Robert Buckingham

Must Deans Be Silent?

May 19, 2014

"The Silence of the Deans" is a two-page document in which the dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan, Robert Buckingham, recounts a meeting of deans, vice presidents, and the most senior administrators of the university in December 2013. At the meeting, Buckingham wrote, President Ilene Busch-Vishniac said that if anyone publicly disagreed with Transform US, her reorganization plan for the university, their "tenure would be short."

Busch-Vishniac was true to her word. Buckingham's document not only detailed the way deans were told to back the project, but explained why he didn't. He said that parts of the plan that would place the public health program into the medical school could endanger the public health program's accreditation -- and he included documents showing that accreditation could be endangered, as well as a warning he received from the provost telling him not to talk in public about his concerns about accreditation.

The day after the document was released, Busch-Vishniac had Buckingham fired -- initially from both his dean's position and a faculty job, although following a day of protests from many Canadian academics, she said he could hold on to his faculty job. But in a statement, she reiterated her belief that deans must never disagree with the president in public.

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"Dr. Buckingham is not only permitted but encouraged to have opinions that might disagree with those developed by top administrators," she said. "However, once a decision is made at the institutional level, all senior leaders must publicly conform to that decision or resign their leadership role."

Buckingham's firing attracted considerable attention in American academic circles from people who don't normally follow the University of Saskatchewan or have strong feelings about its public health school. That's because of the issues it raises about academic leadership.

In much of the business world, hierarchies are clear and middle managers are expected not to publicly disagree with their bosses. But in academe, traditions are different. Faculty members routinely blast their bosses' decisions, and that's part of the tradition of shared governance. But what of deans, who are academic leaders, generally with deep academic roots? Does the nature of academic freedom and shared governance protect them, or must they be yes-men (and women)?

For non-academic administrators, courts in the United States have backed the authority of colleges to dismiss administrators who take public positions contrary to those of their institutions. Federal courts found, for example, that the University of Toledo was within its rights to dismiss its head human resources administrator in 2008 when she wrote a letter to the editor taking issue with gay rights. She sued, arguing that her free speech was being violated. But a district court and then an appeals court found that the university was legally entitled to not have someone in a human resources position speaking against the equity stance of the institution.

Even some champions of free speech for faculty members say that the rights of administrators are limited.

Robert O’Neil, former president of and professor of law at the University of Virginia, and author of Academic Freedom in the Wired World: Political Extremism, Corporate Power, and the University (Harvard University Press). said that faculty members "who hold academic deanships enjoy somewhat less freedom" than they do in their professorial roles. He explained, using the former Harvard president as an example, that "Larry Summers enjoyed complete freedom to speak on gender disparity as an economist but not necessarily as president."

And the loss of some degree of academic freedom may start below the dean's level, at the faculty chair level, he said. When Ward Churchill became controversial in 2005 over statements he made about 9/11, O'Neil noted, he resigned as chair of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. (He lost his tenured faculty job subsequently over research misconduct, after the university concluded that his 9/11 comments were protected speech.) "Ward Churchill would almost certainly have been dismissed as chair of ethnic studies at Colorado had he not immediately resigned that slot," O'Neil said.

Many experts on higher education administration agree that deans face limits that faculty members do not. Walter H. Gmelch, professor of leadership studies at the University of San Francisco, and co-author of Seasons of a Dean's Life (Stylus), said that, as a dean, "you are entitled to academic freedom but uppermost you are part of the university's leadership team." He said that when a dean can't support the president's position, "one needs to be respectfully silent in public or at least respectfully disagree and possibly decide it is time to seek another position."

Others disagree and point to definitions of academic freedom that include "intramural speech," which is the debate that involves the direction of colleges and universities.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said via email that even though his group does not get involved in disputes in Canada, "I was appalled by what happened at the University of Saskatchewan."

"While scholars of academic freedom sometimes do not agree on the importance of 'intramural speech,' " Lukianoff said "I believe it should be protected. Universities should serve as models of open discourse, taking full advantage of the benefits of feedback and discussion. To be clear, even in the U.S. an administrator in an leadership position can be removed from their position by the administration for good cause, but doing so merely because an academic dean was critical of a university president sets a terrible precedent that is unworthy of a great university."

Timothy J. Burke, a professor of history at Swarthmore College who writes frequently about trends in academe, wrote on Facebook about why he thought Buckingham's dismissal was important to so many faculty members and administrators at a range of institutions.

"This is what oligarchy looks like," Burke wrote. "You have in this case a university where the president didn't want her own staff, picked allegedly for their good judgment and judicious temperament, to disagree with a strategic decision she had made. The more you look at the strategic decision, the more you realize that the intensity of the desire to not have disagreement is very likely a precondition set by some outside partners participating in the initiative. It's not ridiculous to ask that people who are part of a decision own their part of it. It is ridiculous to demand unquestioning loyalty to all aspects of the decision and to handcuff the judicious, intelligent capacity of managers to critically assess the decision as it is being made."

Among the groups that spoke out against Buckingham's firing was the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the largest faculty union in Canada, which represents professors (but not deans) at the University of Saskatchewan. The administrators' statements at the university specifically noted that, as a dean, Buckingham was not entitled to membership in the faculty association.

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said that his association believes all academic officials should be entitled to speak their minds on academic matters -- and he said that this right should apply to tenure-track faculty members (covered by union contracts) and to others, including adjuncts and deans.

"Universities are premised on the idea that the best way forward is a result of vigorous discussion," Turk said. When deans can be fired for taking a contrary position on an academic program's future, "it impoverishes the university."

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