Contested restructuring decision for U of A casts doubt among teachers

The Board of Governors meeting was to be a “formality” in order to ratify all the motions on the educational restructuring of the University, presented and voted on on December 7. (Ciar Creative Commons)

By Hélène Lequitte, Initiative de journalisme local/ Le Devoir

Last Friday, against all odds, the province’s Board of Governors brushed aside one of the Faculty Council’s motions regarding the restructuring of the University of Alberta. This decision casts doubt on teachers as to political interference in the governance of the University.

It was a real turnaround that took place on Dec. 11. The Board of Governors meeting was to be a “formality” in order to ratify all the motions on the educational restructuring of the University, presented and voted on on Dec. 7. 

The recommendation was clear: vote for collegial governance and not a corporate model, or reorganize the 18 faculties into three large colleges, with three small independent faculties like Campus Saint-Jean, managed by managers and not executive deans.

However, the Board of Governors rejected one of these recommendations, namely replacing managers with senior civil servants. 

“Adding three super-deans, with three super-salaries,” notes Frédéric Boily, specialist in Canadian and Quebec politics, full professor at Campus Saint-Jean, “embodies a paradox for the University of Alberta at the moment. “

When the whole province is tightening its belt

A decision all the more questionable since in 2019, six months after the Conservatives took office, Premier Jason Kenney asked for a report on Alberta’s spending from former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice Mckinnon. In his report, the recommendations were also crystal clear: the health system and the education system needed to be overhauled. Alberta was considered too spendthrift at the time.

“There is a will on the part of the government which has already been manifested through the Mckinnon report,” said Frédéric Boily, “that of reducing spending.”

Interference and political issue 

“Will the role of these three deans consist of confining themselves to the administrative and budgetary level, or will it also be educational?” he asks. 

On the teachers’ side, suspicion is felt.

“The Board of Governors usually respects the decisions of the academic council,” said Pascal Lupien, assistant professor of political science at Campus Saint-Jean for the University of Alberta. 

A singular fact, when we know that its role is to follow the recommendations of the academic body and “that historically, in Alberta, the Board of Governors has always accepted these recommendations, because it recognizes that the Faculty Council is the who has the knowledge and experience to make these decisions,” added Ricardo Acuña, president of the teachers’ union.

The rub that hurts 

Many wonder about the possible political motivations behind this decision.

“I’m still looking for an explanation for the behavior of the Alberta Board of Governors today,” Ricardo Acuña, president of the teachers’ union, said on Twitter. 

Laurie Adkin, political economist and professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta, advances the thesis, on the blog of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan research center on social and political issues, according to which the provincial government is seeking to establish its political hold on higher education establishments. 

Pascal Lupien, professor of political science at Campus Saint-Jean agrees.

“Through the Board of Governors, the government is doing micromanagement in institutional management and budget management, with the aim of privatizing universities and reorienting programs for the benefit of companies.” 

In Alberta, members of the Board of Governors are appointed by the provincial government to manage the budget, administration and finance. Pascal Lupien points to the fact that the choice of these members is based “not on skills, but indeed on political affiliations.”

Educational integrity threatened? 

Earlier in the meeting, Bill Flanagan, president of the University of Alberta and representative of the Faculty Council, told members of the Board of Governors that he did not wish to vote. He said he disagreed with the recommendations and therefore had a conflict of interest. For these two reasons, he decided not to speak.  This decision has earned him criticism from the school officials he is supposed to represent and support. On this issue, he did not comment to Le Devoir.  In the meantime, the fear of seeing repercussions on the educational sphere is very real for the teaching staff. “We have to monitor the situation very closely and be ready to respond,” said Ricardo Acuña.