University of Saskatchewan’s provost has resigned in the wake of a widespread backlash over the school’s dismissal of a dean who spoke out against budget cuts.

The resignation of Brett Fairbairn was announced Monday night ahead of an emergency board of governors meeting. The meeting was organized at the request of Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris, who planned to address the board.

Mr. Fairbairn, who was vice-president academic, had been involved in the dismissal of Robert Buckingham. The tenured professor was ousted Wednesday as dean of the School of Public Health after he alleged in a letter titled “The Silence of the Deans” that he and others were warned their tenures would be cut short if they made public comments against the school’s cost-cutting plans. Under the university’s TransformUS project, jobs will be cut and faculties combined to save $25-million.

The day after Dr. Buckingham was dismissed, the university proposed to reinstate him as a tenured professor, but not as dean.

In a portion of his resignation letter released by the university, Mr. Fairbairn wrote: “My motive for offering my resignation is my genuine interest in the well-being of the University of Saskatchewan. … 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.”

The university’s treatment of Dr. Buckingham drew condemnation from many academics and students who questioned the school’s commitment to academic freedom and tenure.

It also raised “deep concerns” for Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who said the province wanted to know whether Dr. Buckingham’s firing had breached the University of Saskatchewan Act.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail moments before Mr. Fairbairn’s resignation was announced, Mr. Norris said concerns about the state of the University of Saskatchewan prompted him to ask for the emergency board meeting.

“The reason for moving forward with this relates to the government’s growing concern regarding the state of the University of Saskatchewan, especially in light of the Buckingham controversy,” Mr. Norris said. “The University of Saskatchewan is among the very best postsecondary schools in Canada.”

The minister declined to disclose what he planned to relay to the board at its private meeting.

After hearing of Mr. Fairbairn’s resignation, Dr. Buckingham told The Globe and Mail: “It’s sad. I never wanted anyone to lose their job. I have no ill feelings towards him or the president. All I wanted was to be reinstated.”

Hired in 2009 to start a School of Public Health at the university, Dr. Buckingham has done hospice work around the world and researched HIV and AIDS in Southeast Asia and Central America. Previously, he was dean of public health at New Mexico State University.

Dr. Buckingham’s ouster prompted nearly 850 academics from across Canada to add their names to an open letter to the board of governors. Events at the University of Saskatchewan could have implications for postsecondary schools across the country, states the letter initiated by two professors at the University of Alberta. Deans “must be free to criticize and speak publicly against decisions being taken by their university administration,” the letter adds.

Long-time University of Saskatchewan history professor Jim Miller sent his own missive to the board, calling on it to turf the school’s president, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, and the provost for their “egregious” actions. Denying freedom of expression and bullying tactics are not acceptable, he said.

“I’ve never seen behaviour as appalling as we’ve seen this past week from the senior administration,” added Dr. Miller, who is Canada Research Chair in Native-Newcomer Relations. He plans to retire in June.

In a statement last week, Ms. Busch-Vishniac contended the university had “been on the receiving end of inaccurate and undeserved criticisms launched from across the country.”

She added: “Academic freedom and tenure are sacrosanct at the University of Saskatchewan. This case, however, is not about academic freedom. Dr. Buckingham was removed from his executive director position for acting contrary to the expectations of his leadership role.”

The board of governors met behind closed doors for about four hours, breaking around midnight in Saskatoon.

After the meeting, chairwoman Susan Milburn said the leadership of the university was discussed at length, but the board did not want to “act in haste.”

“Board members acknowledge the public response and many letters received by the board,” she said in a statement. “We will conclude our due diligence before a decision is rendered on university leadership.”

Ms. Milburn added that the board is committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression and believes it is in compliance with the University of Saskatchewan Act.

The board will resume discussions at its next scheduled board meeting on May 26.

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, May. 19 2014, 10:38 PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, May. 20 2014, 2:50 AM EDT