THE ANNOUNCEMENT of Thompson Rivers University’s new president had scarcely been made before word got around about a high-profile incident he’d been involved in at his former place of employment.
During his time there, the TRU announcement said, he held increasingly senior leadership positions including provost and academic vice president.
TRU board of governors chair Jim Thomson said Fairbairn possesses all the “key attributes” the 16-member search committee was looking for.
There was no mention in this initial announcement — which is to be expected — that Fairbairn was part of a controversy four years ago when he resigned his job as provost and academic vice president at U of S.
The issue that led to his sudden departure from the position, and to the firing without cause of university president Ilene Busch-Vishniac soon after, was a letter of dismissal from Fairbairn to the dean of the School of Public Health in which Fairbairn said the dean had “damaged the reputation of the university.”
The firing of that dean, Robert Buckingham, set off an unpleasant uproar over academic freedom as faculty and students reacted. Buckingham had published an article called The Silence of the Deans in which he criticized a cost-cutting program planned by the university and said Busch-Vishniac had tried to muzzle university deans.
His opus made it all the way to the provincial legislature where it was raised by opposition members, and the subsequent story around his firing made national headlines.
The province’s Minister of Advanced education, Rob Norris, spoke of “reputational damage” to the university.
While the issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech are easy lightning rods for public debate, there are complexities to the case that didn’t always get a lot of attention. For example, Fairbairn contended in a confidential memo— which media got hold of — written some weeks later that Buckingham had used information available only to him as dean to attack the university.
Fairbairn’s memo, apparently sent to several university leaders, provides a fascinating counter-point to the media storm at the time, and insight into the politics and challenges of running an institution of higher learning.
Fairbairn quoted Busch-Vishniac as leaving the decision on what to do about “Buck” to Fairbairn and an advisory group of senior administrators.
Fairbairn went on to write in his confidential summary that HR recommended in a draft letter that Buckingham be dismissed, though it was exclusively his decision to sign it.
News got out quickly after Fairbairn delivered the verdict to Buckingham. As Fairbairn put it, “Within hours the story was in national media, treated highly sympathetically to the executive director (Buckingham). The issue was widely communicated as a ‘professor’ fired ‘for speaking out.’ The university was understood to have violated tenure and free speech.”
Fairbairn’s post-mortem memo describes how Busch-Vishniac suggested he resign “to help the university,” and that he saw it as his responsibility to do so.
Buckingham didn’t get back his job as dean but was restored to his position as professor (then later resigned), Busch-Vishniac taught in the university’s college of engineering for a time, and sued the university, while Fairbairn went back to the classroom as a professor.
Thomson, the TRU board chair, says the incident was “fully explored” by the hiring committee and the committee was unanimous in its selection of Fairbairn.
Fairbairn himself has confined himself to echoing Thomson’s comments.
Running a university isn’t easy. Dr. Kathleen Scherf was fired in 2009 after only a year as president when the TRU board lost confidence in her leadership and judgment abilities. (She remained at TRU as a professor.)
That resulted in the return of Dr. Roger Barnsley as interim president until Dr. Alan Shaver was hired in 2010.
It’s interesting to note that TRU Faculty Association president Tom Friedman sounds optimistic about Fairbairn’s prospects for fostering good relations with faculty, which voted non-confidence in senior TRU administration just a couple of years ago.
After all, there would be no point in taking anything but a positive approach to the appointment of a new president, especially since it seems likely the issue of relations between faculty and administration will be approached with particular attention to keeping things on an even keel.
Fairbairn takes over at TRU in December.
Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops, former school board chair, former editor of The Kamloops Daily News, and a current director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He was awarded the Jack Webster Foundation’s lifetime achievement award in 2011. His editorials are published Monday through Thursdays, and Saturdays on CFJC Today, CFJC Midday and CFJC Evening News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.