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Cape Breton University president David Wheeler, photographed on March 7, 2008, when he was Dalhousie University's Dean of the Faculty of Management

Paul Darrow/The Globe and Mail

Cape Breton University president David Wheeler signed a tentative agreement with the school's faculty union over the objections of senior administrators on the institution's bargaining committee, a decision that played a role in his suspension by the board of governors this week, sources say.

Dr. Wheeler was suspended with pay on Tuesday over "governance issues." An independent investigation was also announced.

The investigation is being conducted by Mac, Mac & Mac, a legal firm in New Glasgow, N.S. The firm was retained a month ago at the request of the president, the university clarified. It was Dr. Wheeler who asked that "independent legal counsel be brought in to review governance issues," a spokesperson said in response to questions.

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"The president made a deal [with the faculty] without a deal from the university's negotiating team," said a source familiar with the labour discussions earlier this fall. That account was confirmed by someone close to the talks.

Negotiations between the university of 3,000 students and its faculty union had threatened to end with a strike over the threat of the possible layoff of as many as 20 professors. CBU had said it was facing a budget deficit.

An agreement was reached in October and ratified by 92 per cent of the members of the university's faculty association early this month. A provincial mediator helped bring the two sides closer together, but Dr. Wheeler's intervention played a key part in the success of the talks, a source said.

In order for the deal to take effect, however, the board of governors must approve it at its meeting on Dec. 9. Should the board turn down the agreement, talks would have to restart or the union could call a strike.

The contract is said to reflect a new 10-year strategy for CBU that allows the university to run annual deficits while seeking to make up any budget shortfall by growing its international student enrolment, expanding partnerships with other universities around the world and redistributing professors to fields that are most in demand.

In an interview with a local radio station this fall, Dr. Wheeler said the strategy "was a bold vision, but an achievable vision." Under the plan, retiring faculty would not be replaced in some departments, but more professors could be added in others.

"We could see a diminution of the number of faculty over 5 to 10 years," Dr. Wheeler said in the interview. He was not available Friday for comment, but posted a message to colleagues on LinkedIn.

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"I want to reassure everyone that I am still the same David Wheeler I have always been, and I intend continuing that way, whatever happens," the statement said in part. "Meanwhile, I want to thank everyone for their messages of love and support, both to me and to my family."

Much of the success of the plan depends on achieving ambitious enrolment targets for international students. They currently make up approximately 25 per cent of all students at the university, up from 8 per cent in 2006 but a slight decrease from last year. The 10-year strategy sees that proportion rising to 50 per cent in a decade.

CBU is among the smaller of Atlantic universities and has faced acute enrolment pressures as the local university-aged population shrinks or high-school graduates go straight into the labour market, sometimes to other provinces.

But most recently, CBU has been grappling with how to make up a $5-million shortfall, the result of the end of a Saudi Arabia scholarship program that had sent hundreds of students to the school.

International students are increasingly important to the economies of the Maritime provinces. Only a tenth of international graduates settle in the Nova Scotia after they graduate and the province has multiple government and employer-led programs to try and raise that number.

CBU "has been in contact" with Nova Scotia's Ministry of Advanced Education, a ministry spokesperson said, adding that postsecondary institutions are independent and governed by their boards.

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Dr. Wheeler, who has been president at CBU since 2013, has been a senior administrator at Dalhousie University and York University and the University of Plymouth in Britain. He is not the only president to run into problems with the board of governors. In 2000, then-president Jacquelyn Scott stepped down over a budget conflict with the board and the faculty union.

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