Athabasca University board fires president who fought Alberta government on staff relocations

Peter Scott, the Athabasca University president who openly defied the province’s direction to drop the institution’s move to virtual operations, was fired by the school’s board of governors Wednesday. 

Peter Scott was president of Athabasca University for over a year

A headshot of Peter Scott. He is smiling and wearing a dark blue suit jacket, a light-coloured patterned shirt, and a vibrant blue tie.
Peter Scott started his time as president of Athabasca University on Jan. 4, 2022. (Submitted by Athabasca University)

Peter Scott, the Athabasca University president who openly defied the province's direction to drop the institution's move to virtual operations, was fired by the school's board of governors Wednesday. 

The board appointed Alex Clark, the university's dean of the faculty of health disciplines, to succeed him. 

Portrait of Alex Clark, new president of Athabasca University.
Alex Clark was named Athabasca University's new president on Wednesday. (Athabasca University)

Byron Nelson, chair of the board of governors, cited privacy concerns in declining to say why Scott was let go.

"Everything that happens in the board is confidential, but the university itself, the board of governors of the university is just looking forward to moving forward with an evolving vision," Nelson said in an interview with CBC News. 

"Dr. Scott did his part in the puzzle and we're moving forward with Dr. Clark just to continue to grow the university"

Nelson said the university didn't conduct a new search for Scott's successor. Clark, who then worked at the University of Alberta, was a prospective candidate in the hiring process in which Scott became the successful choice. Clark subsequently interviewed for and was hired as faculty dean months later. 

Clark currently lives in Edmonton but will move to Athabasca. Nelson said the requirement to live in the town is written into Clark's contract. 

Public battle

Scott became president on Jan. 4, 2022. Soon after arriving in Alberta from his previous job in Australia, he found himself in the middle of a dispute over the university's direction. 

A local grassroots organization lobbied the Alberta government, concerned about the impact a near-virtual plan would have on the town's economy. 

The government became involved last spring. Former premier Jason Kenney assured residents at a town hall that the university's operations would remain in Athabasca. The university's executive team was ordered to submit a plan that would increase the number of staff that lived in the town. 

What followed was a lengthy and sometimes public battle between Scott and Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides. 

Nicolaides fired board chair Nancy Laird and appointed Nelson, a former Progressive Conservative leadership candidate, to take her place. He rescinded the appointment of four board members, replacing them with seven new appointees. He said the university's failure to submit a plan could put its operating funding at risk. 

Scott put out a defiant video in August stating that the university's reversal of the virtual plan would set it back forty years.

After months of negotiations, Nicolaides and the board of governors finally signed off on a new investment management agreement at the beginning of December. 

The agreement states the university has to hire 25 local employees and have half the university's executive team living in Athabasca within three years. 

Scott's firing by the board comes nearly three weeks after his wife died of cancer. She had just been diagnosed in early December. 

"It's terrible," Nelson said. "We have given him some time to deal with that before today."

"Unfortunately, the business of the world, including the business of Athabasca University, goes forward," he said.

"This was a step we had to make. I will continue to treat Dr. Scott with all the respect that he deserves and he does deserve respect in this time."