Dead cowboy with men with guns western

Well, the gunfight at the Athabasca University corrall is finally over. It was announced a couple of days ago that the university and the government have finally reached agreement on the location of AU staff. A further 30 staff will move to live in or near the town of Athabasca (down from the original government demand of 500).

While a temporary peace may now reign, the cost of the conflict has been high. As well as several distinguished Board members, the President, Peter Scott, has also been replaced. Scott was fired by phone, just three weeks after his wife died of cancer. The new President is the former Dean of Health Disciplines, and a friend of the government. 


1. Loss of direction

In 2015, AU was facing insolvency. The government brought in an expert, Ken Coates, to do a third party review. As a result, the NDP government in 2018 invested almost $5 million in the university to help it get back on track. More importantly, the University in 2022 appointed Peter Scott as its new President. He was formerly at the UK Open University.

In particular he was guiding the implementation of a new vision for Athabasca University, to make it the most digitally advanced university in the world. This included a major contract with Amazon Cloud Computing. Also importantly, the staff and students at AU were getting behind this vision. There was a feeling that after many years, the university was at last moving in the right direction, for its students, its international reputation, and of course for the province.

However, part of that vision was for a world class digital workforce, both administratively and academically, that could be drawn from and work from anywhere in the world. This alarmed though the merchants of the small town of Athabasca, in the boondocks of Northern Alberta. They put pressure on the Alberta government to bring all staff to live in the small town. The government sided with the merchants, and demanded that 500 staff should move to live in the town. When the Board and the President did not bow to the government’s wishes, they were fired. With them has gone the ability to implement the vision required to re-establish AU as a world leader in digital and distance education.

2. Impact on future recruitment

The university lost one of the best people possible to run the university. It has also lost those members of the Board who had knowledge and experience of open, online and digital learning, replacing them with government hacks. There was no formal search for Scott’s replacement, which smacks of a backroom deal. Several other senior members of the university administration have also resigned. 

I am sure there will always be ambitious people who will still come and work for AU, but will they get the quality in future, especially at the top level? What person of integrity would want to work for AU knowing the government will always interfere if its agenda is not followed?

3. Government interference in the running of a university

So much for the independence of Canadian universities. One expert in Canadian higher education, Professor Glen Jones of the University of Toronto, called the government’s actions ‘the most egregious political interference in a public university in Canada in more than 100 years.’ That was before Scott was fired.

4. No respect for open universities

Even the current provincial government would not behave in the same way to say the University of Alberta. Danielle Smith’s government is truly awful in many ways. It has failed to understand or appreciate the uniqueness and value of Athabasca University, which serves students from far beyond the borders of Alberta. It placed the financial welfare of a few merchants in the town of Athabasca over the needs of 25,000 students – and what for? 30 more people in town. It’s a sick joke.

5. Impact on morale

My main concern though is for the future of AU now and its students. Morale will be terrible and none of the serious issues it has been facing will now be addressed, at least in the foreseeable future.

I can only thank God we have six rugged mountain ranges between Vancouver and the province of Alberta. It is time for the good citizens of Alberta to rise up and run these hoodlums outta town.

Corrections: In the first version of this post, I described the new President as former Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at AU – he is in fact the former Dean of Health Disciplines. Also, Peter Scott’s wife died three weeks before he was fired, not six as I originally stated.


  1. An astute analysis as always, Tony. Thanks for bringing this to the world’s attention. Like Tombstone, Arizona shortly after the gunfight at the OK Corral – hit by a string of fires, poisoned water, and a plummeting population that, in less than 20 years, was under a tenth of what it had been at its height – I fear our immediate future will be bleak. Unlike Tombstone, the good guys didn’t win. And, unlike Tombstone, I don’t think we will be saved, even 100 years later, by tourism.
    My own outraged comments on this are at

  2. Thanks for this Tony and Jon,
    What a sad, devious, unfeeling, and malevolent decision by the government hacks. Peter Scott was a leader who understands online learning. He was never given the opportunity to do his work of transforming AU. He was under attack from the day he arrived. This is government interference at its worst. I would like to wish him all the best and express my support. Hopefully we will be able to contact him.

  3. Thanks Tony and Jon for your pieces on this affair which is tragic for all concerned. The international community of ODL scholars will feel sorry for all those caught up in this farce but some competitors may rejoice. From afar I saw Peter’s appointment as bold and exciting. A return to political small-mindedness has too many international echos.

  4. Indeed, aside from the despicable manner in which former AU President Peter Scott was treated, the real tragedy in this story is the devastating marginalization of AU’s global leadership role in open and distance learning at perhaps the most critical time in our profession’s history. These politicians did not just sabotage AU’s transformation for Alberta and Canada, they may have, in fact, sabotaged global transformation and creative approaches to higher education beyond Canada’s borders. As Mark Twain once wrote, ‘of course truth is stranger than fiction, fiction has to make sense.’ None of what has transpired at AU the past year makes any sense and is void of any sense of duty and commitment to public service. Indeed, a special kind of political stupid in Albertan politics and pettiness. The HE sector, including open universities, is in flux globally and innovative institutions like AU are key leaders that can lead the adaptations and global interconnections of changing markets, new credentialing, digitalisation and A. I., and redefining the business of doing business in modern universities. AU was positioned to be one of the key leaders in this transformation. AU was positioned to share this as Canadian and global partners in open and distance education. And finally, AU was in the right place at the right time with the right people and leadership to lead this. In the final analysis, this is an immeasurable loss for Alberta, Canada, and higher education across the globe. Godspeed Peter Scott.

  5. Hi Tony. I landed here not directly via your website, but because this article of yours is linked to the web page on “” where Simon Buckingham Shun and Jon Dron have set up an appeal to collect signatures of protest against the situation at AU. I did not know Peter Scott personally, but so many members of the AU faculty are dear friends and colleagues from past projects and, of course, AU has a name and has had an impact in the ODL community worldwide – including here in Brazil, from where I write. I have just phoned my frind Fred Litto, President of ABED (Brazilian Association of ODL), whom I know yoiu know, to discuss the mobilization of the ABED community to sign the petition. I see that my name was #120 on the list of those who signed. I am sure that we can get much more than 120 additional folks to sign, just from Brazil. I will also contact my USA base – the IDD&E program at Syracuse University – to see if I can mobilize the faculty and students (and maybe also AECT and ISPI members nationwide) to join the protest. Cheers. Alex Romi (Alexander Romiszowski),


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