The Model of Our Era's Highest Nobility Is the Whistleblower, Jamming, 15/05/2014

Over the last couple of days, some disturbing news came out of University of Saskatchewan. I’m referring to the summary dismissal and punishment of Robert Buckingham, who until recently was USask’s executive director of the School of Public Health. Buckingham published an open letter (you can read it at the CBC coverage of his dismissal) denouncing University of Saskatchewan’s administration over a plan called TransformUS.

Dr Robert Buckingham, the new face of transparency and
ethical nobility in the university system. His actions, and
his cracking bow tie, remind me of another great ethical
model in our culture.
The program essentially transforms the entire disciplinary structure of the university, ostensibly with the priorities of saving costs while encouraging innovative research. However, the restructuring plan essentially undoes all of the work that Buckingham put into improving and transforming the School of Public Health over the last five years of his tenure, folding its infrastructure into the university’s medical school, reversing a 2007 decision to create a separate public health program in the first place. Saskatchewan’s medical school itself is in dire need of institutional reform on its own account, as Buckingham’s public letter depicts. The School of Public Health had recently been accredited, and the program looked to continue its course of improvement. Being folded into the medical school would require another institutional review that would likely result in Public Health having its accreditation reversed. Buckingham faced an administration policy that would undo all of the work he had done over the last five years. 

The planned changes to Saskatchewan’s humanities faculties also look to be disastrous, merging several largely unrelated disciplines (Philosophy, Modern Languages, Gender Studies, Religion and Culture) into a single department, and eventually phasing out a number of tenured professorial positions in the name of streamlining a degree program that looks to lack so much focus as to be barely worthy of being a disciplinary education at all. While I have my own issues with widespread habits of humanities education at the undergraduate level, such departmental mergers are not the answer, especially if retiring faculty are not replaced with an equivalent number of tenured professors with the transdisciplinary training and skills to transform a program of study in the required radical degree. 

A cursory review of the TransformUS program reveals that it is clearly a series of euphemisms to justify a senseless austerity plan that pays little to no attention to the quality of its education and research. It appears, to any reasonable observer, to be the most radical example of institutionalizing the corporatized, debt-driven model of public education and research as a business to arrive in Canada.

More than this, however, is the ethically repugnant university policy towards the public, discouraging all free discussion of the TransformUS program. Most of the details are hidden behind passwords that are only accessible to USask students and employees, essentially ensuring that no members of the wider community, the public in whose interest universities are supposed to act, can see them. Even worse, university administrators at all levels are under orders not to criticize the actions of the TransformUS plan publicly, on pain of summary dismissal.

This is exactly what happened to Buckingham this week. Not only was he dismissed from his position, but was denied a professorial position at University of Saskatchewan (the offer of which is a standard practice for departing high-level administrators), and worse, banned from the campus. After his open letter denouncing the university’s restructuring plans and the secrecy surrounding them, he was met by campus security officers the following morning and escorted off its grounds. He was officially informed in a letter from the Provost that he was fired, his relationship with USask was completely terminated, and he was never to return, aside from a visit to collect personal belongings from his office.

His employment contract as an administrator included a confidentiality clause, essentially a gag order prohibiting him (and all other administration figures) from publicly criticizing or disagreeing with university policy in any way. The letter of dismissal defined criticism or any departure from the official priorities of the university as a dereliction of his duty to lead. They even denied him the pension associated with his directorship position as punishment for speaking out. He was re-hired as a tenured professor after the outpouring of public outrage this week, and outrage from the Canadian Association of University Teachers. But this is a small consolation, given that the restructuring will likely still go ahead.

This issue is not just controversy over the unjust treatment of one man. It speaks to the entire political and ethical question of what the university is for. I’ve had conversations with friends of mine that defend the university’s right to treat its employees in this way, on the ground that any business reserves the right to keep its employees in line with company policy. This is largely taken for granted in our society; if you are a whistleblower on the unjust or illegal acts of your employer, the employer has the right to fire you for acting against the company’s interests and goals. While such employees can sometimes win wrongful dismissal suits, it is taken for granted that employees who inform on the unjust actions of their companies (or governments) face punishment. If you were concerned about the activities of a company, goes the conservative argument, you should quit on your own, or not work for the company in the first place.

There is a strong case that a university, as a public institution, operates in the public interest, and should not punish whistleblowers for exposing plans that may go against that public interest, or force them to sign restrictive secrecy clauses that effectively ban all whistleblowing activity. I do not agree with this argument, because I do not believe that ostensibly public institutions like universities and governments are the only bodies bound by this duty to the public.

No, public accountability is a duty of all people and all companies. The puts me in the position of a relative radical in my society. Good.

A political and ethical truth that our society must accept is that the activities of any one of us, whether individual or corporate body, directly or indirectly affect all of us. That interdependence, a fundamental fact of our existence, obligates us all to transparency and public accountability for the effects of our actions, at all scales where human intentionality plays any role in shaping activity, from the individual to the global. In this regard, there is no distinction between a private business, a government, a university, or an individual person. Our moral and ethical obligations flow from our natures, not our legal status. 

The trend of running public institutions like governments, crown corporations, scientific research institutes, and universities according to the rules of private businesses runs counter to this fundamental fact that humanity in the 21st century must accept. Any activity with public effects must be accountable to the public, no matter who or what is causally responsible for that act. Ecological thinking should publicize our private institutions* in terms of their accountability and transparency. The contemporary trend, which has only gained political momentum since the ascent of the Reagan and Thatcher era, is to privatize our public institutions.

* Not in terms of their ownership, of course. That’s a matter of legal status, which has nothing to do with morality and ethics. Besides, bureaucratic state socialism has already demonstrated its totalitarian tendencies and failed through the inability of humans to understand the economic and ecological effects of their own actions.

That route lies economic slavery and social, ecological, moral, political, and ethical disaster.

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