Twelve Unanswered Questions for President Ilene Busch-Vishniac

At the beginning of this very long night, I received the welcome news that the University of Saskatchewan’s Provost and VP-Academic, Brett Fairbairn, has “resigned,” which we all recognize as a common euphemism among people whose public image is more important than fact. Put simply, “resigning” is what these people do when they know they’re about to be fired, or about to suffer some even worse discipline or shame.

Examples: Richard Nixon, contrary to popular belief, was never impeached. He managed to avoid this by resignation. In general, it’s a tactic used frequently in the U.S. by police officers who commit serious crimes, for complex and crafty reasons involving how Internal Affairs jurisdiction works down there. Marshall Goff, the former police chief of Clarksburg WV, is a shining example of just how well this works, having somehow dodged federal charges of civil rights violations and making false statements to federal agents using this tactic.

It’s an interesting thought exercise to wonder, then, in any case of resignation, what events a resignation might be intended to avoid. We can’t really know in this case, because so much of the bus-throwing occurs behind doors, and because an administration in damage-control mode is not about to adopt a policy of transparency at a time when any more transparency than we’ve already got would endanger its accreditation.

Suffice it to say that Mr. Fairbairn, believing it in the best interest of his employer, has fallen on his sword like a gentleman. How he managed to fall on it backwards, though, with the point protruding through the front of his career, is a mystery to me. He seems as surprised as we are, almost as if he didn’t see his courageous sacrifice coming.

Admittedly, this has all been rather fast. It’s been less than a week since his cartoonishly furious dismissal letter of Dr. Robert Buckingham was penned. That letter has since backfired as completely and spectacularly as an ACME catapult, leading to a comeuppance that, if not truly Shakespearean, was at least Wile E. Coyotean.

“meep meep.”

The “resignation” affects Fairbairn’s post as Provost and Vice-President Academic (though he may, to my concern, return to teaching young people at USask). Whether his standing as a “Fellow in Co-operative Thought and Ideas” is in jeopardy, I don’t know—if anything, he may be eligible for a major grant from the Irony Foundation.

The question of the hour about Fairbairn’s resignation, however, is how much of the ongoing outrage, criticism, and (most importantly) scrutiny his departure is designed to draw from President Ilene Busch-Vishniac, whose limited and guarded public comments on the scandal sound as if they were written by lawyers using a campaign manager’s pen.

In the interest of keeping the spotlight where it belongs—the resignation of a provost is, we might say, “a good start”—here are twelve questions for President Busch-Vishniac I believe to be in the public interest. It may sound like a tautology, but until she answers each of these questions, whether directly or in the content of her public statements, all who are concerned with the unfolding scandal should be aware that she has not answered them.

Question 1.
In December 2013, in a meeting of senior administrators, you stated before witnesses that if anyone disagreed with the reorganization plan called TransformUS, “their tenure would be short.” What, specifically, you did you mean to communicate by way of the phrase “their tenure would be short”? 

Question 2.
What does “tenure” at the University of Saskatchewan entail, and who is entitled to revoke it, and under what conditions?

Question 3.
In one word (preferably “yes” or “no”), did you read Dr. Buckingham’s letter of termination before it was given to him? 

Question 4.
In one word, did you accept, approve, or otherwise agree with the premises, interpretations, and tone of that letter? 

Question 5.
In February of 2014, you denied statements by math professor Franz Kuhlmann to the effect that support pulled from academic programs under misleading premises of austerity and debt is being re-invested into administrative largesse and administration’s “pet projects” under the auspices of TransformUS. Are you willing to allow an independent auditor to test the truth of Dr. Kuhlmann’s allegations?

Question 6.
Explain to us in your own words the decision-making process by which it was initially decided that Dr. Buckingham would be fired, have his tenure immediately dissolved, and be escorted from the university by campus police. If you now genuinely believe the administration “blundered,” walk us through the anatomy of that blunder and offer us a transparent look at the process.

Question 7.
In your recent statements about Dr. Buckingham’s case, you wrote, “this case, however, is not about academic freedom.” The USFA Executive Committee representing your own faculty feels differently, finding this case to be “an attack on the principle of academic freedom.” This opinion was further supported by an open letter to Susan Milburn, the Chair of your Board of Governors, signed by some 970 leading academics from every university in Canada. Please explain, in your own words, why you believe these 970 signatories to be mistaken in their belief that academic freedom is an issue in this scandal.

Question 8.
You have characterized the criticism levelled against your administration as “inaccurate and undeserved.” Please identify any two inaccuracies of your choice levelled against you in this perfect storm of criticism, and convincingly correct those misunderstandings. If you can’t manage two, one will do.

Question 9.
What is your frank estimate of the damage done to your reputation and the University’s reputation as a result of this scandal, and what, if any, are your plans for restoring and re-establishing those reputations, if allowed to remain in your position?

Question 10.
In your public statement, you also stated: “This was not a decision made by one person. This was a decision made by my team. I am very comfortable standing here telling you it was the wrong decision.” Given the teamwork of the decision to terminate Dr. Buckingham in this fashion, coupled with the administrative desire for unified agreement with all official actions taken, please explain the rationale behind Dr. Fairbarn resigning while you continue to be “very comfortable standing there.”

Question 11.
In your first address as President of the University of Saskatchewan, on December 19, 2011, you stated: “the University is now extremely well-positioned to play a leadership role in teaching and learning, and in a number of areas of research.” How would you now characterize its positioning relative to these goals, after just 29 months of your stewardship?

Question 12.
Given the University of Saskatchewan’s multiple library closings, its current period of ballooning tuition, and this complete and unproven upheaval of faculty structures that we now see is vehemently opposed from both within and without, Why might a student want to attend the University of Saskatchewan in the next two years, rather than any other Canadian university?

Some of these are questions we desperately need better answers to. Some are questions for which we desperately need an answer at all. And others we may know the answer to already, though they may not be easy to admit. I don’t expect they’ll be answered, in any case. But I do expect readers (especially after the last post–what an explosion of people!) to read these questions, recognize that they are unanswered, and give that some serious thought.


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