‘They’ll make the rules’: critics concerned about process of post-secondary board appointments

Faculty associations and ousted board members are raising questions about how and why Alberta’s provincial government is overhauling membership on post-secondary institution boards.

Michael Phair, the ousted board chair of the University of Alberta board of governors, said he questions the process the United Conservative Party government has used to replace dozens of people on post-secondary institution boards. Larry Wong / Edmonton Journal

Faculty associations and ousted board members are raising questions about how and why Alberta’s provincial government is overhauling membership on post-secondary institution boards.

Chairman of the board of Red Deer College until Monday, Morris Flewwelling said Wednesday he was surprised to be fired from the post while the college is partway through a transition into a university.

A self-described lifelong conservative supporter, Flewwelling said he and the advanced education minister had discussed how it would be advantageous for him to stay in the post while a new president takes helm of the institution.

“I felt that it was a bit dismissive and I questioned the process,” the former Red Deer mayor said of his rapid departure.

Flewwelling had about six months left in his term when government told him the board was “going in a different direction.”

On Wednesday, a government press release said that on Monday, Advanced Education Minister appointed Guy Pelletier as board chair for Red Deer College, and appointed Kristen Korhonen and Julie Oliver as board members until September 2022, while rescinding the appointments of three board members.

Red Deer public school trustee Dianne Macaulay and teacher Karin Melnyk were also removed from the board.

Also Wednesday, Fort McMurray consultant Peter Fortna said he was removed from the Keyano College board Monday after publicly criticizing government’s removal of three other college board members three weeks ago.

Nicolaides appointed communications adviser Margaret Ziolecki to replace him.

The changes follow the government’s moves in August to appoint 43 people to 11 Alberta post-secondary institution boards, displacing some high-profile NDP government appointees, such as former University of Alberta board chairman, Michael Phair.

“In revitalizing our agencies, boards and commissions, we focused our recruitment efforts on those with the right skills, competencies and experience for the job,” Nicolaides’ press secretary, Laurie Chandler, said in an email Wednesday. “The former government had filled positions to further its priorities and it is appropriate for us to do the same.”

Faculty members concerned by process

Last month, Alberta’s auditor general reported the process of appointing members of government agencies, boards and commissions was inefficient, inconsistent and sometimes resulted in vacant posts for longer than six months.

Candidates were not always chosen based on the skills listed in advertisements for the posts, he found.

On Sept. 6, Finance Minister Travis Toews announced the UCP government would centralize board recruitment and appointments through the public agency secretariat.

Chandler did not answer questions Wednesday about whether the secretariat was involved in Monday’s board appointments or what processes government used to select new post-secondary board appointees.

On Sept. 5, the Association of Academic Staff, University of Alberta, wrote to Nicolaides to express concern about Phair’s replacement, mid-term, and asked for an explanation, according to documents obtained by Postmedia.

Association president Kevin Kane questioned what process the minister used to post the openings, seek diverse and qualified candidates and assess the skills and qualifications of the six people he appointed to the university’s board last month.

Kane could not be reached on Wednesday.

‘Government is the big boy’

Faculty Association of Red Deer College president Ken Heather said Wednesday he’s disappointed government is “reverting back to the old appointment of conservative party faithful to boards,” and has concerns about the fairness of the process.

Given recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel to review the viability of colleges and universities and potentially tie funding to performance and labour-market outcomes, Heather questioned whether the new appointees come with marching orders.

“What are they telling these people moving us forward?” he said.

Both Phair and Flewwelling said they applied to serve on public boards and participated in multiple interviews before receiving their appointments.

Phair was shocked by the abruptness of his “banishment,” given he was leading a committee to search for a new president to replace David Turpin, who is leaving in June 2020. He said it showed a lack of respect for the work he’d put into the voluntary position.

“I think it was orchestrated to indicate that the government is the big boy,” he said Wednesday. “They’ll make the rules.”

Chandler said the institutions receive millions of taxpayer dollars and board members must have the strongest possible financial acumen and management experience.

“These new appointees will help our institutions build strong relationships with industry to ensure that we are getting better labour market outcomes.”