Saturday, 31 May 2014

Fear and the University

So, all of us who care to have heard about the drama going on at the University of Saskatchewan lately will have heard by now. The TransformUS project, which really translates into another crippling bout of layoffs and department mergers in the name of a maybe-deficit that isn't too different from the deficit facing pretty much any public institution in the country. Soon-to-be retired professor R. Buckingham's outcry against the TransformUS plan and the rather brutal reaction of the provost/president with his termination and a lifelong ban from campus. The popular outcry that this was an affront to academic freedom and freedom of speech and the resulting resignation of the Provost and termination of President Ilene Busch-Vishniac.

I am ashamed to say that, as an employee of the university, I did very little to speak out against TransformUs, or Busch-Vishniac's treatment of Dr. Buckingham. I didn't blog about it, facebook about it, didn't reshare any of the articles I was avidly reading, didn't attend the May 21st rally. I didn't do any of these things because I was afraid -- like, stupid, paralyzing, lay in my bed in the dark and fear for my job/develop dental tooth-grinding problems afraid.  I am only talking about it now because I feel a bit safer under the administration of our new temporary president Gordon Barnhart.

So, why so afraid? Aside from the obvious fear of losing a job that I love, being a new employee in a unionized setting where there is a push towards "last in the door, first out," I was afraid because under the regime of Busch-Vishniac, there was a seemingly conscious effort to create a climate of fear. All employees regardless of union/non-union/tenure-track/faculty status were at risk of coming to work one morning to find a pair of security guards and (if lucky) a cardboard box waiting at their desk. No two weeks warning, no gentle words of explanation and an honourable goodbye--just the University equivalent of gestapo making an example of you in front of people you'd worked with, maybe for decades, and a long escorted "perp walk" off campus.

Management through fear, while it may work fine in many corporate environments, is absolutely contrary to everything an academic institution should stand for. This is because fear is so frequently partnered with ignorance. I won't say that you can't have one without the other, or that one causes the other, but chances are: where there is fear, there is ignorance, and where there is ignorance, there is fear.

By encouraging an atmosphere of fear on a University campus, Busch-Vishniac was also encouraging ignorance. Innovative thinking on the part of the students can hardly be fostered in a place where staff are bullied to thinking and behaving like drones. And without innovative thinking on the part of at least some percentage of the University population, what, really, is the point of the academic institution? We become some sort of Dr. Seussian machine churning out identical creatures with stars on their bellies and stamped pieces of paper in their hands.

While the relief when the Provost stepped down was great, and the relief accompanying the termination of Busch-Vishniac even greater, I think the true sign that this attitude of ruling-by-fear is changing comes with interim president Barnhart's assurance that Perp Walks are a thing of the past. Perhaps with the withdrawal of the cloud of fear that has been hovering over the campus for the past few years, the entire institution can get back to the important task of focusing on enlightenment over ignorance. 

1 comment:

  1. welcome to the grown up world. When suddenly, the future of you, resides solely and completely on you, no do over, things get scary. Businesses like what you describe, reside everywhere here especially in a struggling economy. That is why, despite flaws, we rejoice with stories of google and the like. Today you were honest. Hold on to that because in the future, there will come a time again when you sit down and say nothing even if you want to. We all do at times. You choose your battles and sometimes you simply choose WHEN to join the battle. It's a balancing act. Decisions that say who you are and who you want to be. Recognizing your own choices and speaking them out loud with your regrets means there is a chance next time you'll refer back and consider trying something else. And you're slowly learning that you don't have to defend every cause to be someone who stands for what they believe in. Either way, expressing all of this makes you someone I hope I know for a long time to come.