The Newfoundland and Labrador government wanted the next president of Memorial University to be someone who would help “advance the provincial agenda,” documents released Wednesday suggest. The revelation — one of several contained in notes and emails dated in January of this year — rekindles concerns the provincial government has violated Memorial’s independence, the university’s faculty association said.
In an email to provincial Education Minister Joan Burke, a high-ranking civil servant asks for guidance on how to proceed with interviewing two candidates for the university’s top job. “Do you want an informal conversation, or would you like some draft discussion points prepared?”
Rebecca Roome, the Education Department’s deputy minister, wrote Jan. 21. “I would think we’d be interested in discussing the president’s relationship with the department? The role of the university in advancing the provincial agenda (economic development etc.)?”
Burke replied: “I would like to prepare some questions … around relationship to gov.”
The documents were obtained by the province’s Opposition Liberals through access-to-information legislation and provided to media outlets Wednesday. They show that Burke signed off on a prepared list of four questions she asked of the candidates, who she interviewed in January but later rejected. The questions emphasized the need to implement the government’s vision for the university, and two of them contain what appear to be answers that the minister is seeking in response.
“What mechanisms would you employ to ensure collaboration on areas of mutual interest?” a document dated Jan. 23 says, followed by a note in parentheses that says, “MUN strategic plan informed by provincial priorities.”
In an interview Wednesday, Burke denied accusations that she infringed upon the university’s autonomy in asking candidates questions that appear to have more to do with the school’s relationship with the government than academia. She said the list of questions only formed a framework for her interviews with the candidates, and that there were other questions she asked of them. She declined to say what those were. “We certainly had a more free-flow conversation,” she said.
Burke also said she didn’t know why Roome would send her an email suggesting the government would be interested in each candidate’s opinion on the university’s role in advancing the provincial agenda. “I guess Rebecca Roome can answer that question because she was the one who posed it to me,” Burke said.
Ross Klein, Memorial’s faculty association president, said the documents revive concerns that the school’s autonomy has been compromised. “They seem to verge on the point of a litmus test, especially when parenthetically it appears as though there are answers they’re looking for,” Klein said. “It’s problematic when there seems to be questions that are used as a basis on which a person is either acceptable or not.”
Klein and members of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, a national organization representing academic staff, met with Burke on Tuesday in the hope of addressing their concerns.
Klein said the meeting was fruitless. “We left really with no clue about what the government is going to be doing after this,” he said. “They don’t seem to appreciate the degree to which what they’ve done has impacted reputation and the university’s status.”
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 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.
-with a report from CP