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Athabasca University board to Athabasca U Faculty Association: Drop dead

Alvin Finkel

It took Athabasca University's rubber-stamp board less than 48 hours to tell the university's faculty association to forget about its suggestion an interim president be appointed to get the distance-learning institution back on track while a replacement is found for President Frits Pannekoek.

Alert readers will recall that Dr. Pannekoek, the subject of an overwhelming non-confidence motion last year by the university's faculty and another by a staff union, has announced his intention to resign, but not until his replacement is found -- a process professors fear could take up to two years, with potentially disastrous results for Athabasca.

On Friday, the university board put out two press releases. In one, Board Chair Barry Wilson stated that the board "cannot and will not accept the 'rescue plan'" proposed on Wednesday by the faculty association.

In the mean time, the board said, it "will move forward with the governance of the institution, including the presidential recruitment process and strategic direction for the future of the university."

In its second release, the board stated explicitly it would not accept the faculty association's "recommendation to appoint a faculty member nominated by the AUFA as interim president of the institution."

In other words: drop dead, and get off our turf.

The board claims it cannot (and anyway, it will not) "delegate that responsibility to an organization that has no legislated public or ministerial accountability."

Meanwhile, in a comment posted to this blog, a distinguished Athabasca professor charged that some professors who have recently been laid off "are excellent workers who got targeted because they have had run-ins with powerful people."

"Management is using the 'stringency' section of the faculty association collective agreement to pretty much set aside everything in the agreement," said Professor Alvin Finkel, a well-known political and labour historian, author of an important history on the Social Credit movement in Alberta.

"That section does require them to 'declare' stringency and demonstrate that there are long-term financial issues at play as opposed to short-term issues,” Dr. Finkel wrote. "They have not done that because they don't want our students and potential students to know that we are allegedly in deep financial doo-doo.

"But they want to act internally as if it is just fine to ditch the agreement without having either declared or proven stringency," he said.

Finkel said he felt safe making such a statement because he is "someone who is likely less vulnerable to be fired purely for spite. I'm a very senior professor with a huge sheaf of publications and awards both from the university and outside for my academic work."

Also on Friday, the Athabasca University Faculty Association issued a press release expressing disappointment in the board's swift rejection of its proposal that it "exercise its legal power to appoint an interim internal president, thus saving money and boosting morale at AU."

"Why is the board of a university that's supposedly in financial crisis not interested in saving the estimated one million dollars this proposal would save?" asked AUFA president Mark McCutcheon in the association's news release.

"Nothing in AUFA’s 'rescue plan' asks for the board to delegate its duties," Dr. McCutcheon, a professor in the university’s English Department, said in the news release. "Article 10 of the university's president hiring policy makes a clear provision for the board to appoint a temporary president. AUFA's proposal suggests a way for the board to exercise its duties more effectively, and to help return AU to more collegial governance."

Notwithstanding its multiple press releases, the university's board and administration continue to be able to fly largely under the radar on this important story because it is being ignored by Alberta's mainstream media.

This is good news for Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk and Premier Alison Redford, who don't need another embarrassing crisis to solve just now -- especially one involving a university whose administration spent well over $10,000 making illegal donations to their Progressive Conservative political party, and which despite being a public institution saw the need to spend another $125,000 hiring professional lobbyists to sweet talk officials of their government.

Nevertheless, there are clearly serious and increasingly public problems at Athabasca University that may threaten the survival of the institution.

Moreover, it seems unlikely the board and the present administration have much intention of doing anything about them -- although the board said in its second release it has scheduled "a planning and visioning retreat with all the current board members, senior administration and the school's deans to set out a strategic direction for the institution and address governance issues."

Well, we all know how useful visioning can be!

It's pretty obvious the job of doing something meaningful to end the crisis at Athabasca University is going to fall to Lukaszuk and the rest of Premier Redford's government, whether they like it or not.

Unless, of course, their plan is to let Athabasca University founder in a way that the government can escape any blame for its demise.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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