An outspoken lawyer known for his independent streak has been enlisted to restore relations between Memorial University faculty and the Newfoundland and Labrador government after the school’s search for a president became mired in controversy.
Bob Simmonds, a high-profile defence lawyer based in St. John’s, was appointed the new chairman for the university’s board of regents, Education Minister Joan Burke announced Tuesday.
“I don’t expect my character to change overnight, so I would hope that if I have any gifts that I would bring those gifts and abilities to this job as I have to any other,” Simmonds said in an interview.
Simmonds takes over for Gil Dalton, who came under fire earlier this year from faculty after a government official said he provided a list of candidates for the university’s top job to Burke. That triggered accusations of political interference and soured the relationship between Memorial faculty and the provincial government.
“I would hope that my practice as a lawyer would be beneficial in that regard and that I’ll be able to build trust and respect,” said Simmonds, a 1976 Memorial graduate.
“I’m aware of the issues that have gone on before, or at least from what I’ve read in the press, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to assist and resolve any issues that might still exist.”
Memorial University Faculty Association president Ross Klein said he was cautiously optimistic after hearing of Simmonds’s appointment.
“It’s certainly a positive move because it’s a nice, clean break from the things that had happened before with the search and what appeared to be improper intrusion by government into the decision-making,” Klein said.
“We would just hope that with the new chair of the board, and particularly Bob Simmonds being the personality that he is, that the board would move forward in a very positive way and that we’ll see the appointment of a president in a short time.”
Burke has fended off accusations from some faculty members of violating the university’s autonomy after she admitted earlier this year she personally interviewed and rejected two candidates vying for the presidency. The presidential search has been at a standstill since.
In an interview, Burke defended Dalton’s record as the board’s chairman and said Simmonds would provide invaluable leadership as the school continues looking for a new president.
“I’m confident that Mr. Simmonds will be able to deal with any issues that he faces in his role as the chair of the board of regents,” she said late Tuesday.
Burke has not elaborated on why she rejected the candidates – one of whom was Memorial acting president Eddy Campbell – except to say she did not want to “settle for anyone.”
The university is now asking the provincial government to amend the law that gives the cabinet the authority to approve or reject the school search committee’s selection for president. But Premier Danny Williams has rebuffed calls to change the law.
In many other provinces, universities do not need the approval of their provincial governments to select incoming presidents.
The school began looking for a new president more than a year ago after Axel Meisen announced his resignation earlier than planned.
During his tenure, Meisen clashed with Williams over the premier’s plan to convert Memorial’s campus in Corner Brook, N.L., into a separate university.
Simmonds was the former law partner of the province’s current finance minister, but said he wasn’t concerned over how some may view his appointment.
“As I understand it, the position does not pay . . . and I’m going to have to spend time away from my practice. None of those indicate to me a patronage appointment,” he laughed.
– The Canadian Press