I’ve been silent on the issues surrounding the attack on academic freedom and tenure at the University of Saskatchewan last week. It resulted in a number of posts, concerns, media scrums and the like, and ultimately in this open letter to the Chair of our Board of Governors.
The Board of Governors is meeting now… as I write. 20 minutes before the meeting we received notice that the Vice President, Academic and Provost had resigned. Here’s the notice released to the campus community from the President.
Members of the campus community,
Brett Fairbairn, provost and vice-president academic, tendered his resignation to me earlier today, and I have accepted it.
In his letter of resignation, Brett said, “My motive for offering my resignation is my genuine interest in the well-being of the University of Saskatchewan. I have been a long-time member of our university community including being a student here in 1977, student union president in 1978-80, and a faculty member since 1986. I believe the work I have done as a student, faculty member, and provost has contributed to the growth of our university’s reputation. The same interests lead me to offer stepping aside from the provost role as the best contribution I can now offer under present circumstances.”
I want to thank Brett for his dedication and hard work over the years. An interim provost has not yet been appointed. I am committed to keeping you informed as details emerge.
University of Saskatchewan
I hope she has the class to follow suit. I hope she didn’t just throw him under the bus (and I won’t go into why that analogy has particular and important meaning to me). Brett, whom I have known and respected for a long time as a fellow faculty member, always struck me as an honourable person trying to do the right thing (even when I disagreed what that was). I think he did the honourable and right thing here. I think the President should do the same thing.
This incident has tarnished the reputation of my university (I’m retiring in a few weeks, so it hurts). It put on full display the kind of manipulative, mean-spirited hubris that can grow in the collegium if we fall asleep and let it happen. It also demonstrates what can happen when the sleeping giant of the collegium across Canada wakes up and fights back. The University of Saskatchewan is still the great place I joined 36 years ago. The people in it are still able to rise. The principle of academic freedom and the importance of tenure were attacked, but unsuccessfully. It wasn’t the UofS. It was the UofS under attack and it rose up on its hind legs and ignited a movement across Canada that may well re-establish the importance of academic freedom in the academy in Canada.
I came from Indiana University, and under President Herman Wells, my grandfather (Merrill Davis from my own first marriage) fought as a member of their Board of Trustees for Alfred Kinsey when he came under fire for his work on human sexuality, and it galvanized the ideal of academic freedom in his time. We have the same opportunity. It’s too important to ignore.
Please, my friends in the academy, have heart. This is fundamental. This matters. The university as we know it is being threatened in unprecedented ways. Our purpose should not be to save the university. The purpose should be to save the ideals it represents: unfettered search for knowledge, dissemination of what we learn, and enshrining the control of the academy in the hands of academics–the people in search of that truth.
It may sound pretentious, but I believe it. The poem or play or score of music matters as much as the solution to a bridge that collapses. As I leave this august body, I abide in my understanding that it is the only existing path society has to find answers to questions that matter — maybe not now, but maybe in decades or millennia. And by the way, as a personal aside, how many bridges survive as long as great poems?