Government asks Athabasca University to hold off on financial details; new minister to meet president

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PHOTOS: A scene from Athabasca University’s 2015 Convocation ceremony, where the honorary degrees are handed out. Below: Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt, former AU Board chair and award recipient Barry Walker, AU President Peter MacKinnon, Wildrose Finance Critic and Tweeter Derek Fildebrandt, and Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark.

What’s shakin’ at Athabasca University? Something is, for sure.

Yesterday at lunch hour, Athabasca U interim President Peter MacKinnon emailed all staff members of the troubled distance-education university to tell them that earlier in the day he had received an “urgent request for a teleconference” from the assistant deputy minister of advanced education.

MarlinWhen he spoke with Peter Leclaire, Mr. MacKinnon said in the email, the senior civil servant requested, “and I have agreed, that AU hold off on sharing any budget details or communications until after a meeting I will be having with Minister Schmidt on March 10.”

In normal circumstances, it would hardly be unusual for newly appointed Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt to request a meeting with a public university’s president.

But these are not normal times for AU, which is facing financial difficulties so severe a task force appointed in 2014 by President MacKinnon suggested the university could become insolvent in the current fiscal year.

Nor is that the only controversy afflicting the university, what with plans to move some staff from the Town of Athabasca to the Edmonton area, secret negotiations with the City of St. Albert for office space, and the seeming defiance by the university’s board and administration of the NDP Government’s wishes.

barrywalkerLast month, another disagreement surfaced over whether to award the “Order of Athabasca University” to former Board Chair Barry Walker, a Tory appointee who led the board during the some of the years AU’s current difficulties were beginning. He was also chair at the time the University Secretary authorized illegal donations to the campaign of the local Progressive Conservative MLA.

When the AU Faculty Association on Feb. 18 passed a motion by 83 per cent opposing the award and asking the university’s awards committee to reverse the decision, it was brushed off by President MacKinnon in a sharply worded email. Accusing the faculty association of incivility, churlishness, and “innuendo and half truths,” Mr. MacKinnon reminded the association president that Mr. Walker is “one of the university’s largest individual donors.”

“I am disappointed that AUFA has decided, once again, to attempt to damage the reputation of AU (and to embarrass Mr. Walker) by making this issue public. I hope you will refrain from doing so in the future,” he concluded.

AthabascaMacKinnon-LAs this exchange makes clear, relationships between AU’s administration and faculty are now reaching a point that can be properly described as dysfunctional.

Even so, the government’s request to the president to hold off on budget details until after a meeting with a minister seems unusual.

This has naturally led to speculations that, out of patience and concerned about the economic future of the town 150 kilometres north of Edmonton where AU’s main facilities are still located, the government may be about to act. Options could include removing the board and replacing it with an appointed administrator.

Both the town and county of Athabasca have sent letters to the government expressing their grave concern about the future of the university.

Mr. MacKinnon has promised to inform employees and faculty of the outcome of his March 10 meeting with Mr. Schmidt.

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Wildrose finance critic don’t care about no stinkin’ social issues

DerekIt’s official! Wildrose Party Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt don’t care about no stinkin’ social issues! They’re just too boring.

Mr. Fildebrandt stirred up the Internet yesterday with his impatient retort to a mocking Tweet with the message he’s concentrating on important issues, and those don’t include social issues. “In all honesty, social issues didnt rank in the top 100 reasons I ran,” Mr. Fildebrandt snapped. “I find these debates stale.”

“Important issues” in the Wildrose lexicon, presumably means “lower taxes for corporations.”

I wonder what Wildrose Leader Brian Jean makes of his Shadow Minister of Finance channeling Donald Trump on the part of the party’s brand voters are least comfortable with?

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Now’s your chance to meet Alberta Party Leader … for only $20!

GregAnd what are we to make of Alberta Party Leader and sole MLA Greg Clark’s note offering constituents in his Calgary-Elbow Riding a chance to meet him and chat in a friendly Irish pub … if they’ll only buy a $20 ticket!

In fairness, Mr. Clark may have intended this communication to go to party supporters, not constituents. But find its way to constituents it did, and now they’re remarking on how they’ve never been asked to buy a ticket to meet their MLA before.

As one Calgary-Elbow resident told me: “I was going to go and hear what Clark had to say until I saw that it would cost me $20 for a ticket!”

Hey! Who said Alberta politicians never have any new ideas? And, what are theses constituents complaining about?  It’s not as if they weren’t offered two drink tickets!

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Categories Alberta Politics