Chidi Oguamanam



Lessons in Public Service and Academic Freedom

Posted by Chidi Oguamanam on May 27, 2014 at 2:50 PM

May 27, 2014

Chidi Oguamanam , Punch

The suspended Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, Sanusi Lamido, did not hold his office as an academic. But, always cerebral, he sounded and talked like one. Strictly, though, he was a public servant. While the courts are presently determining his grievances against his former employer, I am interested in the lessons interred in his ongoing run with the authorities and its ramifications for other actors in the public service, who often do not fully grapple with the implications their activist inclinations. The present reflection is motivated by a recent controversy at the University of Saskatchewan in Western Canada. There are a few lessons from Saskatchewan for Nigeria’s public servants and institutions.


The tale concerns Prof. Robert Buckingham who, until recently, was the Dean of the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Public Health. The university recently fired and rehired him. The university was pissed off because the dean wrote a critical open letter on its proposed plan of action. In the letter, the professor revealed that the university senior administration had threatened him and other deans that their deanship would be dropped if they opposed the university’s budgeting and restructuring plan aimed at saving about $25m. The plan also involved job cuts and faculty rationalisation or mergers in which Buckingham’s faculty would be affected.


The firing of Buckingham provoked outrage among the Canadian public, not used to executive highhandedness. Like a wild fire, reactions to the incident spread across the nook and cranny of Canada. It became a subject of talk shows in electronic media of various platforms. Both students and Buckingham’s colleagues in the academia quickly stood up in condemnation of the reactionary response of the university. Some alumni even threatened to surrender their degrees. Others promised that with the present university administration, they would not make donations to the university, let alone encourage their wards to attend the university. Needless to mention, the university faced a public relations nightmare of unprecedented magnitude. Less than a week, Buckingham was “rehired”; an apology was tendered to him. But his deanship was not restored. As I write, the President (Vice-Chancellor equivalent) of the university is struggling to keep her job as a result of the blunder and public pressure.


Buckingham is a tenured professor. The unique attractions of being an academic, more so a tenured one, include academic freedom and the security of tenure, which is akin to those of judicial officers in credible democracies. Academic freedom, like the independence of judicial officers, is a long and hollowed tradition. Most academics would tell you that if you take away their academic freedom, there is no basis remaining in the Ivory Tower. Academic freedom enables professors to conduct their research in areas of their interest and competence, publish the results, and advance their scholarship in an atmosphere of autonomy and integrity, and of course, subject to applicable research ethics and relevant protocols. When research is carried out in academic liberty without interference from any sources, including employers and funders, it guarantees the integrity of the undergirding scholarship with positive spin off on the university as an institution. A converse scenario is a recipe for disaster in any academic setting or system.


Often, academics wear double hats. A tenured professor who is also a dean is first an academic before being a dean. The office of the dean is largely but not exclusively an administrative one. The dean is a senior member of the university administration. In that context, when a dean openly protests or criticises the university administration of which he/she is a part, the question becomes whether the criticism or protest passes the test of academic freedom. Opinion may be divided on this. The details may be buried in relevant contracts. But in Buckingham’s case, a segment of the Canadian society does not believe that the university infringed his academic freedom when it decided to fire him. Those who hold this view argue that his open letter titled, “The Silence of the Deans”, has nothing to do with his scholarship or research, which is the legitimate site for academic freedom. I will reserve my personal opinion on this.


But it is tenable to also argue that as much as the dean is part of the university’s senior management, he/she holds the position by virtue of being an academic. Hence, it is part of the dean’s duty to defend academic freedom, which entails protecting his/her colleagues from any decision or situation that has the potential to undermine their academic freedom. That may well have been on the mind of the good professor.


Assuming that Buckingham’s disagreement with the university can be located within the last reason, it does not seem to fully absolve him in the opinion of some. He made his criticism openly. Here is how a leading Canadian newspaper characterised the crisis: “Dr. Buckingham wasn’t an academic taking a shot at the administration. He was a member of the administration taking a shot at the administration: It can’t be plausibly argued that, simply by virtue of being an academic, he had a right to publicly criticise the management team that he was part of. Once he went public with his criticisms, something had to give: Either he had to go, or the senior administrators in his sights had to”.


Back to Sanusi and other activist public servants or political office holders who do not even have half as close as security of tenure or academic freedom that professors enjoy. It is commonplace in Nigeria for these categories to wax populist by publicly turning against the same administration of which they are a part of. Before and not when public servants or political office holders turn against the administration they serve, the most honourable thing to do is to resign. The integrity of their objections is better measured by whether they have the courage to resign. Even in the cases where such public servants have a constitutionally or contractually guaranteed tenure, it is still a matter of ethics, integrity and good faith that they resign when they perceive themselves to be at moral crossroads with the administration in which they are called to serve.


It may be tempting to insist that a public servant owes allegiance to the country and the constitution (where applicable). Interestingly, the country can be more effectively served by an exemplary resignation. Such act sends a strong message that there are higher ideals than perks of office. As for the constitution, it almost always provides for resignation for open-ended reasons of officers who hold their offices by virtue of the constitution. Beyond the focus on public officer-turned- insider-activists in Nigeria, perhaps another important lesson in the Buckingham scenario is the quick volte-face by the university in recalling him as a tenured academic while confiscating his deanship. Rarely do Nigerian institutions exercise the courage to right wrongs or admit their gaffes. Sanusi could have borrowed a page from the likes of Oby Ezekwesili, who became a full-blown activist after public service and, by so doing, helps to elevate the quality of Nigerian public service. There is a dignified way of exiting the public service that NigeriaN actors have yet to embrace. The name is resignation.

This opinion was first published in Punch on May 27,2014. 


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