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Before she was fired last summer, Aoife Mac Namara resisted a plan to sell heritage buildings in exchange for a new campus. The Globe obtained correspondence showing how the board pushed to change her mind

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On the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design's campus in Halifax, controversy has been brewing since last June, when the school fired president Aoife Mac Namara.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Nearly a year after a Nova Scotia art college abruptly fired its president without explanation, new documents obtained by The Globe and Mail reveal the effort to replace the top administrator began soon after she pushed back against a proposal to sell historic campus buildings to a Halifax developer.

Scott McCrea, chief executive officer of the Armour Group, wanted the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) to sell him its oldest downtown properties and have his company build a new campus building, leasing it back to the university – an offer he presented as a potential solution to ongoing infrastructure problems facing the university.

Shortly after she started her job in August of 2019, Aoife Mac Namara met with Mr. McCrea and was encouraged by members of the university board of governors to proceed with his proposal. The new president resisted, telling them she was concerned about potential perceived or actual conflicts of interest of some governors – and potentially breaking public procurement rules that regulate infrastructure spending by universities, according to e-mails obtained by The Globe.

The vice-chair of NSCAD’s board of governors at the time was Sean Kelly, a lawyer whose firm represents Armour Group and leases office space from one of the developer’s many Halifax properties. Mr. Kelly introduced the motion to fire Dr. Mac Namara during a closed-door meeting on June 25, 2020, after 10 months marked by friction between the new president and some members of the board – acrimony that led Dr. Mac Namara to complain that she was being bullied and harassed.

The firing stunned Canada’s arts community, and fuelled anger on campus over what some saw as the influence of commercial interests in board decisions. Dr. Mac Namara had a distinguished career as an arts educator in the United Kingdom and Canada, and was celebrated by NSCAD students and faculty for trying to bring in changes to address systemic racism at the institution.

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Dr. Mac Namara.CNW Group/NSCAD

The publicly funded university, meanwhile, has repeatedly blocked efforts to seek more transparency into the firing, earning a scolding from Nova Scotia’s privacy commissioner for failing to respond to two access-to-information requests for NSCAD records on the issue.

NSCAD initially blamed the pandemic for its failure to respond to those requests, and later hired a privacy lawyer to help it navigate its response. The privacy commissioner told the school in January it cannot ignore access-to-information legislation that governs institutions funded by public money – and that it could not use COVID-19 as an excuse to drag its heels.

“Ensuring that public bodies are fully accountable to the public goes to the heart of the purpose of [access-to-information legislation],” Nova Scotia information and privacy commissioner Tricia Ralph wrote in her decision. “It is not open to NSCAD to ignore statutory obligations.”

The university has since released some records, including consultants’ invoices detailing the work to replace the president, that combined with internal e-mails obtained by The Globe begin to explain the friction behind the scenes that led up to Dr. Mac Namara’s sudden dismissal.

But NSCAD has still not shared key board reports, committee minutes and other documents related to the dismissal, citing privacy concerns around a human resources issue and commercially sensitive information. The university says those missing records are still being reviewed and expects to deliver some of them “in the coming weeks.”

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On Halifax's Granville Street mall, two stone lions, remnants of an old customs house, guard the entrance to NSCAD's campus.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The strange case of Dr. Mac Namara’s firing sheds light on the sometimes conflicting agendas of corporations and law firms who have representatives on university boards across the country, and how public procurement rules that demand transparency for post-secondary infrastructure projects can clash with private interests.

The Irish-raised administrator’s hiring in 2019 was celebrated by NSCAD as an exciting new chapter in the school’s history, and it praised her for bringing international experience, a global perspective and innovative practices to the job.

Dr. Mac Namara, who negotiated a faculty position at NSCAD after her dismissal as president, declined to be interviewed for this story. But e-mails obtained by The Globe show she was being pressed by board members who wanted her to proceed with Armour Group’s vision to modernize the university’s downtown campuses.

A copy of that real-estate proposal, which was shared with several governors but never formally presented to the entire board, was obtained by The Globe. It would have required NSCAD sell Armour Group two of its oldest properties on Granville Street in Halifax, and pay the developer to build a new main campus next to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, then rent that space back from Armour Group – while allowing the developer to build private condominiums on top.

In September of 2019, just weeks after starting her job, she was urged by the board’s former treasurer and head of the finance and physical resources committee, Alan MacPherson, to set up a meeting with Armour Group’s CEO. She expressed concern that discussing potential campus infrastructure projects with a developer before the public tender process would make it look like NSCAD was giving Armour Group an unfair advantage.

Mr. MacPherson, president of Duron Atlantic Limited, a concrete repair contractor, declined to say if his company has done work for Armour Group – but conceded “in all likelihood we have done work with most any company that owns significant assets in our region.” He quit the board this spring, and insists he was never in a conflict of interest with any developer while on the NSCAD board.

“I had an opportunity to speak with Scott McCrea today and learned that he’ll be away for [the rest of ] October, starting tomorrow. He knows we want to meet with him again and he’s open to it. We should set this up before he goes,” Mr. MacPherson wrote, in an Oct. 22, 2019, e-mail addressed to Dr. Mac Namara and copied to Mr. Kelly, board chair Louise-Anne Comeau and the president’s assistant.

Dr. Mac Namara pushed back.

“I recognize that meeting with any developer and discussing any details of NSCAD’s infrastructure development planning constitutes a high risk to NSCAD’s reputation at this critical time,” she wrote in an e-mail the next day.

“I believe our success in securing support for infrastructure renewal at NSCAD is contingent on us each understanding what we are responsible for, and to whom. I do not think we are there yet, and this is a cause of concern for me.”

A few days later, the chair of NSCAD’s board of governors flew to Toronto to meet with a consultant who specializes in executive recruitment for postsecondary institutions. The search for a new president appeared to have started, according to invoices obtained through access-to-information legislation.

The consultant, Bonnie Patterson, had a number of meetings and e-mail exchanges with Ms. Comeau, Mr. Kelly, the chair of the board’s human resources committee and a “search consultant” that fall, according to invoices she provided the university and obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin. She billed more than $32,000 for her work, at a rate of $1,500 a day.

Among the services Ms. Patterson charged the board for was the development of “performance assessments” for a president just months into her job. The consultant’s invoices indicate she spoke to or e-mailed Ms. Comeau on a nearly daily basis in the month leading up the president’s dismissal.

Instead of selling the aging Granville Street campus to Armour Group, Dr. Mac Namara proposed renovating the heritage buildings and converting them into office spaces, an idea that was not supported by some board members. Some felt excluded from those discussions and chaffed at the expense, and one – real estate developer Ross Cantwell – ultimately quit over it, according to a resignation letter obtained by The Globe.

Dr. Mac Namara also filed, but later withdrew, a formal complaint to the university’s head of human resources on June 26, the day after she was fired, alleging she had been bullied and harassed by members of the board, according to e-mails obtained by The Globe. She asked the university for an investigation into the behaviour of five board members, including the chair and Mr. Kelly.

She alleged in the e-mail that some members challenged the merits of her complaints and her credibility because she has autism.

“I am not readily able to recognize when I am being mocked or undermined in public by colleagues on the Board of Governors. A basic accommodation would be not to do these behaviours in the workplace – autistic people would thrive, but so would everyone else,” she wrote in the e-mail.

“I want to complain that this is not taken seriously, and accommodations for plain language, straight-talking and respectful body language have been dismissed as trivial.”

Kris Reppas, the former president of NSCAD’s student union, said he and others were blindsided by the June 25 board meeting where Ms. Comeau and Mr. Kelly began the formal process to fire Dr. Mac Namara. Once the news leaked out, students felt betrayed that the popular administrator was fired, he said.

“They were totally caught off guard. And the board has just tried to silence the conversation,” he said. “Everything just went to chaos after that. Students did not want her fired, and ever since, there’s been a lot of tension in the school. There’s no transparency, no accountability and no trust in the school anymore.”

After Dr. Mac Namara was fired on June 25, 2020, Ms. Patterson helped Ms. Comeau and Mr. Kelly prepare for media questions and discussed a public relations strategy, according to one of her invoices. The board named her replacement – interim president Sarah McKinnon – two weeks after Dr. Mac Namara’s dismissal.

Ms. Patterson did not respond to interview requests for this story. (She was part of another controversy in January when she resigned from an inquiry into the hiring process for the director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto following public concerns over her alleged bias.)

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Last summer, NSCAD saw protests and uproar from students, labour leaders and educators who denounced the board's decision to fire Dr. Mac Namara.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The fallout from Dr. Mac Namara’s firing last summer was swift. It prompted protests and condemnation from students and art educators alike, and the university’s faculty association voted overwhelmingly to send a non-confidence motion to the board. After media reports circulated about the proposed real-estate deal, a group called the Friends of NSCAD launched a petition, calling for the board to be fired and Dr. Mac Namara rehired.

It also increased scrutiny of those who sit on the university board, and raised concerns of more potential conflicts of interest. After the firing, the Nova Scotia NDP introduced a motion that the province should review and improve the criteria for private-sector appointments to university boards. It was dismissed by the governing Liberals.

“We need to ask of all appointees, do they have the institutions’ best interests at heart?” said Kendra Coombes, the New Democrats’ advanced education critic and MLA for Cape Breton Centre. “Until we get this fixed, it will continue to be an issue. And change may only come through public pressure.”

Mr. Kelly quit the NSCAD board this winter after access-to-information requests were filed seeking to clarify the role of board members in the controversial dismissal. One e-mail obtained by The Globe contained allegations from other board members that he instructed a university staffer to remove the Armour Group proposal from a secured documents folder used by board members, hiding it from public view.

Mr. Kelly declined interview requests, but sent a short e-mailed statement saying he left the board to focus on “professional endeavours, personal matters, and pursue other opportunities.”

While he said he couldn’t discuss the firing of Dr. Mac Namara, he said at no time did his firm’s business relationship with Armour Group impact his actions as a board member.

“There was never a conflict of interest involving me in relation to any infrastructure matters,” Mr. Kelly said in the e-mail. “As a Governor, I had a duty to act in the best interest of the University at all times – which I took very seriously.”

Mr. Kelly’s law firm, Stewart McKelvey, has long had a close relationship with the university. NSCAD’s previous chair was Grant Machum, a partner at the firm that also negotiated contracts with the faculty. The law firm was also, until recently, the art school’s main legal counsel.

Mr. MacPherson, who quit the board this spring, also said his decision to leave was not connected to the controversy. He said he’d originally planned to leave last fall, at the end of his three-year term, but extended his role for a few more months to help the university through the pandemic and advance its infrastructure goals.

He said any interest in the Armour Group proposal was well-intentioned. NSCAD’s oldest campus buildings are rapidly becoming “unsuitable” for students, with less-than-fully accessible facilities, and the university needs to be open to new solutions to its infrastructure challenges, he said.

“I can tell you that I have not seen any evidence of decisions being impacted by conflicts of interest by any Board member,” Mr. MacPherson said in an e-mail. “It is in the best interest of the university to consider alternatives to its present situation. It is in the best interest of the university for all stakeholders, administration and the Board included, to be open to new ideas.”

Last July, when rumours of the proposed real-estate deal leaked out, board chair Ms. Comeau dismissed the notion that the university was giving any developer an inside track. She described the offer from Armour Group, presented to Dr. Mac Namara by the company’s president in September of 2019, as “an unsolicited proposal.”

“Under no circumstances would we ever engage in a ‘backroom deal,’ [or] consider any concept without a process of review in line with policies and best practices,” she said in a statement.

“The board is committed to a full, fair and transparent procurement process with any infrastructure strategy it pursues ... Further, in the event this matter ever did come forward for a decision of the board, any member[s] who were in a real or perceived conflict of interest would be expected to recuse themselves.”

The chair said she “cannot and will not get into details on decisions made regarding confidential personnel matters.” In another e-mailed statement sent through the university, Ms. Comeau said she recognizes the firing has caused “concern and distress” throughout NSCAD.

Greg Bambury, the chair of NSCAD’s governance and human resources committee, resigned from his post shortly before Dr. Mac Namara was fired. The university declined to share his resignation letter as part of the package of documents sought under an access-to-information request, and he did not respond to interview requests.

Mathew Reichertz, head of the faculty association at NSCAD, said his members remain deeply troubled by the lack of transparency from the board of governors.

“The university has made some efforts to be more consultative and transparent, but it’s the board from which that transparency needs to flow. It doesn’t seem clear that’s happening,” he said in an interview. “We still don’t have a clear picture around why she was dismissed, and it’s troubling that we still don’t have more information at this point.”

Mr. McCrea, Armour Group’s CEO, declined to be interviewed. The company initially denied that he had met with Dr. Mac Namara privately, but later confirmed he gave her a tour of one of his downtown Halifax properties in September, 2019, in a meeting that was described as “an introduction.”

“Any suggestion she opposed any of our ideas was never communicated to us directly,” Catherine Bagnell Styles, Armour Group’s executive vice-president for marketing and communications, said in an e-mail.

Mr. McCrea told the news site he approached the university three times with real estate projects, and met with several board executive members the month before Dr. Mac Namara was hired, but said his proposal never advanced beyond that.

Dr. Mac Namara’s short time at NSCAD was also marked by tension with some board members around her efforts to embrace diversity, appoint directors who reflected the broader community and support the Black Lives Matter movement. Charmaine Nelson, a NSCAD professor hired to run a new research centre on slavery, called the university’s decision to fire the president an attack on “anti-racist principles.”

In one e-mail, obtained by The Globe, Ms. Comeau appeared to push back against the president’s plan to address institutional racism at the university, saying she had “very serious concerns regarding the alleged racism” within the school. In a statement to The Globe, Ms. Comeau said the board recently made changes to its appointment process to ensure it’s reaching as many diverse voices and perspectives as possible, and added more racialized members last fall.

Mr. Reichertz, the faculty association president, said he’s concerned not much has changed to ensure major NSCAD decisions, such as future campus expansion plans, can be kept free from the commercial interests of its board members.

“The issue isn’t just why did this happen, but what processes should we have in place so decisions are transparent and consultative, and this kind of situation doesn’t happen again,” he said.

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