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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2014

University board wrong on basics

By Len Findlay
The term “tenure” can be ambiguous, as when former University of Saskatche­wan president Ilene Busch-Vishniac warned her team that if they disagreed publicly with the process or findings of Transform-US, their “tenure would be short.”

What remains unclear is whether she meant tenure in a senior administrative position or in a faculty position, or both. When Robert Buckingham eventually went public, he was stripped of both. Then a “blunder” was admitted, and Buckingham’s professorial tenure restored. But there’s apparently no willingness to restore his tenure as executive director of the school of public health.

Two conclusions might be drawn from this managerial overreach and obstinacy. First, it seems clear that the silence of the deans is still demanded by those at the top. There also seems to be broad agreement that tenure in an academic department should not be removed unilaterally from a member of faculty.

Meanwhile, we need to remember that no one has suggested that tenure means a job for life, regardless of one’s performance. Faculty swim in a sea of evaluation, and often are their own most severe critics.

Tenure must be governed by appropriate procedures such as those recommended by CAUT, and stipulated in collective agreements throughout the Canadian academy. The awarding and removal of tenure cannot be claimed as a unilateral management right or presidential fiat.

It has become more widely known as a result of the Sims arbitration of a grievance brought against the U of S by the Faculty Association that tenure has been vulnerable to presidential interference for longer than many had thought.

Former president Peter MacKinnon stated that the University of Saskatchewan Act authorized him to refuse to communicate a tenure decision to the board of governors. When that claim was discredited, Busch-Vishniac persuaded the board to delegate its authority to her.

As arbitrator Andrew Sims makes it clear, MacKinnon was wrong to seek, claim and exercise a right that properly resides with the board. And when that attempt was unsuccessful, his successor attempted an end run despite the fact that neither the president nor the board have the competence to determine on their own the academic merits of any tenure case. Those academic merits are what collegial process and external peer review alone can determine.

Alas, now we have another firestorm gathering because of the senior administration and the board.

The chair of the board is reported as saying that she and her colleagues will take a couple of months to “decide on a possible appeal” of the Sims decision, and that board members “need to hear from our stakeholders.” How stupid is that, especially in a situation where the U of S has become a global symbol of poor leadership and anti-academic interventionism? Interestingly, Susan Milburn, when she was vice-chair of the board, likened the university to a “high performing corporation.” Her corporate view of the academy was offered as an excuse for secrecy in most of the board’s activities, and to justify the need for generous compensation packages to ensure that the U of S leadership was top drawer.

Hasn’t that worked out well? Lavish executive compensation under the two presidents did not produce the outcomes the people of Saskatchewan are entitled to expect. And the appeal to corporate secrecy has facilitated poor decisions about tenure, and hence academic freedom.

You cannot uncouple the one from the other and still claim to be a university. Those who fail to understand this basic fact of academic life and institutional credibility have no right to be members of the board of governors of a university that deserves, needs and is accustomed to much better.

It is time for Milburn and the board of governors to resign, pending a full inquiry into how the current crisis was produced, protracted and worsened.

Len Findlay is a professor of English at the University of Saskatchewan and chair of CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.

This article first appeared in the 12 June 2014 edition of The Star Phoenix. Reprinted with permission.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

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