On Campus

N.L. faculty say academic freedom jeopardized by minister's intervention

But student union believes claims of political interference are overblown

Faculty members say academic freedom at Memorial University is threatened after Newfoundland and Labrador’s education minister said earlier today that she rejected candidates for the school’s top job after personally interviewing them.

Joan Burke defended the active role she took in the selection process for president and denied accusations of political interference.

Burke said after she personally interviewed two presidential candidates, she told the school’s search committee to find other applicants for the prestigious post.

“I interviewed the people who were on the short list and I asked the search committee to continue with their work,” Burke said.

“Do I think that government needs to step away from this process? Absolutely not. As long as we have a budget of $240 million, we have 2,500 staff, we have 18,000 students (at the school), I think that we are expected by the people of Newfoundland and Labrador to play the leadership role that is ours.”

Burke said it was her decisionnot that of Premier Danny Williamsto interview the candidates.

Under provincial law, the cabinet has the authority to approve or reject the search committee’s selection for president, though approval has long been considered a formality. In some other provinces, such as Nova Scotia and Ontario, universities do not need the approval of their provincial governments to select incoming presidents.

“If previous administrations merely rubber-stamped and had no vested interest in providing the appropriate leadership, they can speak to that,” Burke said.

“Newfoundland and Labrador can certainly make its own decisions, and we don’t have to act in the way that other provinces or other universities do.”

Burke’s comments triggered outrage among some university faculty members.

“I’m absolutely appalled, as I think every other member of the university community will be,” said geography professor Chris Sharpe, who sat on a previous Memorial presidential search committee.

The head of the faculty’s union said Burke’s involvement in the presidential selection process is unprecedented and calls into question the school’s autonomy.

“It’s frightening,” said Ross Klein, president-elect of the Memorial University Faculty Association.

“What it suggests is that if she’s going to be actively administering the university, would she come in and deal with an individual faculty member whose politics she didn’t like? Or an individual administrator at a lower level that she didn’t like?”

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. Meisen now works for the Alberta Research Council.

Klein said Burke’s intervention undermines the rigorous work conducted by the search committee, and questioned what qualified her to decide on the hiring of the university’s chief academic officer.

“In terms of her background, what gives her the ability to make these kinds of judgments and these decisions?” he asked.

Before entering politics, Burke was a parole officer and worked in executive positions on unions.

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said while the provincial government funds the university, that does not give it the right to interfere in the highest levels of its decision-making.

“Governments across Canada fund public universities,” Michael said. “I’m completely shocked and angered.”

Burke declined to elaborate on what qualifications the candidates lacked, saying she didn’t want to breach their confidentiality. But she said she did not want to “settle for anyone.”

“I want somebody who can lead Memorial University, who can provide the vision that we need in this province and to bring that institution forward and to make sure that it remains one of the best universities, I think, in the world,” she said.

Cameron Campbell, an executive director of the university’s student union, said while the government’s involvement may be unusual, he thinks concerns overt political interference have been overblown.

“This government has obviously taken a proactive stance when it comes to education, and we’ve been happy with that in recent times,” Campbell said.

“As a student I don’t want to go to an institution that’s controlled by a government. I want to go to an institution that is autonomous and has academic freedom, but I do think we have that.”

The Canadian Press

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