Official meddling troubles Canada

Minister's veto of two candidates for university head raises concerns for autonomy, says John Gill

August 21, 2008

Fears for the independence of Canadian universities have been heightened by the involvement of a provincial government minister in the search for a new university president.

Joan Burke, the Newfoundland and Labrador Education Minister, has admitted interviewing and blackballing two candidates for the presidency of Memorial University in St John's, the province's capital.

Ms Burke's role in vetting the candidates, who were shortlisted by an 18-strong university panel, has prompted a former provincial Education Minister to demand her resignation. Chris Decker, who is also a former chair of the university's board of regents, said Ms Burke had damaged Memorial's reputation.

Speaking to the broadcaster CBC, he said: "For some minister who's so blown up with her own ... self-importance that she thinks she can usurp the role of a procedure that has been in place for many, many years, it's totally disgraceful."

"I can see only one possible way to redeem this - for the minister to resign or for the Premier to have her ... shuffled to another portfolio."

The incident caused a row that has rumbled for several weeks. Memorial's board of regents has issued a statement expressing "concern for the autonomy of the university".

David Robinson, assistant executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said his group had asked to meet the Premier to discuss the concerns.

He said the incident could not only damage Memorial's reputation and make it harder to fill the vacant position, it could set a dangerous precedent if it went unchallenged. "Who wants to be the president if they have to look over their back all the time?" he said.

Ms Burke, meanwhile, has denied any improper conduct. She told the CBC: "In legislation, the appointment of the president ... has to be sanctioned by Cabinet - and therefore we are part of the process."

The furore follows several other troubling incidents.

Earlier this year, the Government of British Columbia circulated a "letter of expectations" in which it spelt out its priorities to institutions hoping for more funding. The Confederation of University Faculty Associations called the letter an unprecedented intrusion into the governance of public universities.

In another episode, First Nations University in Saskatchewan was put on probation by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada amid fears that its governance structure left it susceptible to influence by the Federation of Saskatchewan First Nations, an advocacy group representing native communities. The stand-off ended when the vice-chief of education for the federation resigned from the university's board.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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