Taxpayers and students have a right to know what’s happening at Athabasca University

Athabasca University from the air, with the town of Athabasca in the background. Below: Former VP Academic Margaret Haughey, President Frits Pannekoek and former VP IT Brian Stewart.

What the heck is going on at Athabasca University?

It was revealed to the university’s faculty earlier this week that four senior administrators have left their positions at the on-line correspondence university based in the town of Athabasca, 145 kilometres north of Edmonton.

They are:

  • Margaret Haughey, Vice-President, Academic
  • Brian Stewart, Vice-President IT and Chief Information Officer
  • Murray Walford, Associate Vice-President Finance
  • Dietmar Kennepohl, Associate Vice-President Academic

The university’s spokesperson, John O’Brien, refused today to confirm the names or comment on the situation beyond saying: “Athabasca University did make some changes to its executive team on Wednesday. The university considers this an internal personnel matter and out of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved, we will be making no further statement.”

So the reason for these departures cannot be stated with confidence, although Athabasca U insiders say that shortly before the university board’s meeting Wednesday afternoon, at least some of the four administrators were summoned to a meeting with university President Frits Pannekoek and Board Chair Barry Walker at a downtown Edmonton hotel.

Additional comment on what the Edmonton Journal now calls an “executive shuffle” came in an email to faculty from Dr. Pannekoek Thursday, first reported by this blog. In that email, the university president stated: “I am informed that the executive personnel changes announced yesterday have fueled speculation about the future of our university, particularly with reference to rumours about the budget process and the possible merger of AU with another Alberta post-secondary institution. Such rumours are totally without foundation.”

However, faculty members were informed that Dr. Haughey and Dr. Stewart were gone before Wednesday’s 5 p.m. board meeting.

The rumours cited by Dr. Pannekoek were first reported in the Daveberta.ca blog on Feb. 13. Blog author Dave Cournoyer quoted Advanced Education Minister and Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk as saying he was not aware of discussions between Athabasca and the University of Alberta, but that “it would be positive if one school could utilize another’s infrastructure.”

Coverage of the university’s affairs last spring by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. indicated there are deep divisions within the administration and faculty of the provincially funded institution about its future direction.

In the absence of other information, it is not unreasonable to assume that the latest administration departures from Athabasca are related to that history. And if all or some of the four senior administrators have received buyouts, as seems probable in the circumstances, it is fair to assume the cost to taxpayers is likely to be substantial.

In April 2012, the CBC reported that the university’s faculty association demanded the resignation of President Pannekoek “over what they say is the institution’s precarious finances and outrage over illegal donations to the provincial Progressive Conservative party.”

An earlier CBC report in March 2012 revealed the university made more than $10,000 in illegal donations to the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, with the direct knowledge and approval of senior university executives, including Dr. Pannekoek.

CBC reported in April that internal union documents showed members of two of the university’s three unions representing faculty and support staff overwhelmingly passed non-confidence votes in Dr. Pannekoek’s leadership.

The CBC also reported at that time that Athabasca had spent almost all of its $30-million reserve fund. However, according to the university, as reported in the CBC story, the expenditure was planned “and had nothing to do with a strategy to obtain more operating grants out of the province.”

Interestingly, when Dr. Haughey appeared before the Alberta Legislature’s Public Accounts Committee in early December 2012, she was queried by Conservative Janice Sarich, MLA for Edmonton-Decore, who mentioned in passing the work of a government internal audit committee looking into Athabasca University.

This too raises interesting questions, chief among them, if the work of this audit is completed, what did it find?

It is said here that blowing off questions about the departure of a considerable portion of its senior administrative team as a private personnel matter is not really good enough for an institution that each year receives more than $40 million for its budget of close to $140 million directly from provincial taxpayers.

Nor is it good enough for the government to carry out an audit of the institution’s books, and then not release the information to taxpayers.

Taxpayers have a stake in this matter, as do above all the university’s 32,000 students in Alberta, Canada and around the world.

All of us deserve to be informed what the heck is really going on at Athabasca University.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

2 Comments on "Taxpayers and students have a right to know what’s happening at Athabasca University"

  1. Sam Gunsch says:

    re: this democratic obsession disease that afflicts Climenhaga, well, it may be endemic on the left, as in see below, Pat Martin has contracted it, attempting to also fight the good democratic fight for the common good, re accountability and transparency for the citizenry paying the taxes that fund societal investments like education.

    It is possible that the Con/Corporatist AB governance embedded now at both fed & prov levels tends to induce democratic earnestness. e.g. Climenhaga says: Nor is it good enough for the government to carry out an audit of the institution’s books, and then not release the information to taxpayers.

    see Martins earnest and silly observations about transparency and accountability in democratic systems of governance, here:
    http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/02/22/kevin-page-might-well-be-the-best-friend-the-canadian-taxpayer-has/

    “It is the culture of secrecy that allows corruption to flourish and for maladministration and abuse of power to occur in government, and while I agree with the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes that you can’t legislate morality or enforce ethical conduct, there’s no doubt in my mind that observation and scrutiny has the natural effect of elevating the standards of ethical behavior and of curbing maladministration or abuse. Again “Sunlight as disinfectant…”

    Being forced to operate in the light of day lifts the performance and raises the bar of good public administration. Even if widespread corruption is not an issue, the seeds of corruption are planted in the dark. Openness and transparency leads to greater care, frugality, integrity, and honesty. Secrecy diminishes performance in all those categories.”

    “Former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki once observed, ““There’s no question that it is easier to govern if the population is kept ignorant.”
    But that tactic offends the fundamental principle of the public’s” right to know.” It is unworthy of a mature democracy and should offend the sensibilities of anyone who professes to be a democrat.”

    http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/02/22/kevin-page-might-well-be-the-best-friend-the-canadian-taxpayer-has/

  2. Jed Sutherland says:

    Well, it’s clear that one problem with Athabasca U is that it has more than it’s fair share of vice-presidents. Maybe that’s the clue to where a large slice of the government’s $40 M contribution is going.

Comment