henceforth, the red apple shall be the symbol of courageous teachers everywh…oh wait, it is.

Let’s consider the implications, not just in Dr. Buckingham’s case, but in the case of all faculty at the University of Saskatchewan—because it is here we transcend the specific case of one professional dispute to see the large-scale affront to academia itself. Although we have not yet seen Dr. Buckingham’s employment contract (I imagine a release or leak will follow, now that the country’s eyes are riveted on this scandal), I fully expect a contract which protects and indemnifies the University against a wrongful dismissal suit. Whatever noble arguments we might make about the ideals of academic freedom, Vice-President Fairbairn’s letter makes crystal clear the University’s position that by exercising his academic freedom to voice dissent, Dr. Buckingham broke the terms of his employment contract. A civil suit on behalf of Dr. Buckingham alone would thus be an uphill, and perhaps a losing, battle.

At issue is not whether Dr. Buckingham broke contract terms that could be, and have been, twisted to stifle his own academic freedom. At issue is that he was forced to accept such terms at all as a condition of employment. If his contract, as I suspect, contained boilerplate language common to all USask faculty contracts, the real issue is that every faculty member on campus, from the casual part-time sessional lecturer to the other tenured Deans, operates under the same sword of Damocles. There, but for the grace of a single horse’s hair, goes each and every scholar who has signed a similar contract. Had he been stripped of his administrative post, the Deanship, the University could defensively say that this was a reasonable consequense for an executive breaking confidentiality terms. But the outright firing of Dr. Buckingham, the cutting of his professorial thread, amounts to a twanging of all those other strings. It is a chest-beating reminder that contradicting the policy-marketing agenda of senior administrations will be met with a swift and permanent end to the most prestigious of careers. The unconscionable restrictions placed on Dr. Buckingham are thus not isolated but endemic: this is no longer one man’s civil matter, but a matter of sweeping university policy, on which accreditation can and should hinge. What difference does the pardon under duress of one faculty member make, when hundreds more are still subject to dismissal on the same administrative whim?

In the days before 9/11, when “terrorism” meant something other than politically motivated crimes using explosives and other weapons, this firing would have constituted a coercion rooted in terrorist strategy. Re-hiring Dr. Buckingham reverses the wrongs done to him, but not to the rest of academia who was sent a message by his firing—a message sent with all the civility and professionalism of a severed horse’s head. “Interfere with the public branding of our questionable new agenda,” USask reminds its employees, “and neither tenure nor prestige nor the irrefutable truth of your criticism will stop us from destroying you—professionally speaking, of course.”

Or perhaps, with the press-on smile that so often accompanies political and professional threats, “hey, that sure is a nice-lookin’ career you got there. Be a real shame if, y’know, something happened to it. So, what was it you were saying about TransformUS?”

Dr. Buckingham—clearly a massively muscled bruiser, coiled and ready to strike at any moment, his bespectacled eyes wild and deadly, his bow-tie barely containing his unstoppable ferocity. No wonder he was considered enough of a risk to be escorted out by campus police. Even the bravest would quiver before such a menacing scowl. #sarcasm

Those most threatened by this approach, in reality, are USask’s largest source of funding: its student body. If a decorated and tenured professor can be summarily dismissed and ejected from campus with all the expedience and indignity of being hurled through the window of an Old West saloon, how much more vulnerable are those smallest members of the scholarly community? Would the CAUT stand up with equal force to the lifetime expulsion of a student who dared to criticize the party line with the same audacity?

USask’s undergraduate students, especially, should be lauded for their courage in this matter. Many have been fearless in voicing their shame and outrage in support of a professor whom few probably knew personally.  Several alumni, from this year’s graduates to MSVU professor and former Halifax Poet Laureate Lorri Neilsen Glenn, have publicly admitted the temptation to send back their University of Saskatchewan degrees. This is significant because it’s not always about personal support for Dr. Buckingham, who has seemed in comments appropriately baffled by the sudden national interest in his professional life. No, this is not Dead Poets Society, in which students are voicing their solidarity with a figure whose personal super-charisma has won them over as inseparable friends. For the most part, Canada’s academics, from its first-year students to the CAUT itself, stand in support of a symbolic stranger to them, not in defense of a person so much as in defense of a principle. They stand with him because they are standing up against the idea that academic freedom, critical thinking, and even the importance of tenure can be so ostentatiously betrayed.

The groundswell of solidarity that has formed behind Dr. Buckingham is, I hope, agitated about the disease as much as by the symptom; it is my hope that they will not be satisfied by a mere offer of reinstatement. First-year students may not, by and large, be equipped to understand the seriousness of USask’s affront to academic freedom in the context of certain schools in Iran, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates, among whose policies we find a certain kinship to the policies of the USask senior administration. What first-year students invariably do understand, however, is the movie Star Wars—at least to a sufficient extent to recognize that the administrative response to Dr. Buckingham is part of a management theory we’ll call the Tarkin Doctrine.

“TERMINATE HIM. IMMEDIATELY”: A scene from George Lucas’s “Special Edition” director’s cut of Buckingham’s dismissal  letter.

In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the Tarkin doctrine is fleshed out into a manifesto of surprising richness and detail; in the film itself, the philosophy is condensed to a single line of dialogue coldly delivered by Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin:

“Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”

Call Dr. Buckingham the sacrificial Alderaan of this extended metaphor, if you wish: his professional obliteration by the senior administration had less to do with his own threat, and more to do with the politics of fear intended to keep TransformUS’s many other objectors quivering in silence. The target of this assault on academic freedom is not Dr. Buckingham specifically, so much as any scholar in Canada who sees in their academic freedom the right to question the PR branding, marketing, and wholesale hucksterism of agendas like TransformUS—an agenda whose original soundness or fallibility are both secondary, now, to the unconscionable academic bullying it now represents. Correspondingly, magically putting Alderaan back together would do nothing to retract the message sent loud and clear to the rest of the galaxy. And the cursory re-hiring of a professor (who retires in five weeks anyway) smacks of pandering theatrics, and does nothing to retract the campus-wide message of just how easily the administration can obliterate any dissenter, regardless of tenure, and how eagerly they are champing at the bit to do it. A cursory take-backsies, professionally speaking, does not retract the now-very-public reminder that Vice-President Fairbairn has a big red firing button in his office, and, more importantly, the will and audacity to push it without a hearing, without benefit of the doubt, without an ounce of protocol. If you zig when the executive tells you to zag, you’re done.

A cursory review of the Statement on Academic Freedom published by the AUCC—a document that every Canadian student and professor should read—reveals a fundamental concern with the rigor of enquiry afforded to faculty. In particular,

Faculty[…]must be free to examine data, question assumptions and be guided by evidence. Faculty have an equal responsibility to submit their knowledge and claims to rigorous and public review.

Dr. Buckingham’s academic and medical specialization, as his students will know, is in the field of hospice and palliative care. He has literally written the book on the subject, seven or eight times over, and has won not only substantial research funding but humanitarian prizes for his work in the field. It would certainly be convenient for the USask senior administration if Dr. Buckingham were to confine his practices of critical thinking and scientific scepticism to the narrow field they hired him to till. The interpretations of “academic freedom” they cite in their defense will doubtlessly skew toward the narrow: render unto Shakespeareans the right to criticize Shakespeare, and Marlowe if they’re lucky, but no more. Unfortunately for them, this is not how academic freedom works: nowhere is the limitation of field prescribed by the AUCC or any other accrediting body. I do not have to specialize in Canadian history to write about Louis Riel, nor be a groundbreaking astronomer to publish on the gravitational redshift of galaxies in motion. If I am incompetent in these areas (I am), that incompetence will bear out in my work, which will not find reliable publication because it won’t stand up to peer review. This is how academia works, and how the quality of scholarship, not petty human politics, continues to drive it in spite of increasingly politicized university structures.

Whatever the field, whatever the situation, all university faculty—but especially those tenured souls who are paid specifically for “research” and “service”—bear the right and responsibility to think critically, to question what they read, to approach ideas with an open but scientifically sceptical mind, and—particularly when they find evidence to be lacking or suspect—to engage with that evidence in a transparent, public, and professional manner.  These rights and responsibilities do not cease when the bell rings, nor do they take weekends off, nor can they be summarily revoked to serve the private agenda of a self-serving senior administration. For what it is worth, Dr. Buckingham had not only the right but probably the mandate to voice his disagreement with the TransformUS restructuring plan. Transparency is not just a thing old-fashioned professors throw up on overhead projectors: it is a cornerstone of academic research, and serves to separate reliable knowledge from so much snake oil.

It is perhaps for this greatest of crimes—the three deadly sins of transparency, open accountability, and academic honesty—that Dr. Buckingham was fired from his post. A hasty rehire under pressure from the Twitterverse is little more than a smoke show (though PR policy tells us it’s a good smoke show). The wrong committed by his dismissal has now been righted; the glass that was knocked over has been set upright again. Never mind that the glass was full when it tipped, or that the stain in USask’s presidential office rug is setting in fast. The glass is upright again; we can all stop tweeting, settle down, and relax knowing that we have saved the day…

…except that the problems exposed by Dr. Buckingham’s virtual defenestration are still there. I’m pleased on his behalf that he’ll probably get his retirement package back, at least, given how many years of outstanding work he did to earn it.  But Academia herself, who increasingly finds herself a mistreated trophy wife to administrators such as these, has been given a black eye. Publically buying her the pretty gold necklace of Dr. Buckingham’s rehiring is a very particular and not very adequate kind of apology. But until Academia screws up the courage to leave her power-drunk, corporatized administrators behind, to pack her bags and head out into the unknown territory of 21st-century education without their million-dollar-a-year “guidance,” we will sit with helpless concern while we wait to see how she is violated next.


“No, no, they love academic freedom here! It was my fault for speaking out of turn, really!”

In the meantime, I am an unemployed sessional lecturer without a permanent university affiliation. I cannot afford to jeopardize my academic prospects—and so speaking out at all in this way, under my own name, fairly terrifies me. There remains an institutional uneasiness around “fist-shaking,” even when it is for a good cause, and I must be very sure of my principles indeed (and more than a little brave) to make public my misgivings on the matter. I especially cannot afford to write off an entire school as a potential place of work or study—particularly USask, whose outstanding faculty, resources, and research programs were mostly there before President Busch-Vishniac and VP Fairbairn arrived, and will still (I hope) be there when they are remembered as nothing more than the bogeymen we tell our Deans about when we tuck them in at night.

Nevertheless, for the duration of their tenure, I am prepared to make a serious stand. I will not apply for or accept work from the University of Saskatchewan, nor conduct research on its campus, nor use materials on loan from it. This is not a decision I can afford to make in this climate, and yet, professional integrity demands that I must make it. I want no part of supporting an academic administration so opposed to academic principle; if the University is seriously opposed to alienating scholars the world over, it will take steps to form a new, transparent, accountable executive who listens to concerned faculty rather than throwing them out with the trash. If taking that stand means I have to take my PhD to the Department of Whopper Studies at Burger King, well—the superior job security and benefit package will be some consolation, at least.

Sessional lecturers are certainly the most precarious, disadvantaged, and marginalized sector of university faculty our system supports; but that is not to be confused with powerlessness. As those with the most to offer the USask senior administration (viz. we work cheap) and the least to gain from it (viz. I’m not kidding about the Burger King benefits), a corporatized university floats or sinks on the back of our charitable decision to devalue our teaching in the interest of keeping them afloat. Most of us do this gladly for our universities—well, maybe not gladly—because we believe in the mission and principles of higher education, and are willing to put our money (and labour) where our mouths are to ensure these things continue. Universities are still extraordinarily good for society. Academic enquiry, meetings of minds, and above all critical thinking are important and imperiled things, and our labour for the university sector in the name of all these principles is a labour of love. The very best top-tier university administrators understand this and match our selfless love of academic values with their own—and make no mistake; despite my calling to account of these administrators in particular, excellent and caring Presidents and Provosts can and do exist all over this country.

Those of us who love academia for what it can be, from the lowliest relief essay-marker to the choicest chancellor who ever chanced to chancel, have neither the desire nor the obligation to support this kind of administrative hubris. The President or Vice-President of a University is very well paid to be a school’s chief servant, not its chief master—and I am proud to hold back my award-nominated teaching at bargain-basement prices, to flip burgers while researching lost manuscripts if I must, So that I can better help to sustain those great institutions whose leaders recognize and take seriously this responsibility, leaders who truly value academic freedom and handle their great power accordingly. Recanting in a flurry of pandering the minute one comes under public scrutiny does not amount to ethics.

I hope there are other sessional lecturers, particularly those on whose immediate work the University of Saskatchewan depends, who feel the same way as I do. We have less obligation—and less to gain—than we think by accepting the work that keeps an upward-leaking corporatized ship afloat. We earn too much hardship for our trouble to squander our charity on captains who do not respect the basic principles of higher learning, however eager they are to smile and behave, like bullying toddlers, when they know they’ve been caught out. There are extraordinary executive administrators all over Canada who are beset by hard times and deserve our sacrifice and our help in the classroom. And we now see that they are decidedly elsewhere.

It is a heartening thing that in spite of the increasingly corporatized power structure of the 21st-century university, and in spite of damage done to universities by just how rapidly their operating budgets drain to the top, the real power over a university’s fate remains not in the hands of its ultimately replaceable executives, but in the hands of its great thinkers, whose commitment to the principles of scholarship still determines the fate of any university, even in times when (as the money men tell us) the vulgar problems of money are the largest problems we face.

I don’t think this is true at all, of course. Money is a big problem but it’s not the biggest. This is especially so, now, at the University of Saskatchewan, whose administrators have now brought to light so many problems surrounding the TransformUS scandal that it’s hard to know where to begin. One thing is for certain, however: while the reinstatement of Dr. Buckingham is unequivocally the right thing to do, and begins to right the private wrongs rendered to him personally, it is ultimately of little consequence toward addressing the chronic problems his firing reveals. The ability to professionally obliterate a tenured professor on a capricious whim is insignificant next to the power of sustained and cooperative efforts to maintain the integrity, freedom, and selfless love of knowledge that serve as the cornerstones of any great university.

This is an important mandate for every university; but for the University of Saskatchewan, it is an especially immediate and urgent issue. How it responds to the concerns of faculty, students, scholars, donors, investors, and external accreditors over the next few weeks will determine nothing less than the whole shape of its future in the landscape of Canadian universities. For all the concerns that Dr. Buckingham’s reinstatement fails to answer about the administration of this school, I am grateful and glad to see him reinstated. Let us hope that the University continues to act swiftly and decisively in the weeks ahead: this now-public spectacle is of nothing less than a university fighting for its life, and those of us whose home schools suffer from the “benign” early stages of corporatized administrative bloat would do well to observe what we can expect if the condition continues untreated. Despite all the stories we are told about the perennial money problems in this totally-unprecedented time of austerity (universities in Chaucer’s day suffered the same hardships), it is not bankruptcy but corporatization that will take apart the first casualties of this age of academic sickness.

The University of Saskatchewan is, in the terminology of hospice care, a fighter. It’s a strong school, home to great students, faculty, and ideas. I stand in solidarity with its students and its faculty, grateful though I am not to be one at this time. I am 100% in support of them during this difficult time, and hope the candour of my tone here does not misrepresent that.  I wish the very best for it in the weeks to come, I hope it pulls through, and I hope that a Dean who specializes in palliative medicine is, ironically, the last thing it needs to keep on staff.


3 thoughts on “Saskatchewan, Academic Freedom, and the Tarkin Doctrine (or, Why Reinstating Dr. Buckingham Solves Nothing)

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