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Saskatoon university offers to reinstate tenure to fired university professor

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SASKATOON - The University of Saskatchewan president says the school "made a blunder" when it fired a professor for speaking out about budget cuts and so has offered him back his tenure position.

Senior leaders at the Saskatoon-based school said Thursday that Robert Buckingham's termination had been reconsidered and reversed. University president Ilene Busch-Vishniac said academic freedom and tenure are sacrosanct.

"We accept that we made a blunder and we hold tenure in the same high regard that everyone does throughout the world," Busch-Vishniac said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"We will be doing a post-mortem to figure out how we ended up in this awkward position, to fix it and to make sure it never happens again."

Busch-Vishniac said the school is not trying to muzzle professors. Academic leaders, such as deans, can disagree with the changes being proposed — in private, she said.

"But once a decision is made, we expect all of the leadership of the university to align behind that decision and that's where we ran into some problems, so that's why Dr. Buckingham was removed as executive director of the School of Public Health."

He is not being allowed to return to that post.

The Canadian Press could not reach Buckingham for comment, but he told local media that he will accept the tenure position.

Buckingham was escorted from campus by police Wednesday after writing a letter to the government and Opposition New Democrats about the overhaul at the university.

The school released a plan last month that includes cutting jobs, reorganizing the administration and dissolving some programs to try to save about $25 million. The plan calls for the School of Public Health to be rolled into the College of Medicine, but Buckingham worries that could jeopardize the school's recently earned international accreditation.

The cuts are part of a bigger goal to address a projected $44.5-million deficit in the school's operating budget by 2016.

The university's decision to reinstate Buckingham came shortly after Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said he wanted an urgent meeting between the province and the university board.

Wall said he spoke with the board and its chairman, but did not insist on Buckingham being reinstated.

"No, again, there's the principle of the independence of the university," Wall said Thursday at the legislature in Regina.

"I think that it's fair to say that deep concerns (were) expressed. The university was hearing, as we all were, from right across the country, significantly in Saskatoon from students, from faculty."

Wall said the province still wants to talk to the board about whether the firing broke the University of Saskatchewan Act.

"The concern ... is even with this decision today, what about the policies that are required to be followed as spelled out in the act? These are not just notional ideas in some sort of an agreement. There are some legislative requirements on the part of the university for these things."

The Canadian Association of University Teachers, the national voice for 68,000 academic and general staff at more than 120 universities and colleges, called the firing "an inexcusable embarrassment to the traditions and history of the University of Saskatchewan and an embarrassment to post-secondary education across Canada."

"Firing a dean and tenured full professor because he publicly disagreed with your plans for the university is an intolerable attack on academic freedom and proper university governance," association director James Turk wrote in a statement.

Turk suggested Busch-Vishniac should publicly apologize to Buckingham for "her ill-considered and heavy-handed response to proper discussion and debate."

"That is the only remedy that has the possibility of restoring the reputation of an excellent university that you have so badly damaged," he wrote.

Busch-Vishniac said she had not yet spoken directly to Buckingham, but that university provost Brett Fairbairn had done so. She believed Buckingham received an apology.

"But if he has not, let me state right now that we are sorry for the action we took, and apologize to Dr. Buckingham for dismissing him from the university.

"We should not have done that."

— By Jennifer Graham in Regina

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