Unprecedented interference by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador in the year-long search for a new president of Memorial University is a threat to the institution’s autonomy and the academic freedom of its staff, charges CAUT.
Education Minister Joan Burke triggered a growing cascade of resignations, finger-pointing and “he-said, she-said” statements, when she stunned those involved in the search process in July by summarily rejecting two top candidates recommended by Memorial’s 18-member presidential search committee.
The committee, created in May 2007 to find a replacement for former president Axel Meisen, includes faculty, students, university board members and representatives from the public and business community.
CAUT has written to Burke, asking for a meeting to discuss her involvement.
“Universities, if they are to fulfil their roles, must be free of political influences and outside pressures,” states CAUT’s July 30 letter, which also describes Burke’s action as “unprecedented” and of “serious concern.”
Memorial faculty association president Ross Klein said if the meeting with Burke doesn’t happen by early September, his executive will consider asking for a CAUT investigation. One possible outcome is censure, which would debilitate the university’s chances of attracting not just a president, but any new faculty.
“It is time for the government to apologize for what it’s done,” Klein said. “If government directly interferes in the selection process for a president, they may also interfere in other activities and processes in the university. The loss of autonomy poses a serious threat to academic freedom.”
Burke’s intervention ignited a maelstrom of controversy and elicited a series of conflicting statements from Premier Danny William’s office, ranging from claims that provincial legislation allowed for “input” from the premier, to a suggestion that the selection committee and Memorial’s board of regents had invited government involvement in the process.
The board of regents in turn issued its own statement saying Burke’s actions came as a “surprise” to the search committee and characterizing the government’s nonacceptance of the candidates as “inappropriate interference in the normal process.” The statement also expressed continuing “support for the presidential search committee” and endorsement of acting president Eddy Campbell’s public statement on university autonomy.
Campbell withdrew his name as a candidate for president of the university after it became public that Burke had interviewed him and another candidate for the job, and rejected both as unsuitable to take over the presidency.
Campbell had been identified by the search committee as its preferred candidate.
“That committee should be free to conclude the mandate it was given without interference or outside influence, as is the case with all presidential search committees at other Canadian universities,” Campbell said in his Aug. 1 statement
The controversy also prompted the resignation of Memorial’s dean of arts Reeta Tremblay from the search committee as well as that of Deanne Fleet from the board of regents. Fleet, who served on the board as an alumni association representative, is a reporter for CBC-TV based in St. John’s.
The province has asserted that its involvement in approving a new president for Memorial is in compliance with the legislation governing the university.
However, sections 33 and 34 of the Memorial University Act specifically lay out the broad powers of the board of regents in managing the affairs and business of the university without interference, with section 51 adding that the president is to be appointed by the board in consultation with the university’s senate and with the approval of the lieutenant-governor in council.
In the wake of government claims that the Act sanctions Cabinet approval in the hiring process, Memorial’s board of regents is now recommending the legislation be amended to clearly reflect the autonomy of the university, and “to be more in line with appointment practices at other Canadian universities.”
Memorial sources have told the Bulletin that the provincial government has agreed to meet with the university’s board of regents to discuss the search, but no date has been set. As of press time, the education minister’s office is arranging a Sept. 9 meeting with CAUT.