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.