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Athabasca University main campus shown during the Fall season.Blaise MacMullin

Alberta’s Advanced Education Minister is denying the government pressed Athabasca University to axe its president while defending the province’s role in setting directives for postsecondary institutions.

Minister Demetrios Nicolaides, in his first public appearance since Peter Scott was replaced as president, said he never indicated that he wanted Mr. Scott to be removed and that a school’s board of governors has “complete autonomy and authority” to make changes to executive leadership.

Mr. Nicolaides removed the chair of the university’s board and appointed multiple new governors last spring. Those changes were made after then-premier Jason Kenney instructed the university to end its “near-virtual” strategy and attract more staff to the rural community north of Edmonton – a plan Mr. Scott called archaic.

Athabasca University’s virtual campus plan was drafted in 2018 to grant employees more freedom over where they live. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that work and, as of last May, only about 20 per cent of the school’s employees resided in the area.

Mr. Nicolaides spoke about the organizational changes on Wednesday.

“If you’re going in a particular direction, you need to have people around the table who bring that expertise, that are going to fulfill that objective. It’s standard practice in governance,” he told reporters at an unrelated news conference in Calgary.

“It was clear there wasn’t strong alignment there and additional individuals needed to be brought in that had greater knowledge of local community dynamics [and] more exposure to some of the challenges of the local region to help facilitate that, so I don’t think that this is contradictory.”

The minister said neither he nor the provincial government were involved in the process that led to Mr. Scott’s removal, and have not done so with any of Alberta’s 21 public institutions. “It’s critical to leave the institutions to manage their own affairs independent and in an autonomous way,” he said.

Mr. Scott was terminated without cause on Feb. 1 and replaced by Alex Clark, who was the dean of Athabasca University’s health disciplines. The surprise removal came after a confidential committee was formed and a vote was held without some governors’ knowledge, a situation that has raised concerns around governance and ethics.

The Athabasca University Faculty Association has condemned what it called a “callous firing.” The association also expressed concern, in a statement, that the board is not working in the university’s best interest but that of the provincial government’s.

“AUFA condemns the board’s lack of transparency, callous disregard, and flagrant abuse of [university] policy, procedure, and past practice,” said the statement, released last week.

“The UCP government’s interference in a public institution’s governance threatens institutional autonomy, disrupts and undermines continuity of governance, drains the confidence and morale of students and staff, wastes inordinate money and time and has made the board’s composition less diverse.”

On Monday, the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations released a statement saying it is deeply concerned with the state of governance at Athabasca and that senior leaders should not be selected through “opaque and exclusive” processes.

Jon Doan, president of the provincial association, said all future academic searches in Alberta should be “truly open searches” that require shortlisted candidates to make public presentations on their vision for an institution, so that their plans are clear, and respond to community questions.

Under Peter Lougheed’s government in the 1980s, Athabasca University moved from Edmonton to the town of Athabasca to fuel the rural economy. Mr. Kenney had the same vision.

Mr. Scott became head of Athabasca University last January after an international search. His five-year term was set to end in 2027.