After months of scrapping with the United Conservative Party government over the role Athabasca University should play in economic development for the Town of Athabasca, university president Peter Scott has been fired. 

Athabasca University’s main building in the Town of Athabasca (Photo: Heather Stocking).

In a statement emailed to AU faculty and staff yesterday ostensibly announcing the appointment of a new president, UCP-appointed board Chair Byron Nelson confirmed that Dr. Scott “has been released from his position as president of Athabasca University.”

While the term “released” was ambiguous, Mr. Nelson soon after told media Dr. Scott had been “terminated without cause.”

Mr. Nelson, a former Progressive Conservative Party leadership candidate, did not give a reason for Dr. Scott’s firing in the email, nor did he say in his statement how or when the decision was made, or precisely by whom – factors that could turn out to be important if a satisfactory severance deal cannot be reached with departing president, who was hired only in January 2022.

According to the Globe and Mail, Dr. Scott’s five-year contract had a base annual salary of $305,000 and indicated he is entitled to 26 weeks’ salary as severance. Given the circumstances of his firing, arguably for trying to do what he was hired to do after moving from Australia, it’s possible that won’t be the end of the story. 

Dr. Scott was touted as “an international expert in digital-first learning” when his appointment to lead the 53-year-old distance education university was announced. He had been vice-chancellor at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. He holds a PhD in psychology from Sheffield University in the U.K. 

Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides with former premier Jason Kenney back in the day (Photo: Government of Alberta).

However, he soon made himself unpopular with Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides and former premier Jason Kenney by publicly opposing their scheme to force 500 employees and their families to move to the Town of Athabasca, population 2,800, 145 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Yesterday’s firing seemingly confirms an unprecedented level of interference in the operation of the post-secondary institution by elected officials. 

In a video message posted in August last year – watch it soon, because AU is bound to pull it down quickly now – Dr. Scott assailed the Kenney-Nicolaides plan as “1980s thinking” that would put AU on “the path to ruin.” 

In the 12-minute video, he accused Dr. Nicolaides and the UCP of putting regional pork-barrel politics ahead of the interests of the university and its students. “I’m concerned that the minister has put AU in an unreasonable, untenable position,” he said. “Signing this agreement may set the university back 40 years.”

Dr. Nicolaides eventually toned down his plans for a large move, at least for the time being, but continued to insist he wanted the university’s top executives to live in the town. He told members of the AU community he believed it was possible for AU to expand the worldwide “near virtual campus” Dr. Scott and earlier presidents had advocated while still keeping a significant number of employees at the university’s two-building campus in the town that few students ever see. 

AU’s new president, Alex Clark, appointed yesterday (Photo: Athabasca University video).

Whether the UCP Government demanded Dr. Scott’s removal, the board decided to fire him on its own, or the decision was made by Mr. Nelson and other government appointees on the board, his replacement is presumably willing to live in Athabasca and be easier for the minister to get along with. 

Dr. Alex Clark, the new president, was until yesterday AU’s dean of health sciences. 

He was a leading candidate in the search that chose Dr. Scott, Mr. Nelson’s email said. But given the state of turmoil, falling enrollment, the fact the university is facing a $5 million funding shortfall, plus the threats of cuts to funding if the university failed to do Dr. Nicolaides’ bidding, a normal executive search would probably have had trouble finding a qualified outside candidate willing to take the job. 

Dr. Clark holds a PhD in nursing and is an RN. He is the author of a blog called The Happy Academic and, according to his official AU biography, was once named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

In a video posted yesterday, Dr. Clark said that “as president, with an active residence in the town of Athabasca, I commit to grow AU’s contributions near and far.”

Join the Conversation


  1. It’s a well know ln fact that these pretend conservatives and Reformers don’t create jobs, they only destroy them. The sad thing is that there are people who are still supporting the UCP, regardless of how bad they are. You can’t get any more foolish than that.

  2. Oh my, Dani’s supporters are going to have their knickers in a knot ,when they find out that Dr Clark was part of the WEF , they are already questioning her copping out with what seems to be a deal with that scourge from Ottawa about the childcare spaces. That along with “15 min cities” and digital ID to get the benefits are making her supporters question her…umm?? ideals ?? Though she can always hope they won’t pay attention to this news, what with parents, aka the mother’s should be home raisin’ da chil’ren anyway, sur’ …..
    (Welcome to the 20th century of UCP supporters…. ) Sad !!!
    Dang, now whur did I leave that dur w’isky jug ??..Maaabel….!!

  3. I suspected Dr. Scott would leave, although its a bit surprising it took this long. However, I suppose the UCP had a lot of other more pressing problems and issues to deal with first.

    Interesting that the Globe and Mail is reporting this. I suppose if you want to really know what is going on in Alberta don’t bother just reading the local papers who sadly often seem hesitant to shed much light on politically controversial matters.

    Referring to an active residence seems an odd choice of words, so I am thinking this may not be his only or primary residence or even one he has had for a long time. In this case, I suspect a big qualification for career advancement was not academic, but where one owned or bought property.

    So morale and the reputation of our supposed on line education everywhere post secondary institution will now be somewhat diminished. I suppose that is the price to pay politically for the government to keep the voters in its namesake community happy at least for a few months until after the election.

    After that, who knows. Maybe the UCP will later end up closing the rural facility much like they did with the distance learning centre in nearby Barrhead. Being reliable rural voters doesn’t always pay off in the long run.

  4. It should be mentioned that all this was happening around the time Dr. Scott’s wife was diagnosed with cancer in December; she passed away in January.

    In the meantime, Demetrios Nicolaides has moved on to defending “free speech” on the University of Lethbridge campus, where fired Mount Royal University professor Frances Widdowson had decided to raise a ruckus. You might remember her from this article:

    She was invited to the campus by a philosophy professor, where she did speak
    to a class this week about “wokeism”. However, the university rescinded her permission to speak to a wider university audience after receiving two petitions with thousands of signatures from the students. She decided to give a speech anyways, and threatened the university would have to haul her away with security.

    “It should be for students, not university administrators, to make the final decision about whether to listen to a speech or not,” Nicolaides said.

    Thanks for the suggestion, Mr. Minister. The students did just that yesterday in the atrium at University Hall on campus. There were several hundred students present for an indigenous drum circle, a jingle dancer, a circle dance and an impromptu speech from a residential school survivor. A speech on understanding residential school denialism was scheduled for the same time. FW decided to leave of her own accord.

    It was the first day of Black History Month.

  5. Hmmm, wonder what AU’s Board of Governors would do if the government said they had to relocate to Athabasca from Calgary, Edmonton and in-between? Surely it’s even more important that the people responsible for the organization live in Athabasca! Yeah, right.

  6. Can you imagine the mess we would be in if these fools where allowed to create their own police force to use against anyone who doesn’t agree with their stupid brand of politics. Their solution to any problem is to get even with anyone who doesn’t agree with it. Poilievre has certainly proven he another one. Wants to destroy the CBC for daring to bad mouth his brand of stupid politics. Putting 7,500 people out of work is no concern of his. If it weren’t for these tv stations and guys like David keeping us informed of all this stupidity I don’t know what we would do. Thanks David.

    1. Alan K. Spiller: I recall you mentioning about being called a communist, on Postmedia newspaper comment sections. If the UCP goes ahead with a provincial police force, it will be like a dictatorship, or a police state. These people who are calling you a communist are basically proving how dumb they are. Under communism, the government was never questioned, or challenged, because people would be imprisoned, or executed. Would these people be happy living under a police state? Ironic, don’t you think?

  7. Now the UCP has to apply pressure to Suncor, Cenovus, CNRL etc. to make all of their executives and administrative staff move to Ft. McMurray. Just think of how this influx will revivify the town.

  8. Worth noting, also, that Dr. Scott was fired three weeks after his wife died.
    It’s those little touches that show the real nature of the UCP.

  9. I remember reading in History class about a colonial power that uprooted families, relationships and communities and forced them against their will to relocate to survive, seems that same power is still at it.

  10. So the provincial government that has enacted the deepest pse cuts in Canadian history wants to keep micromanaging its universities’ affairs–right down to where employees of its distance-education university live. For an idea of where this may be going, recall that Premier Danielle Smith is a fan of culture warrior par excellence, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who has just declared school libraries to be the equivalent of biohazards.

    1. I should add that Jason Kenney and his Minister of Higher Education, what’s his name with the doctorate from the University of Cyprus where, according to Wikipedia, “he is recognized as one of the institution’s most notable alumni,” justified the cuts to pse by saying that Alberta’s universities should be relying less on public money. No doubt the beatings will continue until universities toe the line in the land of the “Strong and Free.” You know, like, awarding residential schools lobbyist Francis Widdowson an honorary degree.

  11. I often get the sense that when really accomplished and competent people start dealing with these UCP goons, that they quickly know an effective working relationship is impossible. So, why not yank the chain of the political bully, and see how foolish you can make them look?
    Meanwhile, start quietly sending out resumes to organizations that actually care about good governance and managerial acumen, begin angling for a big severance, and all the while show these incompetents what smart, confident leadership looks. This certainly seems to be the case with Dr. Scott, who must have recognized early on that his tenure would be brief. What did he have to lose by making Minister Demetrios Nicolaides look weak and foolish?
    Most of these UCP clowns couldn’t manage a convenience store, and their people skills mainly involve braying like asses – loud, semi-hysterical threats.
    I think the UCP caucus know they are in over their heads, and that their only play is to appeal to their rube base, who are seemingly (and astonishingly) even dumber, by being “tough guys”. They have always hated authority figures like teachers, medical professionals, judges, regulators, managers, and bosses – people who do have experience and skills managing others, who have gone to school, and/or have extensive real world experience.
    When the conservative base talks about the “elites”, they mean people who they know are smarter than themselves. How sad to know you are dumb, and don’t have the skills to be an effective leader. All you have left is the cudgel and the knife. Effective in the short term – not so great when trying to manage an economy and a province for long term growth and prosperity.
    Why would any accomplished person work for this govt other than short term financial gain?

  12. Amazing backwards thinking! Does the minister own land in Athabasca ? What is the ridiculous cost of moving 500 staff and family to a town of 2800 people? Looks like a loose loose loose for everyone . I have not heard 1 coherent reason for the move. Shameful waste of money, destroying a unique and well regarded university,

  13. Mr. Nelson soon after told media Dr. Scott had been “terminated without cause.”

    Oh dear. There goes the rest of the budget.

  14. Once upon a time, I attended a Nursing conference at which Dr Clark was one of the keynote speakers. I think I may have met & had a brief conversation with him a couple times since. There aren’t too many nurses that are heads of universities in this country — if any. It’s too bad he came to it in this fashion.

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