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Janice MacKinnon appointed to University of Alberta board of governors

The Alberta government has appointed one of its key financial advisers to the University of Alberta board of governors.

MacKinnon's blue ribbon panel recommended province tie post-secondary education spending to school performance

Janice MacKinnon, chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta’s Finances, speaks to the media about the MacKinnon Panel report on Alberta’s finances in September 2019. MacKinnon was appointed to the University of Alberta's board of governors Wednesday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The Alberta government has appointed one of its key financial advisers to the University of Alberta board of governors.

University professor Janice MacKinnon will join the U of A board on Saturday for a three-year term. MacKinnon led an Alberta government-appointed blue ribbon panel that scrutinized the province's spending.

The MacKinnon panel concluded in a September 2019 report that Alberta spends more per capita on public services than Ontario, Quebec and B.C. and should rein in expenses.

In last week's provincial budget, the U of A saw an 11 per cent decrease in provincial funding for the year ahead. This year, it had a 6.9 per cent public funding cut.

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said in an interview Wednesday MacKinnon's experience as a professor at the universities of Calgary and Saskatchewan and her past post as Saskatchewan finance minister give MacKinnon "strong depth of financial acumen that would position her well on any board."

He said he's unconcerned about the public perception of the board appointment as a reward for her panel work.

"We've been very clear that we're moving forward on implementing the recommendations that are laid out in the MacKinnon panel report, especially as they relate to advanced education," he said.

MacKinnon declined to comment. 

'Not just regular cronyism,' opposition says

NDP advanced education critic David Eggen said Wednesday that MacKinnon's appointment could have a chill on the institution.

"Talk about putting the fox in charge of the hen house," Eggen said.

The government uses the MacKinnon report to justify funding cuts to post-secondary institutions and other public services, he said.

"The only thing I look forward to is University of Alberta students looking Janice MacKinnon in the eye and asking her, 'Why are you cutting our education so significantly? Why are you taking an axe to not only one of the best universities in the province, but in the country?' " Eggen said.

On Wednesday, the government also appointed Alberta Forest Products Association CEO and former municipal affairs deputy minister Paul Whittaker to the university's board.

University of Alberta Students' Union president Akanksha Bhatnagar said Wednesday she's looking forward to educating the new board members about the issues students face at Alberta's largest university.

"I'd say the current situation at the U of A is feeling pretty hopeless right now. A lot of people are worried for what's next. A lot of people don't have a lot of answers," Bhatnagar said.

When she comes to campus, MacKinnon will see fewer students staying late to study, as they work more hours to pay increasing costs, Bhatnagar said.

When students asked for predictability, they didn't mean tuition rising predictably each year, she said.

Panel recommended university funds tie to performance

To balance Alberta's budget by 2022-23, the panel recommended the government pare back capital spending, legislate salaries for public sector workers, review the value of all government programs and tie post-secondary education spending to schools' performance.

The government is imposing new performance targets on post-secondary institutions beginning April 1. In the upcoming year, 15 per cent of schools' funding will be tied to their success at meeting government-prescribed outcomes. That portion rises to 40 per cent within two years.

The government points to the panel's findings as justification for many of its recent decisions, such as outsourcing surgeries to private surgical centres, changing how doctors are paid and reducing the size of the province's public service.

Nicolaides said he appointed MacKinnon to the University of Alberta board because there may have been limits on her serving with the University of Calgary board while an executive fellow at the institution's School of Public Policy.

With files from Michelle Bellefontaine and Alex Zabjek

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