Writing in The Tyee Thursday, Alberta-based investigative journalist Charles Rusnell reported that Athabasca University’s president was fired Wednesday without a vote of the institution’s entire board of governors.
Three board members representing sections of the distance university’s community told Mr. Rusnell that they were not informed of the vote to remove Dr. Peter Scott, who was hired a year ago in January 2022 and had been resisting the United Conservative Party’s plan to use the university as a tool for economic development in the Town of Athabasca ever since.
The three said they could easily have been reached.
The same day, the university’s official position was “that Athabasca University’s Board of Governors made the decision about Dr. Scott in accordance with board bylaws, which include rules for how meetings are conducted and how votes are held.”
Contacted by Mr. Rusnell, the board’s UCP-appointed chair, Byron Nelson, used the same talking point, telling the reporter that Dr. Scott was fired after a “proper vote based on our bylaws,” and, moreover, that “we had a vote as per our bylaws that was in line with our governance rules.”
The Globe and Mail caught up to Mr. Nelson yesterday and he admitted, reluctantly by the sound of it, that the way he conducted the vote wasn’t exactly “best practices” for a supposedly democratic board, but that it couldn’t be because the board was secretly considering who they should hire to replace the guy they’d already decided to fire.
Leastways, that’s the way I’d interpret Mr. Nelson’s explanation as transcribed by the Globe’s reporter, who wrote: “‘The way that this was conducted, while legal, I would acknowledge was not best practices,’ said Mr. Nelson, who is a lawyer. ‘It wasn’t best practices and it couldn’t be best practices.’ The process was less than ideal because the situation was ‘unique’ and required an ‘extreme amount of confidentiality,’ Mr. Nelson said.”
The Globe also identified two board members who had not been informed of the vote, both representatives of the university’s students – in other words, positions that couldn’t be controlled by the province’s UCP Government, which appointed Mr. Nelson last May and which without question was the driving force behind the firing of Dr. Scott and its timing, three weeks after the death of his wife in Australia.
Article 8.2 of the General Bylaws of the AU Board of Governors, which deals with notice of meetings, states, “The accidental omission to give notice of a meeting, or the non-receipt of any notice by, (sic) any person entitled to such notice shall not invalidate the proceedings of the meeting. The failure to give notice of any particular item of business will not invalidate the proceedings of the meeting for which the notice was given.” (Emphasis added.)
The wording of the second sentence of Article 8.2.7 likely explains how it can be true that members of a democratic board were not told of the vote and yet the vote is technically legal at the same time.
In his conversation with the Globe’s reporter, Mr. Nelson argued that contacting all board members wasn’t necessary anyway because he had the votes he needed to fire Dr. Scott.
“This was not a close vote,” he told the Globe’s reporter. “It was the overwhelming decision of the board.”
Of course, as history shows, an eloquent speaker can sometimes sway members of a governing body to vote in a way they didn’t plan to when they entered the meeting room. Which is why, in a case like this, both “best practices” and natural justice require a vote of the full board to be held.
Some useful conclusions can be drawn from this development that are applicable to all post-secondary institutions in Alberta, including the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta.
First, there are now two classes of board member on post-secondary institution boards, those who can expect to be notified of contentious agenda items and those who cannot be so sure they will be.
In the case of the AU Board, the former category appears to be made up of members hand-picked by Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides when he purged the board of NDP appointed public members in October 2022.
When he replaced those four board members with seven new public members, Dr. Nicolaides said he did it to advance his plan to force 500 staff members to move to the town of 2,800 located 145 kilometres north of Edmonton, where AU’s small campus is located.
Second-class board members are those who cannot be counted on to do the minister’s bidding, such as representatives of students, grad students, academic staff, tutors, and so on. (See Article 3.1.1.) This is likely particularly so in the case of students at the 53-year-old distance university because the majority do not come from Alberta. In some years, as many as 40 per cent of registered students lived in Ontario.
Second, that university and doubtless other public boards cannot be expected to abide by traditional best practices when decisions politically important to the government are in play, as is the case now with a provincial election scheduled for May 29 and promises made to voters in Athabasca about the size of the university’s workforce in the town.
For the same reason, Alberta institutions under the hand of the UCP government cannot be expected to behave with much compassion when political considerations are in play. As noted, when he was fired, Dr. Scott was on leave in Australia mourning the death of his wife three weeks ago after a short battle with cancer.
The Globe reported that Dr. Nicolaides said in a statement yesterday that “it was his understanding that bylaws were followed, but any board members who feel the rules were breached should raise the issue with the chair.”
Once again, no laws were broken, a phrase that really ought to be translated into Latin and put on the coat of arms of Alberta as the province’s aspirational official motto. Nullae leges fracti sunt.
As for taking it up with the board chair who made the decision, who was once a candidate to lead the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, that does not seem like a formula likely to succeed.
Nothing to see here, folks. Please move along.
Ultimately, the goal is to assure that there is partisan UCP representation on all so called public boards, whether partially or 100% of those boards. This will pave the way for governance by edit from the Premier’s Office. Public involvement will soon be a mere formality, as the UCP sees such things as a mere inconvenience.
They have already determined that the public cannot be trusted and UCP partisanship will rule at all times. I suspect, at some point in the future, the UCP will be selecting the candidates in municipal elections, if elections are even permitted. Can’t like something as unpredictable as democracy and voting rights get in the way of the will of the party.
Well to paraphrase George Orwell, some board members are more equal than others.
It must be a bit insulting to those representatives who were “accidentally” not informed of the meeting on such an important matter. Obviously they are not regarded as being more than symbolic by the government, but given Mr. Nelson’s comments, the whole board itself is a bit of a sham. Important decisions are made by politicians and ratified by the board members than can be relied upon are just dutifully carrying them out. In this case, without much enthusiasm as an executioner.
I’m not sure what the urgency was that precluded some board members being accidentally not informed of the meeting. Maybe Mr. Scott was soon to return from bereavement leave or maybe the Minister was having a really bad day and insisted Scott be fired right away. Most likely it was just done to avoid a more thorough debate or discussion that might ensue with those who could not be counted on to obey political instructions in the room.
It will not be helpful for future relations with students and staff that their legal representatives were left out of this important decision related to the educational institution they are a part of. However this is Alberta, where the UCP elite makes decisions for their convenience and benefit and doesn’t even much talk about the grassroots any more.
Of course, this is the same party that also promised in the last election not to cut health care and then went to war against health care workers. So who is to say their next minister, if they are reelected, may not later decide keeping a school in Athabasca is not so important and too expensive after all.
If that happens, the board which is mostly for show and decoration anyways likely won’t stop it either.
I thought that Danielle Smith was claiming to be there for rural Albertans. That clearly isn’t the case. Rural Albertans and everyone else would be better off without the UCP. Pseudo conservatives and Reformers have never been known to create jobs, unless it’s for their already well off friends. They are good at destroying jobs.
A question that I have not seen an adequate answer to is how the chair came to the conclusion that (some of) the Board needed to vote on sacking the president. I presume the Minister told him to, but perhaps there is more to this story. If Nelson wants anyone to trust him again, he needs to clarify.
Can we count on the UCP not to interfere in the democratic process in the next election? Ethics, morals and scruples have gone out the window. What we are seeing is not a government holding up the tenets of democracy, but manipulating rules to its advantage.
Now we see that a man convicted of a quintuple murder is seeking a discharge, claiming political interference by ex-Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer.
Lawyers in Alberta are sure doing a lot to get themselves in the news these days, and most of it does not reflect well on them. You’d think they’re after the free bus tickets and clothing offered at the arrest processing facility in Calgary. Then there’s the law society review into the conduct of Tyler Shandro. The only bright light in all this is the 400-plus lawyers who signed a petition supporting indigenous cultural education (as opposed to the 50 who want it gone).
We should be very concerned about the failure of those in charge of our province to uphold democratic principles. We are in the late stages of a dying democracy here in Alberta, where if our government doesn’t like a rule, they change it, democratic or not. Principles be damned. We are one step away from an authoritarian regime. Very soon the principles in place when our nation was formed will be too seriously eroded to protect us from our rulers and overlords. Come on baby, serfin’ safari…
*S/b not criminally responsible.
“accidental omission” =/= deliberate or malicious omission
Article 8.2 deals with the “accidental” omission to give notice – where do the bylaws deal with any deliberate ommission?
Ed: The next sentence, arguably. DJC
The two sentences have three distinct phrases containing “meeting”. “The accidental omission to give notice of a meeting, or the non-receipt of any notice by, any person entitled to such notice shall not invalidate the proceedings of the meeting. The failure to give notice of any particular item of business will not invalidate the proceedings of the meeting for which the notice was given.” (1a) notice of a meeting (1b)non-receipt of any notice (2)item of business…meeting. Three distinct phrases referencing the “meeting”. Deliberate omission has already been admitted to by the UCP. It is the second sentence use of “item of business” that separates itself into a subset of the “meeting” which is indeed at the end and circles back to the first sentence (1a) & “meeting for which the notice was given” and, in fact, reinforces that “item” is a smaller part of “meeting”.
The next question is: Who, specifically, is “any person entitled to such notice”?
Which is interesting, because that sentence would invalidate the entire section regarding notice entirely. Given how the rest reads (must be four days notice, must be publicly posted, here’s what we define as proper notice), that last sentence smells of a quiet edit to end-run the whole process. Wonder when it was added?
A lot of sound and fury from Minister Nicolaides recently about free speech and academic freedom in Alberta’s post-secondary institutions. But, when staffing “push” comes to “shove” Hypocritae praeessent cubent. Which, could be the UCP’s motto.
Is Alberta becoming an irony-free zone?
Perhaps the UCP should adopt
“As noted, when he was fired, Dr. Scott was on leave in Australia mourning the death of his wife three weeks ago after a short battle with cancer” says it all. What horrible, low-class, little people we have running our government these days. The entire AU board should be replaced.
Apparently, Dr. Scott’s fate with Athabasca University was determined the moment the minister replaced four board members with the seven of his pick.
“‘The way that this was conducted, while legal, I would acknowledge was not best practices,’ said Mr. Nelson, who is a lawyer.
Degree from Liberty U or Kellogg’s Cornflakes? THat just added a few dollars to the settlement.
This is how democracy dies, one vote at a time…
Thoroughly disgusting. What it does do is signal that henceforth all UCP decisions will reflect the party’s political priorities rather than the best interests of the people of Alberta. Is this what democracy has come to mean?
One of your best columns, David. On the nose. I would add that there have been “two classes” of board members for a long time, because all conservative governments have used their power to make the “public” appointments to plant government-aligned governors on the boards. They outnumber the internal representatives of faculty, staff, and students. The current composition of the boards, and the processes for appointing public members, enable government control, permit serious conflict of interest, and the persistent domination of narrow interests, while preventing effective representation of student, staff, and faculty voices. The PSLA must be rewritten. Still waiting for the NDP to commit to holding consultations to this end. PS The whole mess is broken down in our 2022 report, Higher Education: Corporate or Public? (Parkland and CMP).
Just one more Reform Party case of getting even for not doing as they say. I wonder who’s next? To show how stupid they are. They wanted 500 staff members to move to Athabasca immediately but there was only 64 houses available to purchase. Because Peter Scott dared to show how stupid they are they had to get even . Like their ignorant supporters they can’t handle the truth and don’t want anyone pointing it out.
Another nail in the coffin of public education. This closes another door to people who are not rich, but want to improve their qualifications.
This sad episode is yet another example of Alberta operating as a unitary, single-party, authoritarian state. There is no rule OF law, merely the rule BY law created as needed by Cabinet. The whole edifice is maintained at all levels by compliant Party members appointed to various boards, regulatory bodies, and the Bench.
From long and bitter experience, I can say there is very little security of property or the person in Alberta and it is has gotten steadily worse over my lifetime.
Some have asserted Albertans are the stupidest people in the world. Here is a relevant article by an Oxford prof about what happens to otherwise intelligent people when they are given power in a state apparatus like Alberta:
Kang, thank you for the link,
Between that and the Finkelstein Method, it gives one a pretty good insight into the days politics and how politicians are operating these days.
I’ve always wondered why people never noticed that our neighbors were constantly poaching our best & brightest—money talks—
5yr or 10 yr contracts, then replace with the next crop of talent; and in the meantime keep the locals dumb enough to follow without questioning. Now they have the control they want and are working on the dumbing down of Canadians, oh sure, you can still get an education, but only within our curriculum. I know that seems like a generalization, but imo , it seems to be the end goal. Sometimes you start at the bottom aka :kindergarten/ grade 1—Max and the PPC tried pulling a fast one here during the last municipal election, and unfortunately there are now some on school boards, with more to follow if they have their way.
Sometimes you have to chip away slowly at the rock to shape it, and then if you place the wedge in the right /wrong spot, you break it apart….it seems to me that there is alot of sharp edged pieces flying around right now.
To use one of my sister’s favorite lines: if you buy a product because someone tells you it’s a “smart ” ——, it will tell you what to do, then you’ve admitted that the product is smarter than you are, and you”ve just got your hands on that little bit of cheese….Our history did teach us, supposedly, about the “Age of Enlightenment “”, but that meant (that as PP says, us common people ) we learnt that we could become better with an education, we could advance and have the same happiness and prosperity as the “upper class “, and maybe , one day become part of the chosen…BUT there are limits to those clubs . Case in point: PP telling/ yelling how broken Canada is, how only he can fix it, how he understands how us common people can’t put food on our tables, as he flies around the country having $1000+ a plate lunches…but of course we are not supposed to question that, he’s doing it for our benefit….right ???
and the ppiper leads the dummies down the road….
Education has always been a target of those whom could not or would not learn, or those in authority who felt threatened by someone with an education who would make them look bad.
” (Baldwin-1963) “”
—the paradox of education is precisely this-as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated …
“Did you know that you can’t enjoy your life if you can’t go out drinking and partying with your friends — one of the things I “learnt ” during the pandemic; gee 65+ yrs and I I didn’t know that, see never too old to learn…
Randi: Thank you for the reference to the Finkelstein method. Here is a link explaining this odious political methodology built on lies, hatred, and division:
It explains much about the UCP and its corporate backers. The methodology is powerful and as history shows, sooner or later will be turned on its creators and coreligionists.
It’s hard to argue with that. We have fallen prey to “one powerful idiot” and “a gang of Machiavellian schemers”. Of great concern if there is ever another election in Alberta: the “flock of sheep in a field” who “can be guided, steered, and manipulated to do any number of things.”
One regular poster here calls Albertans “the stupidest people on earth”. With very few exceptions, we have proven that to be true.
Kang. The American oilmen that I was involved with certainly called us the dumbest people on the planet for good reason.They were helping imperial oil steal our oil and tax wealth. It was comedian George Catlin who said it best. “ Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups” . We saw it with Klein, and Kenney, Germans saw it with Hitler and Americans saw it with Trump. There a lot of stupid people in the world and they are extremely easy to fool as our retired police officer know all too well.
During my 6 years as a faculty member on the governing Board at Athabasca University, my impression was that many, perhaps most, of the public members knew almost nothing about the university and simply did the bidding of the government. It was worse in the Klein 90s than in the Lougheed 80s. But one of the government appointees in the 1980s provided as his full bio, “farmer and lifetime member of the Progressive Conservative Party.” The guy never spoke one word at meetings, never looked at any of the material in front of him, grunted when I spoke, and always voted the way the Board chair made clear government-appointed members were supposed to vote.
Sadly this is what we see when we have a two party political system in Alberta. Basically the party in power can do as it likes, at least until the next election. We have seen plenty of examples of late with the UCP. Sadly people have very short memories when it comes to holding the political feet to the fire.
This puts the notice out to all Post Secondary admin that you are either with us or out. What a shame.
This is germane, I think – https://www.thebulwark.com/ron-desantis-chris-rufo-and-the-college-anti-woke-makeover-florida/
Certainly the government’s loading of the BoG in this case is similar, although I don’t know if the UCP is planning on reconfiguring Athabaska U as a conservative institution.
Why do I get the feeling that the UCP are using the republican play book from Kansas in 2010’s.
Worked out well for Kansas didn’t it? /sarcasm off
How long before the UCP privatizes Athabasca University?
Athabascan: I don’t think this is likely, personally, as much as the UCP might like the idea. It would upset their own base, in the Town of Athabasca at least, although it would solve the perpetual problem that AU has become. It would even upset some of their own MLAs, graduates and former students of that esteemed public institution. I think it’s more likely AU will be integrated with the University of Alberta – to the U of A’s horror, consternation and great expense – as its distance-learning arm. Blame for the inevitable layoffs and shutdowns that follow could then be shifted to the U of A. Getting rid of the two buildings in Athabasca will be a problem, as they are not really suited to some of the suggested purposes – for example, a school of northern and rural nursing. Classrooms and dorms would have to be built at great expense, and who would pay for that? Perhaps a Bond villain can be found who would purchase the secluded site as a suitable location to assemble a nuclear weapon or create a Garden of Death in the Aspen Parkland. DJC
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