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New TRU president talks academic freedom and future plans at university

Brett Fairbairn assumed the role of president and vice-chancellor on Dec. 1
Fairbairn Brett
Brett Fairbairn is the new president and vice-chancellor of Thompson Rivers University.

The new president of Thompson Rivers University said it would still be illegal for him to disclose the reason for suspending an economics professor regardless of being given permission to do so by the suspended faculty member.

Addressing reporters on Monday, his first day on the job, Brett Fairbairn, who succeeds Alan Shaver, said the university isn’t at liberty to share personal information even if someone else has already shared that information in the public sphere as per B.C.’s freedom of information and protection of privacy legislation.

Economics professor Derek Pyne was suspended by the university earlier this year. He said he was banned from the campus in May and suspended in July due to his research into faculty at TRU and elsewhere paying to have papers published in dubious scholarly journals — also known as predatory journals.

“I like transparency as much as the next person, I appreciate it when people call for transparency, but when people call for the reasons for a personnel action to be shared, they’re really asking for the university to break the law and we’re not going to do that,” Fairbairn said.

Fairbairn’s comments contradict what his predecessor — interim president Christine Bovis-Cnossen — has said with respect to releasing information.

On Nov. 19, Mark Mercer, president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, emailed Bovis-Cnossen, urging transparency in the Pyne matter:

“It is unfortunate that you cannot be more forthcoming about the reasons for Dr Pyne's suspension. You've made assurances that Dr Pyne's suspension has nothing to do with his exercising his academic freedom to involve himself in the affairs of his university and to make his criticisms known. But until the accusations against Dr. Pyne and their grounds become public, I'm afraid independent observers must at least reserve judgment. Surely transparency in this matter would be to everyone's benefit.”

To which Bovis-Cnossen responded on Nov. 21:

“Under the relevant privacy legislation in British Columbia (the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act), the university is prohibited from disclosing personal information about Dr. Pyne without his prior written consent. Accordingly, the university has no decision to make in this regard since the law is clear in its prohibition of disclosing personal information without the prior written consent of the person the information is about.”

One hour after Bovis-Cnossen sent that email to Mercer, Pyne contacted Bovis-Cnossen and consented to his personal information being disclosed to the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which is investigating his complaint.

“I am also giving TRUFA the same written consent,” Pyne wrote. “Thus, when reporters ask you, you no longer have to give qualified answers about your co-operation with the CAUT investigation.”

Fairbairn said he is familiar with the Pyne case from stories in the media, noting he has also been briefed “at a high level” by TRU officials. 

“I haven’t read the documentation. I haven’t read the file,” Fairbairn said. “That is certainly something I look forward to doing, depending how events progress in [the] future.”

“I understand the university’s position is that the matters for which he may have experienced a discipline are not matters of academic freedom, so they’re not related to the content of his teaching, or his research, nor are they related to criticism of the university. They are related to other matters I’d characterize as employment-related matters,” Fairbairn said.

When contacted by KTW in mid-November, Pyne said he has indeed been suspended because of his research into so-called predatory journals. The research formed a paper, The Rewards of Predatory Publications at a Small Business School, which was published by University of Toronto Press Journal of Scholarly Publishing. Pyne said he was suspended due to the research he included in his feedback on proposed promotions of other TRU instructors, with his feedback including information he found that connected those instructors to having paid for papers to be published in journals.

Concerning the issue of predatory journals, Fairbairn said it’s a significant issue that needs to be discussed at the faculty committee and department head levels.

“In some cases, page charges to authors is a good thing,” Fairbairn said. “As a non-specialist in any given field, I can’t say which journals are high quality, which are low quality, when page charges are justified. It really is the faculty members in that field that needs to judge that and I certainly would expect our [faculty] committees at TRU to be looking at hiring and tenure and promotion files with that in mind.”

In some cases, Fairbairn said, page charges to an author are done in order to make the journal free to subscribers.

“The term predatory journal, I don’t think, is self-explanatory,” he said.

Pyne has asked the Ottawa-based Canadian Association of University Teachers to investigate his complaint that his academic freedom has been violated. TRU administration has said it will not take part in the probe, arguing CAUT does not have authority or jurisdiction to probe issues covered in the collective agreement — a sentiment Fairbairn echoed on Monday.

As a former faculty member himself, Fairbairn said he views academic freedom as fundamental “to what a university’s about and fundamental to every faculty position.

“I’ve criticized my administration and my union and I expect other faculty members to be prepared to do the same, so I will support them to do so,” he said.

Fairbairn comes to TRU with more than 30 years of experience as a teacher and researcher at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

In 2014, Fairbairn was provost and vice-president academic at the University of Saskatchewan when he fired a tenured professor, Robert Buckingham, for criticizing budget cuts at the university. Following protests by students and staff, and criticism from across Canada and outside of the country, Buckingham was reinstated as professor. Fairbairn resigned as provost, but continued teaching, and the university’s president, Ilene Bush-Vishniac, was fired, but kept on faculty in a teaching position.

Fairbairn said he feels the Buckingham case and that of Pyne are “very different from each other.”
“I don’t think those cases have anything much in common and they may or may not involve academic freedom,” he said. “That’s one of the issues under discussion in universities these days, is when is academic freedom at issue?”

Fairbairn on setting future plans at TRU

Fairbairn’s first priority over the coming months is about using his ears.

“I’m interested in learning more about what makes TRU special,” he said. “I want to hear about people’s concerns and the opportunities they see for the university.”

Fairbairn said he has had time since being announced as the next president in April to get to know people and discuss the university’s priorities for the future.

“I’m not coming in to deliver answers on those kinds of questions,” he said, noting that listening and working hard will be his mantra.

Fairbairn said his compensation will be approximately $287,000, with a one time moving allowance. His predecessor, Shaver, was paid $226,000 in the last fiscal year in salary, benefits and pension.

Fairbairn is a Rhodes scholar and a fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

He has held numerous grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. During his last five years at the University of Saskatchewan, Fairbairn was a professor at the Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy, teaching about ethical leadership in democracy and public service, social economy and co-operatives in the new economy.

He has more than 80 publications, a mix of scholarly and community-oriented writings, and a book he has authored, tentatively titled Risk and Relevance, will be published by the USask Centre for the Study of Co-operatives next spring.

Fairbairn completed a doctorate in philosophy in modern history at the University of Oxford and has a bachelor of arts from Oxford (honours first class) and from the University of Saskatchewan.

Fairbairn and wife Norma, a ceramic artist, have three adult children, one of whom has special needs. His interests include hiking, photography, science fiction and cats.

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct a paragraph. Derek Pyne consented to his information being releaed to the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the TRU Faculty Association, not to the general public as originally stated.