The search for a new president of Memorial University of Newfoundland started with a national uproar over academic freedom and ended with the appointment of an Alberta soil expert.
Gary Kachanoski, who has served as vice-president of research at the University of Alberta, was named Wednesday to take over the school’s top job July 1.
The selection process for the prestigious post was revamped after accusations of political meddling erupted last year.
There was outrage and disbelief in the national academic community after the former education minister personally interviewed – and rejected – two candidates. They included perceived front-runner Eddy Campbell, who was acting president at the time and has since moved on to become the University of New Brunswick’s president.
Joan Burke was shuffled out of the education post last April, but Premier Danny Williams said the cabinet overhaul had nothing to do with the presidential search.
He also said his government would stay out of the selection process in future.
Provincial law gives cabinet the authority to approve or reject the search committee’s pick, but approval had long been considered a formality.
Bob Simmonds, head of Memorial’s board of regents and its search committee, took pains Wednesday to stress the government’s hands-off stance.
“This process was absolutely, completely objective, professional, transparent, fair and without any interference – from not just government, from anybody.”
Kachanoski, who was born in Manitoba and raised in Saskatchewan, said he did not meet with anyone in the government prior to getting the job.
He holds a PhD in soil physics and was inducted into the Canadian Conservation Hall of Fame in 1997 for his dedication to soil and water conservation.
Kachanoski was chosen from an undisclosed short list by a 12-member selection panel that included students, faculty, the board of regents and the public. It hired an executive search firm and advertised nationally and internationally for candidates, Simmonds said.
Only after the committee’s choice was unanimously endorsed by the university senate and board of regents was it presented to the Williams government, he said.
“The provincial cabinet met today and we received its formal approval.”
He added, gesturing at Kachanoski: “We did get the best president, and he’s sitting in that chair right now.”
The new president delicately handled related questions, saying he had no opinion about the controversy – although he read about it “with interest.”
He described the furor over the government’s initial involvement in the presidential search as “obviously tense and unfortunate.”
But he cited a resulting report from an ad hoc committee of the board of regents on balancing autonomy and accountability.
“I think that report, for me, indicated that there was a clear understanding that there always has to be a balance between the natural tension that arises between public accountability and autonomy, and that was squarely set in that report,” Kachanoski said.
“I know that intense discussion occurred and is going to continue – which is part of the past. And I will come in looking for the future.”
Simmonds spoke of a team effort that has to include the politicians that finance education, and Kachanoski said he expects to have a “positive relationship” with those decision-makers.
The new president also said he would support the university’s plan to increase research funding, enhance graduate education and boost enrolment, among other goals.
Ross Klein, president of Memorial’s faculty association, said it appears some lessons were learned and an appropriate selection process was followed.
“It was certainly unfortunate it went in the direction it did,” he said.
“The most important issue is academic freedom.”
In a statement, Williams congratulated Kachanoski.
“I am confident that in the coming years, he will guide Memorial on a bright and successful path,” Williams said.
“Our government looks forward to working with him.”
– The Canadian Press