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Alberta is shaking up the board of Athabasca University as the institution’s president defies the province’s request that the virtual school increase the number of employees working on its rural campus.

The Alberta government, in an order in council late Wednesday, named Byron Nelson as AU’s chair, rescinding Nancy Laird’s appointment. Ms. Laird’s term was scheduled to end in August.

AU is an online university, with roughly 40,000 students across Canada. Premier Jason Kenney and Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides want the school to formulate a plan to attract and retain employees who will live and work in Athabasca, a town about 145 kilometres north of Edmonton.

But AU’s recently appointed president, Peter Scott, does not intend to meet the government’s demands. He envisions a work force that is nearly all virtual, and argues the school’s hiring prospects will be damaged if an increasing number of employees have to live in Athabasca, which has a population of 2,805 people.

Fight over Athabasca University’s future continues as Jason Kenney gets government involved

AU, in 2018, designed a plan to create a “near virtual” campus, and work-from-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the shift to remote employment. The community, in turn, urged the Kenney government to curb AU’s virtual strategy in order to keep jobs in the small community. Mr. Scott has previously called the government’s request to place more staff to the community “absurd.”

Mr. Nicolaides, in an interview Wednesday, said the government installed a new chair in order to meet the province’s ambitions of using the university to foster local economic growth.

“We are asking the university to take a different course and move away from the near-virtual campus, and look at a model that really helps strengthen job growth and creation in the community,” he said. “And with a new strategy, I think some new leadership at the board level will help facilitate that.”

Mr. Nicolaides previously told Mr. Scott he has until June 30 to present the government with a plan to meet its directive. Mr. Scott has brushed off the request. Mr. Nicolaides noted only the board, rather than the government, can remove Mr. Scott. The minister said he did not provide the incoming chair with instructions to replace AU’s president and instead hopes Mr. Scott and the executive team can come up with a satisfactory solution.

“I don’t think this needs to be an adversarial engagement,” Mr. Nicolaides said.

He dismissed concerns the government is meddling in a university’s business. Instead, he noted, it is the government’s job to set a school’s mandate, and up to the institution to determine how to best meet the objective. Mr. Scott, however, does not believe developing Athabasca’s economy is part of AU’s mandate.

Mr. Scott, in a statement provided by AU on Wednesday, said the school looks forward to working with Mr. Nelson “as we continue to implement our strategic plan in accordance with our mandate to improve the learning experience and ensure open and accessible learning is available to learners across the province and the country, particularly learners living in remote communities.”

About 1,200 people work for AU and roughly 250 them are based in Athabasca. Prior to COVID-19, about half of AU’s staff worked virtually, with the remainder working out of offices in Athabasca, Calgary and Edmonton. AU has since shuttered the offices in the two big cities. Mr. Scott had previously said employees in Athabasca could still access AU’s physical campus there, if they wanted.

The town of Athabasca and Athabasca County each chipped in around $23,000 to cover lobbying expenses as it tried to convince Alberta to force AU to plant employees in the community. Locals raised another $30,000 for the lobbying bills. Those advocating for AU to increase staff numbers in Athabasca hired the Canadian Strategy Group, lobbyists with close ties to the United Conservative Party.

Mr. Nelson, the incoming chair, is a trial lawyer in Calgary. He ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party in Alberta in 2017. Mr. Kenney won that contest on a promise to dissolve the PCs and merge the organization with the Wildrose Party, to form a united conservative front in the province. In the 2015 provincial election, Mr. Nelson, running under the PC banner, lost the race in Calgary-Bow to the New Democratic Party candidate.

Mr. Nelson did not return messages seeking comment.

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