Friday, May 16, 2014

Hero creation at the U of S

Big, bald, bespectacled Robert Buckingham cuts an imposing figure. When University of Saskatchewan security officers waltzed him off campus and out of his job, I would have paid good money to see him shake them off.

It’s unlikely he did so, having behaved with aplomb and integrity throughout the debacle that saw him stripped of tenure, pension, position and his executive directorship of the School of Public Health earlier this week.

It was a bold and dangerous move for Buckingham to publicly question the university’s administrators on the TransformUS process of cost-cutting and college amalgamation. After considerable deliberation among lawyers, academic leaders and others – according to president Ilene Busch-Vishniac – Buckingham was removed from his role. But far from an act of resolute managing, firing Buckingham and frogmarching him off campus was the act of petulant, arrogant and short-sighted administrators.

The resulting firestorm over public speech in academia has partly changed their minds. It wasn’t because they did the wrong thing and tried to right it. It was, like Nixon, because their mistake was caught – by a diligent media and international public opinion.

Buckingham has been partly reinstated, but it’s too late for that to mitigate public fury. Busch-Vishniac, who does not appear to have taken any personal responsibility for the fiasco, will not back down from firing Buckingham as executive director, which is where this issue really rests. Buckingham will not back down from his anti-muzzling essay, The Silence of the Deans, which started the whole thing. We have stalemate, to that extent.

But in the court of public opinion, the knives are out for U of S management, while Buckingham’s freedom of speech stance is garnering enormous support from students, academics, commentators, and apparently the provincial government.

What’s fascinating about this mess is how the U of S has in one mad act compromised the brand it was obsessively trying to defend, by insisting its leadership could not speak out about TransformUS and firing the first manager to do so.  

Their actions may have long-reaching repercussions. They could certainly affect the future recruitment of qualified professors – including Buckingham’s replacement -- and international and Canadian students. Even as the U of S tries to cut costs, such a public relations disaster may also affect the future funding it will increasingly need. These are issues the administration should have evaluated before attacking Buckingham.

Perhaps the entire event is unsurprising in an environment where speaking out, speaking up, or just speaking at all is becoming an increasingly rare act due to fears of reprisal. The federal government, for example, has also taken the approach of managing the message from all of its bureaucrats, and that includes scientists. Heaven help the journalist seeking information from a researcher, who must wade through layers of communications officials before saying anything – or nothing.

The right of the public to know what is going on at all levels of government and at tax-funded institutions is being trampled -- or at least, the effort is being made. If there is a positive outcome to this case, it will be that it shows muzzling policies can come back to bite the organizations that instituted them.

Busch-Vishniac needs to take a page out of Michael McCain’s communications playbook, and quickly. McCain, head of his family’s eponymous meat firm, was abject in his apology over his company’s listeriosis crisis a few years ago. His approach essentially saved his company. The buck stops at the president’s office, and she needs to apologize, personally and absolutely, to even have a hope that this will go away.

The U of S has done much more damage to its reputation than the brave and outspoken Buckingham could possibly have done himself. In the process, it has created a hero.