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Alberta's four universities have become entangled in a growing political turmoil over an essay Premier Ralph Klein wrote.

Learning Minister Lyle Oberg confirmed yesterday that he called the universities last week after Mr. Klein was criticized for taking large passages of his essay directly from the Internet without properly attributing them.

"I suggested that they write a letter to the editor about this issue because it's a very, very serious issue," Mr. Oberg told reporters who staked out his office.

Mr. Oberg said he felt compelled to ask the universities to get involved after questions were raised about the integrity of the Athabasca University professor who gave Mr. Klein a grade of 77 per cent for his essay on the events leading up to the 1973 coup in Chile.

"This was a direct challenge to our postsecondary institutions," said Mr. Oberg, his voice trembling. "Any time it's made public that a mark is questioned as to what a university gives out, that is a very serious issue that affects all of us in Alberta."

Roman Cooney, vice-president of external relations at the University of Calgary, did not return calls.

But Carl Amrhein, provost of the University of Alberta, issued a brief statement confirming Mr. Oberg's call last Friday.

He said he and officials at the province's three other universities -- Calgary, Athabasca and Lethbridge -- held a conference call to discuss it.

"We discussed issues around academic freedom, confidentiality between students and teachers, and the autonomy of university policy from outside influences," Mr. Amrhein said.

"We agreed that it was not appropriate for us to comment on any issue related to another university. Rather, we decided that each of us would consider penning a letter to the editor celebrating the importance of lifelong learning."

Roderick Fraser, president of the University of Alberta, wrote in his letter to the editor: "I am writing to say that an important issue has been overlooked, and that is the premier's commitment to lifelong learning."

Mr. Fraser's letter drew an immediate outcry from academics and students, who countered with a barrage of their own letters.

"Shame on Klein and his poor and inexcusable academic laziness," wrote Russ Veanderleer of Edmonton. "Shame on University of Alberta president Roderick Fraser for skirting the issues of plagiarism and sloppy academic practice, which many students are disciplined for each year."

Other letters to the editor in yesterday's editions targeted Mr. Klein for the way he sourced his paper.

"My own [junior high]students could have done a better job citing their sources than the premier did," wrote Khrysty Greif, a social studies teacher in Edmonton.

Shreesh Juyal, a political science professor at the University of Regina, said Mr. Oberg "directly interfered in the autonomy of the universities."

"It's an extremely unfortunate intrusion by a minister of education," he said.

Mr. Oberg's actions are a "disgrace," New Democrat Brian Mason said.

"This is clearly a bullying tactic by a minister who controls the funding for these universities. There's no question he should be replaced for his actions."

Liberal Leader Kevin Taft, who once taught an MBA course at the University of Alberta, agreed.

"The reputation of our universities has been tarnished nationally. The minister is trying to push his way around."

Mr. Klein and his officials would not comment yesterday.