Newfoundland and Labrador's education minister is coming under fire from academics and opposition politicians for her insistence on approving the next president of Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Joan Burke surprised MUN faculty and others with her admission Tuesday that she has already vetoed two top candidates to take over the presidency at MUN, Atlantic Canada's largest university.
Burke is insisting, among other things, that the new president back government's controversial plan to grant autonomy to Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook, while operating under MUN's financial umbrella.
Ross Klein, the incoming president of Memorial's Faculty Association, said what Burke is doing seems to be in contravention of the Memorial University Act.
"The MUN Act is very clear that the president of the university is to be appointed by the board of regents in consultation with the university's senate and with the approval of the lieutenant-governor [in] council. The minister of education doesn't have a role in this, and it seems as though she's intervened in a process both prematurely and in a process that she doesn't have the legal authority to be involved in," Klein said.
Paul Wilson, a member of Memorial's senate and a professor at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College said it's like the government is trying to turn Memorial into a Crown agency, a move that many people will fight.
"The course the government, the minister, has chosen will lead to a battle if they pursue it. And if they decide to change the legislation so that the government directly appoints the president of the university, yes there will be a battle. I hope everybody at Memorial will be engaged in that battle because everybody has a stake in the autonomy of the university, as do the people of this province. And this will very quickly become a political issue," he said.
Former Manitoba premier Howard Pawley, who chairs the Harry Crowe Foundation, a group that advocates for academic freedom, said government interference will deter any visionary candidates from applying for the job.
"The implicit message is that 'the university better do as we say or else,' and that they want to have control from the top and thus down through the ranks of the university," Pawley said.
"That's not positive."
Opposition parties see 'blatant political interference'
Both the Liberal and New Democratic opposition in Newfoundland and Labrador have denounced the government for playing any part in recruiting the next president.
NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said she was appalled, and questioned Burke's credentials for making such a decision on her own.
"She just kept insisting that she did it and she's made the decision. That really bothers me, I mean, that speaks of an arrogance that I think is problematic," she said.
Roland Butler, the Liberal caucus's education critic, said Burke has no legal right to intervene in the selection process, and that she should have let the selection committee do its job.
"Instead of listening to the committee's advice, the minister decided that she would be judge and jury as to whether the best candidates were presented," Butler said in a statement.
"The committee is much more qualified to make that decision and this is nothing more than blatant political interference. The minister should back off and let the proper process take its course."
The province's involvement is making waves in academic circles across the country with groups such as the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which represents faculty associations across the country, paying close attention to the controversy.
CAUT spokesperson Vic Catano said his group has the power to blacklist MUN when its independence and autonomy is questioned, but he believed the damage to MUN's reputation is already done.
"On the face of it, there appears to be substantial evidence of interference just based on the minister of education's remarks," he said.