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'An abuse of power': Athabasca University student, faculty groups slam sudden president firing

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Associations representing students and faculty at Athabasca University condemned the replacement of the president who resisted the government's push to increase the number of school employees living in the northern Alberta community.

The Athabasca students' union and faculty association published statements labelling the sudden termination of President Peter Scott as "an abuse of power" by the province and a "political gain" for the United Conservative Party.

Last Wednesday, the university's board of governors — the top decision-making body at the post-secondary institution — announced that Alex Clark, the dean of health sciences, would immediately replace Scott.

The university said in a statement that the "important decision" came at a time "of growth and needed stability" as it focused on offering "open and flexible learning while also contributing to the local economy."

Made up of 19 people, including the chair and president, the board has 10 public members appointed by the province and three representatives selected by students — one graduate and two undergraduate students.

The Athabasca Students' Union says its student representatives were not consulted prior to the board's decision.

"The reason the Post-Secondary Learning Act puts students on the Board of Governors is so that students have a voice in major decisions of their university," said Karen Fletcher, AUSU president and university board member.

"The fact that students were deliberately excluded from the discussion and vote is an abuse of power," she added in a statement. "Going forward, that has to change.”

Dur-E-Najaf Syed, AUSU vice president and board of governors member, said the decision to fire a president without student representation set a "terrible precedent."

"As a member of the Board of Governors, I am offended and appalled to be informed of this decision only after the public members had already been consulted and allowed to vote," Syed said.

"This makes it clear that the student voice on the Board of Governors is seen as performative, and that my vote does not count. That is wrong."

Early last year, the provincial government threatened to withhold a monthly $3.4-million grant if the university didn't double the number of employees living in Athabasca.

Scott said at the time that demand would challenge staff retention and recruitment. The province then overhauled the membership of the board of governors.

An agreement was reached in December between the province and university stipulating the number of locally-based employees would increase from 252 to 277 within three years. Half of the university leadership would also be expected to be based in the northern Alberta community.

The association representing Athabasca faculty members said Scott's firing "without cause" was "government interference" and a waste of resources.

"The Board's actions demonstrate a flagrant abuse of the search process and a disregard for collegial governance," said Rhiannon Rutherford, Athabasca University Faculty Association president.

Rutherford called on Clark and the university's administration to be transparent and support "stability and employee well-being over unproductive disruption."

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides told CTV News Edmonton that the province does not "directly intervene" in institutional decisions.

"It is my understanding that the Chair and Board are following their established bylaws in the best interest of Athabasca University," Nicolaides said in a statement.

"The university Board's bylaws indicate that if a member believes that there has been a breach of the rules that they should raise the matter with the Board Chair," he added.

"I'm confident if there are any issues that the Board can adequately resolve them."

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