When "Leaders" Attack–Each Other

Robert Buckingham, the Executive Director of the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Public Health and a full professor, was fired and had his tenure revoked yesterday for criticizing the university’s restructuring plan, TransformUS.

Upon arriving at work Wednesday morning, Buckingham was met by two campus security officers who promptly escorted him off campus and told him to stay off of university property. The outrageous decision to unceremoniously fire him was prompted by a letter that he had made public the day before, entitled “The Silence of the Deans.” The letter described a December 2013 meeting during which President Ilene Busch-Vishniac allegedly told the deans and vice-presidents “not to ‘publicly disagree with the process or findings of TransformUS.'” The letter briefly outlined a general administrative culture of silencing dissent.

And so university administrators, who seem to be spending more and more time cutting  faculty (see, e.g., recent stories from Quinnipiac University and the University of Southern Maine),  have now turned on one of their own. Thus far, the most interesting and telling reason for doing so was offered by Saskatchewan’s Provost and Vice-President Academic Brett Fairbairn, who signed Buckingham’s dismissal letter: “It is not open to anyone to wear the hat of a leader and a non-leader simultaneously.” It seems that Buckingham was considered a “leader” as long as he walked lockstep with the President and other senior administrators; he was, after all, an executive director. He simultaneously became a “non-leader” and an outsider as soon as he spoke up in opposition to the rest of the “team”–in other words, as soon as he attempted to lead by example.

That irony is no doubt lost on the growing number of administrators who, having completed training programs in “educational leadership” and “higher education management,” don’t seem to have any idea what it means to be a leader. Whether referring to executive directors, vice-presidents, deans, or department chairs, Fairbairn’s–and, I fear, too many other administrators’–definition of a “leader” seems to be one who does and thinks what one is told to do and think by one’s superiors in the organizational hierarchy. Indeed, among the ridiculous reasons Fairbairn stated for Buckingham’s firing was this: “In publicly challenging the directions given to you by both the president of the university, and the provost, you have demonstrated egregious conduct and insubordination and have destroyed your relationship with the senior leadership team of the University.”

The university’s communications department sent a statement, attributed to the Provost, to CBC News. It read, in part, “Leaders [at the University of Saskatchewan] have opportunities to express personal opinions in leadership discussions. Once decisions are made, all leaders are expected to support the university’s directions.” This would make a lot more sense if the word followers was substituted for the two instances of leaders. For it is followers, not leaders, who voice their personal opinions behind closed doors but remain silent in public.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has issued a statement calling for Buckingham’s immediate reinstatement. Until he is reinstated, one is left to wonder: What does it mean to truly be a leader in higher education today?

4 thoughts on “When "Leaders" Attack–Each Other

  1. In previous eras, when senior faculty assumed administrative positions without any intention of making a career out of being administrators, they brought a strong sense of academic freedom and shared governance to their administrative roles (or at least we could claim that that was the ideal even when it wasn’t entirely true in practice).

    But once the administrative track became something quite distinct from the academic track with the adoption of the corporate model, middle-level administrators became the equivalent of middle managers, whose careers depended on their almost total acquiescence to executive mandates. There is absolutely no incentive to disagree with anything endorsed at the top.

    Complaints about overly compliant Boards are commonplace, but the ramifications of completely compliant administrative hierarchies are, in most cases, more damaging to our institutions.

  2. Pingback: 2014 Through the Academe Blog: May | The Academe Blog

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