The way Athabasca University’s president was terminated and replaced was legal, but it wasn’t an example of “best practices,” says the university’s chair Byron Nelson, after a number of governors said they were unaware of the vote until the decision had been made.
The process involved a confidential committee of the board and a surprise vote. Two university directors told The Globe and Mail they found out about the vote to terminate Peter Scott and name his successor after the issue had been settled on Wednesday, raising questions around governance and ethics.
Mr. Nelson declined to say how many board members were on the committee, how they were selected, when it was formed, or who ultimately put forward the motion to terminate Mr. Scott and replace him with Alex Clark, who previously served as the school’s dean of health disciplines.
The leadership change follows a long-running dispute between the school and Alberta’s United Conservative Party government, which has been pushing for the online university to abandon its “near-virtual” strategy and ensure more staff are based in the small community that shares its name.
Mr. Nelson, who ran unsuccessfully in 2015 as a provincial Progressive Conservative candidate in Calgary and in 2017 for the PC leadership, said the board formed the confidential committee, but not everyone on the board was informed before Wednesday.
Because the committee exploring who should sit in the president’s chair was confidential, not all directors had a chance to debate Mr. Scott’s removal and the merits of his replacement. The vote regarding these matters took place over e-mail. Mr. Nelson conceded not all governors had registered their vote before the outcome was determined.
“The way that this was conducted, while legal, I would acknowledge was not best practices,” said Mr. Nelson, who is a lawyer. “It wasn’t best practices and it couldn’t be best practices.”
The process was less than ideal because the situation was “unique” and required an “extreme amount of confidentiality,” Mr. Nelson said.
As president, Mr. Scott oversaw 1,200 employees and some of them would remain loyal to him, Mr. Nelson explained. The board committee hired outside legal and human resource specialists for help during the process and the chair could not communicate with the rest of board about the vote through the normal university channels.
“I formed the committee to make sure we did this the right way,” Mr. Nelson said.
Shortly after Mr. Scott was recruited from Australia, the provincial government pressed him to spur economic activity by moving a number of senior executives and other employees to the town of Athabasca, a rural community about 150 kilometres north of Edmonton. The government, over the past year, overhauled the board and threatened to withhold funding if the university didn’t comply. In December, the two sides agreed to a three-year funding deal that includes transitioning more senior executives to Athabasca, a town of about 2,800 people.
Alberta appointed Mr. Nelson as board chair in May.
Karen Fletcher and Dur-E-Najaf Syed, two directors representing students, said they learned about the vote Wednesday, after the decision had been made. While the university and Mr. Nelson argue the matters were handled in accordance with the school’s bylaws, Ms. Fletcher questioned the ethics of the process.
“If it is legal, it is certainly not right,” she said.
Ms. Syed, vice-president of finance and administration for the students’ union, said Mr. Nelson sent an e-mail to her private account requesting a conversation, but she did not check her personal inbox during the work day. The new president had already released a video by the time she was asked to register her vote.
“I don’t know who Alex Clark is. I didn’t know who that was up until everyone was like: ‘Oh, he’s the new president.’”
Mr. Nelson said all board members had the “opportunity” to participate in the vote, although he conceded not all may have voted until after the outcome was “inevitable.” That, he said, is not uncommon when conducting votes by e-mail.
“This was not a close vote,” he said. “It was the overwhelming decision of the board.”
Mr. Nelson said Mr. Clark, the incoming president, had been twice vetted: once when he was a finalist in the 2021 global search that ended in Mr. Scott becoming president; and then in the process that ended in him becoming a dean.
Mr. Clark said in an interview that the opportunity to replace Mr. Scott happened “very, very, very recently,” although he declined to be specific due to confidentiality concerns. He said his contract will have a half-time residency requirement in Athabasca.
Demetrios Nicolaides, Alberta’s Advanced Education Minister, said in a statement said it was his understanding that bylaws were followed, but any board members who feel the rules were breached should raise the issue with the chair.
“I’m confident if there are any issues that the board can adequately resolve them.”