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Presidential search stalls

By David Sorensen

The university’s presidential search has stalled following a series of comments from the Board of Regents and provincial politicians.

The search for a new president to replace Dr. Axel Meisen began with the appointment of a presidential search committee by the Board in May 2007. Dr. Meisen’s term was due to end in August 2008, however he left in December to take up a new post with the Alberta Research Council. By that time, the search committee had begun its work and, as stipulated in the Memorial University Act, Memorial’s vice-president (academic), Dr. Eddy Campbell, was named acting president.

The 18-person search committee included members of the public, board members and representation from the business, academic and student communities.

In December, Board of Regents chair Gil Dalton told the board that the work of the search committee was progressing on schedule. At that meeting, he said that interviews could be held with the short-listed candidates in mid-January.
Since then, Board minutes reflect little discussion of the search other than that the process was continuing.

In late July, the Globe and Mail published a sensational story that quoted anonymous sources claiming the provincial government “quashed the selection of the candidate chosen by a special search committee.”

On July 29, provincial Education Minister Joan Burke confirmed in a news conference that she had personally interviewed two candidates put forward by the search committee and “advised the selection committee that I felt that they should continue the search and bring forward some more names.”

Ms. Burke told reporters that the current government is not one that “will merely rubber stamp a position as important as the president of the university. This government is not here to rubber stamp anything.”

The Memorial University Act, the provincial legislation that governs the university, states that the president “shall be appointed by the board in consultation with the senate and with the approval of the Lieutenant-Governor in Council.”

That news story set off a firestorm as politicians, pundits and professors weighed in on the implications of the minister’s comments.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers was one of the first groups to comment, claiming that perceived political interference by the provincial government has damaged Memorial University’s reputation.

Vic Catano, the past-president of CAUT and current chairman of its academic freedom and tenure committee, said if the association received a formal complaint from faculty that the provincial government interfered with the search for a new president, it would investigate. That could lead to the university being blacklisted, he added.

On Aug. 2, acting president Eddy Campbell said he had withdrawn his name as a candidate for the presidential post so that he could speak freely in defence of the university's autonomy. Dr. Campbell said recent public statements regarding the presidential search at Memorial University called the autonomy of the university into question.

“Universities throughout Canada and elsewhere operate at arm’s length from government, while adhering to provisions that allow for appropriate government oversight and accountability,” he said in a statement. “Autonomy is vital if a university is to fulfill its commitment to the society it serves. It brings with it responsibilities that Memorial takes very seriously.”

Dr. Campbell pointed out that government plays a key role, as well. At Memorial University, the cabinet appoints a majority (17 of 30) of the university’s governing body, the Board of Regents, “which gives it the necessary oversight and accountability.”

Memorial’s Faculty Union issued a press release Aug. 4. The union said that the minister’s involvement in the process was not only at variance with the Memorial University Act, but a threat to academic freedom and that it would make finding a high-quality replacement for Axel Meisen even more difficult.
In a statement issued Aug. 2, Minister Burke said the province had not overstepped its authority.

“I have yet to hear one concrete example of how exactly our government has impeded or interfered in academic freedom or autonomy,” she said.

“We have never told people what to teach or how to teach, nor have we suppressed opinion. We are very simply saying we will exercise our legal obligation under the act, which clearly states that cabinet has an approval role as an oversight, and I can assure everyone that we take that role seriously.”

On Aug. 6, the Board of Regents issued two public statements – one dealing with the issue of university autonomy and one dealing with what had happened in the search for a new president for Memorial. In the latter the Board contended that Premier Danny Williams did not impose himself into the process.

“Early in the search process the premier indicated to the chairman of the Board of Regents that, if the university felt it would be helpful, the premier, if asked, would be willing to meet prospective candidates to promote the province, to emphasize the importance of Memorial to the province and to confirm the government’s strong commitment to university education in Newfoundland and Labrador,” reads the Board statement, adding that the chair of the Board brought the suggestion to the search committee and the Board of Regents, both of which felt that this involvement by the premier was a positive step.

However, the Board stated that when the time came to have these meetings, the premier was unavailable and he asked the minister of Education to step in.

“Subsequent to those meetings, government informed the search committee that the candidates were not acceptable and asked the search committee to expand its search and develop other names for consideration.

“This was a surprise to the search committee which had identified Dr. Eddy Campbell as its preferred candidate,” continued the Board statement. “The Board feels that there was no inappropriate interference by government or attempt to influence the work of the search committee until government informed the Board that the candidates were unacceptable prior to a formal recommendation of a preferred candidate being made.”

The Board said these events have caused a significant delay in the work of the search committee.

Following the release of this statement, Board of Regents member Deanne Fleet, a CBC journalist and one of the Regents elected by alumni, resigned from the board.

Dr. Reeta Tremblay, dean of Arts, has also resigned from the presidential search committee.

The Board of Regents met in special session on Tuesday, Aug. 12, to specifically discuss matters relating to the autonomy of the university and the search process for a new president.

The Board unanimously passed a number of resolutions relating to the issues. The Board also noted its regret at the recent resignation of Deanne Fleet and expressed its thanks to Ms. Fleet for her contributions to Memorial.

The Board passed a resolution that reaffirmed its concurrence with its statements on the presidential search process that was publicly released on Aug. 6.

The Board expressed its continued support for the presidential search committee and the work that it has undertaken in the search process.

The Board passed a resolution expressing confidence in the chairman and his leadership.

The Board also approved in principle a draft paper on university autonomy developed by Dr. Eddy Campbell, acting president and vice-chancellor.

Finally, the Board fully supported the proposal for a meeting between Memorial and government to bring clarity and resolution to the important matter of university autonomy.

As of press time, the issue remains unresolved and the search for a president remains stalled.

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