You may have heard that the president of Athabasca University, Peter Scott, was replaced yesterday with Alex Clark, erstwhile Dean of the Faculty of Health Disciplines at AU.
This was a complete surprise to everyone at AU (apart from Alex), very much including Peter. None of the members of the executive team, including the provost, knew of it in advance. I gather that the secret was kept even from academic members of the Board of Governors: it was, it seems, presented to them as a done deal, on the day it happened. From the reactions I saw when it was announced, student board members may not even have known about it until that point. It was therefore – presumably – voted on in secret by the unholy cabal of governors who were appointed by the minister of advanced education last year, after the rest were sacked or forced to resign, and who make up the majority of the board. Essentially, Minister Nicolaides just fired our president.
The same seems to be true for the hiring of our new president. Although Alex had been a strong candidate when Peter got the job, and he is well qualified for the role, there are some serious questions to be asked about the appointment process, in which it appears that none of those voting had any involvement in the original appointment, no one asked the opinions of academics on the original hiring committee, and no one even asked the opinions of the academics on the board itself. This, like Peter’s dismissal, can only be seen as a political hire. And it is not an interim appointment, unlike that of his successor as Dean of FHD.
Peter was fired over the phone (ironic that this was done virtually by those who oppose our virtual strategy) without notice or explanation. The timing of his firing, a few days after an agreement was signed that, despite the Albertan government’s best efforts, has largely been seen by the press as a win for Peter (it was a loss, but a manageable loss), seems hardly coincidental. When all else failed, they stabbed him in the back when he was as down as anyone could be. Peter had in fact been away thanks to the sudden death of his wife, that occurred very shortly after her diagnosis with cancer at the end of last year. She had been buried abroad, 8 working days before he was fired. It is hard to imagine how he is feeling right now, but tears well up just thinking about it. All of this was well known to the board and to the minister. The moment was chosen with intent and malice. This was monstrous in the extreme.
It should have been so very different.
When Peter came to AU, not much more than a year ago, I cried tears of happiness. This was the leader we needed at the time we needed him: a brilliant, dynamic, imaginative, compassionate, principled man who had played a key role as a leader in transforming not just his prior institutions but the field of online and distance learning itself. Now, I cry tears of anger, outrage, and sadness. Peter could have transformed the university into something magnificent, and I believe he would have done so were it not for the utterly outrageous behaviour of the Albertan government. They fomented the union unrest into which Peter was thrust from the moment he arrived and then, over the last year, have outrageously and heavy-handedly directly meddled in the university’s affairs, against which Peter rightly and courageously fought. Peter’s assumption was, perhaps, that Alberta was like most of the rest of the world in recognizing academic freedoms, autonomy, and rights as sacrosanct. I don’t think he fully realized, at that point, that Alberta is not like that. It has a philistine government run by corrupt little despots, sponsored by corporations whose main activity is violence against the planet (this applies to most of the board of governors, as it happens). Going up against the Albertan government and, especially, appearing in the eyes of the world to win the fight, is like going up against a particularly nasty, stupid, and vindictive gang of playground bullies. Peter never had a chance to focus on the things he needed to focus on, because he was being pummelled on all sides by thugs the entire time he was with us.
Whatever happens next, AU will not be the university it could have been. The government has forced us to make 15% cuts this year, and we were already too close to the bone, cutting into it in places. We have already lost a good portion of the best executive team ever to lead us and we are very likely to lose more. The government-appointed governors, none of whom have the slightest understanding of our institution, have shown themselves to be nothing but lackeys for a morally bankrupt and abhorrent minister, willing to stop at nothing to achieve ends that have nothing to do with the well-being of the university. The union’s actions, that were deeply divisive and at least partly engineered by the government, continue to divide us. The half-hearted, hasty, and poorly implemented near-virtual plan (that was in progress before Peter’s arrival and that played a major role in the union strife) continues to cause major problems, most notably failing to address communication needs, so dividing us further. Perhaps most challengingly, we are half way through the biggest transformation that has ever occurred in the university’s history, from which we are unable to back away without enormous cost, but with a diminishing number of leaders and champions who can make it happen. Now we have a president who was (at least in part) chosen because of his willingness to live in Athabasca, which is a truly terrible idea about which I have written extensively in the past. I wish him well, but he will face a steep uphill struggle building trust among many of the staff who feel betrayed by the government’s despicable actions and the shady circumstances leading to his being hired, about which speculation is now rife, within and beyond the university. We are all in a state of shock and dismay right now. None of us feel any sense of security. Many of us are talking about leaving or preparing to leave.
For one fleeting moment, as the war with the government seemed to have been more or less resolved towards the end of last year, I felt great hope for the future of the university I have loved this past 15 years. My hopes are greatly diminished today. Nothing can repair all the harm that has been done. Our greatest hope now is that there will be a new government that is willing to help to reverse at least some of the damage. The Albertan elections are not far off. If you live in Alberta, don’t forget what this government has done. You could be next.
And, Peter, if you are reading this: you will be very much missed. I know that I speak on behalf of almost all of us here at AU when I say that our hearts go out to you.