Athabasca University, an online institution that has been under pressure from the Alberta government to increase its physical presence in a rural community north of Edmonton, has jettisoned its president after about a year on the job.
The school’s board of governors said on Wednesday that Alex Clark, the dean of AU’s health disciplines, will immediately replace Peter Scott, who was appointed president last January. Mr. Scott clashed with Alberta’s United Conservative Party government, which wanted more of AU’s executives and administrators to live in Athabasca, a town of about 2,800 people. The government argued that the school, which is largely funded by the province, should be helping spur economic growth in the community that shares its name.
Mr. Scott rejected that idea, saying it was an archaic strategy and would limit AU’s ability to attract talented staff from around the globe.
AU and the government reached a deal late last year that would ensure ongoing funding for the university. Mr. Scott, in a Dec. 1 news release, said it would allow AU to continue to pursue its online strategy, and that it would remove “the threat” that employees would be forced to relocate to the town.
The three-year investment management agreement, signed by AU’s board chair and Alberta’s Advanced Education Minister, Demetrios Nicolaides, did not reflect Mr. Scott’s interpretation. The deal required AU to direct its president to “cease” the school’s “near-virtual strategy” and implement a “new strategic plan that expands and reinforces the university’s physical presence in the town of Athabasca.” It also demanded that more full-time staff members and senior administrators work in the Athabasca region.
Mr. Scott was recruited from Australia. He signed up for a five-year term, set to expire Jan. 3, 2027, according to his contract. His base salary was $305,000 per year. AU’s board chair, Byron Nelson, confirmed that Mr. Scott was “terminated without cause” and will be entitled to severance. Mr. Scott’s contract says he is entitled to 26 weeks salary and payment for administrative leave.
Mr. Nelson, who was appointed AU’s chair in May, said the board made the decision to replace Mr. Scott because AU has a number of new challenges to address, including declining student enrolment and labour unrest.
Mr. Clark, the incoming president, was a finalist in the 2021 international search that ended in Mr. Scott becoming the head of the school, and was then vetted when he became the dean of one of AU’s departments. Because of this, the school did not launch another search when it decided to replace Mr. Scott, according to Mr. Nelson.
The new president does not live in Athabasca, but his contract will contain a residency requirement, Mr. Nelson said.
In a statement, Mr. Clark discussed AU’s role in Athabasca.
“We need to move beyond a zero-sum mindset and recognize that we can have an active presence that benefits the local community while also profoundly contributing provincially, nationally, and internationally,” he said. “In this post-pandemic era, AU’s unique role in open and flexible education has never been as precious or as needed.”
Mr. Nicolaides’s office did not respond to questions or requests for comment. Mr. Scott could not be reached for comment.