23 May 2014

Academic Freedom is Not the Issue - It's Poor Leadership

There was a general consensus, at least among the usual suspect commentators, that University of Saskatchewan’s recent conflagration over the firing of professor and Dean of the School of Public Health, Robert Buckingham had an inherent duality. On one hand, Professor Buckingham had the protection of tenure that enabled him to speak out about a dubious plan to consolidate the Schools of Medicine, Dentistry, and Public Health into one, super health-care school. On the other hand, now former university president, Ilene Busch-Vishniac made it very clear that, “Leaders [i.e. senior academic administrators and managers] have opportunities to express personal opinions in leadership discussions. Once decisions are made, all leaders are expected to support the university’s directions.” According to Professor Buckingham, President Busch-Vishniac told the deans and vice-presidents that their tenure would be in jeopardy if they spoke out against the cost-cutting decision to consolidate the three schools.

Professor Buckingham did just that in an open letter entitled, “The Silence of the Deans.” He was summarily fired both as dean and as professor, contravening the long-held tradition of tenure in which a professor has job protection against losing his or her position based on what they say, write, or research. A firestorm ensued. The university administration quickly backtracked on the loss of the tenured position, but not on reinstatement of his deanship. The Provost, Brett Fairbairn, was made the scapegoat and resigned over the incident. The president, claiming that “I came here to accomplish some things. I think we've been making some progress on them,” refused to step down. In at least one radio interview on CBC’s As It Happens, she was (in my opinion) rather glib and somewhat revisionist about the incident and circumstances. However, the damage to the university’s reputation continued to expand with the university’s students protesting, academics around the world widely condemning the move, and the whole kerfuffle attracting the notice of the provincial government.

Wednesday evening, the university’s Board of Governors lowered the boom on President Busch-Vishniac and summarily dismissed her (although, in a move that was rather poetic I think, said that she could be rehired as a professor).

I believe the Board of Governors moved swiftly on both the urging of the government and the wider academic community in order to salvage the university’s reputation. However, it points to a possible sea change in contemporary management and leadership. Traditionally, there was an implicit (sometimes explicit) mentality of noblesse oblige among managers, and especially senior managers and executives (who today are euphemistically called “leaders”). They made decisions and everyone else was required to comply or face dire consequences, irrespective of the merit of the decision, or its logic, ethics, practicality, expected consequences, or effects be they intended or unintended. This mode of operations is established in an instrumental, industrialized view of organization that considers its people as replaceable machine components, and therefore expendable. (I contend that it originally came from the very first, pre-modern, administrative bureaucracy, the Catholic Church, stemming from the time of Pope Gregory VII).

No longer, it seems. The expectation that managers and workers will simply fall into line with decisions of top executives may be going the way of the telegraph, wired line telephone system, and daily milk delivery. Today’s organizations whose dynamics are based on emergent interactions among multiple relationships require inclusive participation, active listening among multiple constituencies, and consensus-building processes that enable true leadership to occur. To enable individual autonomy and agency in an environment that encourages collective responsibility in an environment of mutual accountability. Simply put, absent a culture of silencing fear (which is, sadly, all too prevalent among many modern organizations), senior managers can no longer expect to order their subordinate managers and employees around without consequences. In the case of University of Saskatchewan and the decision to "TransformUS" by consolidating three health-related schools against the advice of their respective deans, and silencing all dissenters through overt threats to their livelihood, the leadership failure happened long before Professor Buckingham's firing. Executives can no longer exert such arbitrary - dare I say regal - power. They may not meet the dire end of former-President Busch-Vishniac at University of Saskatchewan. Nonetheless, they will be entirely unable to fulfil their mandate of accomplishing whatever the organization intends to accomplish, never mind the more lofty objectives of leadership, innovation, and creating great environments of engaged workers.