The firing and subsequent rehiring of Robert Buckingham has brought the University of Saskatchewan into the national spotlight.
On May 14, Buckingham was fired from his tenured professorship and his position as executive director of the School of Public Health after publicly circulating a letter criticizing the proposed cost-cutting measures in TransformUS — a program-prioritization initiative intended to curb the projected $44.5 million deficit for the 2015–16 fiscal year — particularly changes which would place the School of Public Health under the College of Medicine. He was also critical university leadership disallowing faculty from speaking negatively about the controversial TransformUS program.
Buckingham said that in December, then-university president Ilene Busch-Vishniac had spoken apprehensively to vice-presidents and college deans about the oncoming implementation of TransformUS.
“The president said to her senior leadership forum… that our opinions should not be shared publicly if they disagreed with the process or we disagreed with the fineness of TransformUS, and if we disagreed publicly our tenure would be short,” Buckingham said
When the TransformUs task force recommendations were unveiled, Buckingham did not see the recommendation as beneficial for the School of Public Health, saying that he had tried to privately convince the administration for months afterwards to change their minds over the recommendation which would see the School of Public Health absorbed into the College of Medicine.
“The College of Medicine has enough problems on its own. It’s on probation and they have enough hurdles to overcome in a short time,” he said, adding that he didn’t want the U of S to risk jeopardizing the School of Public Health’s recently granted “international, prestigious accreditation.”
The morning after the letter was made public, Buckingham says that he was called into former provost Brett Fairbairn’s office. There, he was read his letter of termination and was then escorted off campus by two U of S Protective Services officers.
The letter of termination describes Buckingham’s conduct as having “damaged the reputation of the university, the president and the school.” The letter concluded by stating that all of Buckingham’s benefits and pension were terminated.
Buckingham said that he expected to be reprimanded. However, because he had only had five weeks remaining on his contract as the executive director of the School of Public Health, he did not believe that he would be fired and have his pension, tenure and professorship taken away.
“Deans serve at the pleasure of the president. She had the right to fire me, for cause or without cause, so I accept that,” Buckingham said. “I didn’t think she had the right to take my tenure away, take my pension away, take my administrative leave away, take my sabbatical leave away. But I respect her, I have no ill feelings towards her, I love this university.”
Only 24 hours after Buckingham was fired, amid mounting external pressure and public outcry, the university offered to reinstate Buckingham as a tenured professor. However, they would not allow him to continue as executive director of the School of Public Health.
Although Buckingham acknowledes the slim possibility, he is holding out hope that he will be reinstated as executive director of the School of Public Health.
Photo: Dawn Stranden