Academic Freedom and Tenure not Blank Cheque for Disgruntled Professors to Harass: The Degroote Biz School Saga Coming to an End

A McMaster University Tribunal is recommending significant – and unprecedented in Canadian higher education – consequences against five faculty members in the DeGroote School of Business for their roles in creating a conflict that dragged on for years creating a “poisoned workplace” as they attempted to depose faculty Dean Paul Bates during his tenure in charge of the Faculty.

I covered the drama as a higher education reporter for Maclean’s.

The script is familiar to those involved in higher education and businesses schools. A non-academic is hired as Dean from the business community. The new Dean brings extensive experience in business, a proven management track-record, and a network of contacts that advances the institutions goals for the faculty.

What the Dean does not bring, and this is the cardinal sin, is a doctorate degree and lifetime in the academy.

In the case of McMaster Dean Paul Bates, his sin was much worst to the academic side of the business school. Bates didn’t complete his undergraduate degree before embarking upon his successful business career.

There are two sides to most business school faculties – those of an academic (Ph.D) background without extensive industry experience and those from a more practical/applied background. The two sides are of differing visions of how a business school should operate is flawed.

At McMaster this debate turned into all-out war impacting all aspects of the business schools operation. In one case, when one of the professors from a practical background was up for tenure, the professors from the other faction fought to stop the award of tenure.  All out war was openly declared between the two factions. The McMaster University Faculty Association had to get involved.

Eventually, Bates stepped down as Dean. He remains a professor in DeGroote’s executive education programs with title Special Advisor to the President at McMaster University.

In 2010, the University stepped in and created a tribunal – with extensive powers – to review what happened in the School and provide recommendations of how to fix the problems caused by the rift.

This week, after three years of work including interviews with 65 witnesses, the tribunal it issued a report. McMaster University – which is now under the leadership of President Patrick Deane – quickly made the report public. (An unprecedented act by an institution known for its defiance of transparency laws)

Unprecedented Punishment

The report recommends significant punishment against five faculties members – lengthy suspensions of years without pay, benefits, access to university resources, and a ban from the campus during the suspensions.

They are not being dismissed, the tribunal stated there were grounds for dismissal and choose to not recommend termination.

The punishments, if implemented by Patrick Deane, will be unprecedented in Canadian higher education and will likely be litigated by the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

A sixth faculty member is recommended to receive a severe reprimand that will remain in their file for five years.

Paul Bates was cleared of any wrongdoing in the dispute.

University Politics are Vicious, Does This Change That

University politics – especially at McMaster University – are vicious. With the protection of tenure, some professors act with impunity against those they disagree with.

McMaster recently lost another Dean – in the Faculty of Humanities – after a campaign by disgruntled members of the faculty against her.

This report, if not overturned by the courts, takes away that impunity.

Paul Bates paid a heavy personal price, but he may be one of the last to endure the kind of harassment all too common to the faculty.

This situation creates the first strong case-law that will be applied at other universities across Canada.

Academic freedom and tenure are no longer blank cheques – they never meant to be.