Against blockaded knowledge

When control of information serves the few, not the many


Company secrets are a serious topic at universities these days. One of the most striking cases took place last May, when dean Robert Buckingham at the University of Saskatchewan wrote a public letter declaiming a secrecy policy the president had communicated to the deans and was given the boot. A cost-cutting plan euphemestically titled “TransformUs” by the president sought to reconfigure Buckingham’s School of Public Health, which also risked triggering a review of the accreditation of the school’s MPH.

The president had told the deans not to “publicly disagree” with the message of TransformUs or the university, and Buckingham also got a personal email warning him that there should “be no mention in public or to government that changes to internal structures will endanger anyone’s accreditation”.

Well, the dean went ahead and wrote his letter, and for that his tenure was revoked, his position terminated, and he himself escorted off the campus by security and told not to return, with a note from the president.

Amazingly, the provost’s explanation to The Toronto Star ran: “When it comes to senior leaders in a university, it’s not different than leaders in any other non-profit organization, government, you name it […As a dean] you can’t lead an organization and oppose it at the same time.”

And in the dismissal note, the president accused Buckingham of “damaging the university’s reputation” and failing to demonstrate “integrity and ethical conduct”.

What am I hearing here? How can expressing concern about these ramifications be construed as opposition to the university? When instructed not to mention the endangered accreditation to the public or the government, how would keeping quiet show integrity? How is a university “no different” than any other non-profit organization in corporate secrets when it’s fundamentally a forum of intellectual freedom?

It’s a little like (on a much smaller scale, of course) Edward Snowden’s treatment after exposing the effect the NSA’s massive spying operation has on American citizens: he was labelled a “traitor”, was slapped with criminal charges, and fled the country. It’s very worrying when a university administration makes the same choice, ruling out (as they did in several comments to media) the application of free speech and academic freedom, in favour of brand loyalty. This happens when a body has become more concerned with self-perpetuation than with the good of the public, or—if we really are to say it’s merely an organization—its own stakeholders.

Buckingham was given a tenured faculty role again, but not his deanship, one day after the story broke in the wake of academic outcry. A somewhat happy ending. But the incident speaks to the fact that a university is becoming first and foremost a business with its own interests to protect.

This is a problem when it comes at the cost of staff, faculty, and above all student interests. And that brings me home to U of T. As we all know, a massive, crippling strike by sessional lecturers and TAs (as part of CUPE 3902) has been in the cards for weeks now as negotiations with the university over wages and benefits remain more or less frozen. Well, until five days ago, when sessional lecturers were offered a tentative agreement that sounds like it will be ratified.

But TAs are yet to receive such an offer, and as part of CUPE 3902, the whole local would strike if the one unit did. So this week we tried to get at some information about the burning questions on everyone’s mind: What happens if there’s a strike? Where will we and our courses go?

And we ran into half a blockade. Nothing near the level of lipzippery as in Saskatchewan, but still. News editor Maria Iqbal called Governing Council for a comment on the Policy on Academic Continuity, which determines what happens to services in the outcome of a disruption, and to find out the university’s stance. They amicably turned her over to the Provost’s Office. But before she could call them, she got a call from the Media Relations Office telling her that all comment would be routed through them and could not come directly from the persons actually involved. The answers we eventually got were vague and passed over several crucial questions without mention.

No need for another tirade. The point is this: it may be procedure, but it’s perplexing procedure. Access to information is more critical in some cases than others.

And they’re not the only ones who block it. Here’s one from a long-time offender, UTMSU (whose lack of access to resources such as board meeting minutes is admittedly more often due to neglect). This week while researching an article on plagiarism, one of our associates asked for some statistics on how many students come to the Academic Advocacy Committee. The VP university affairs & academics replied that it was “inappropriate for The Medium to publish the amount of students coming in generally” and shut down the conversation.

Is it? That’s funny. As the reporter ably showed from her other findings, the university-wide statistics are freely available online (up to 2013, anyhow). These aren’t personal stories we’re digging for. But as it happens, the practice on plagiarism includes publishing even the details of each ruling for the community’s benefit. Suppressing even the most general information is hardly, as VP Genny Lawen wrote, “self-explanatory”.

On the contrary, it’s very bad. Without knowledge we don’t know where we are. And when we don’t know where we are we don’t know where we’re headed.