Nova Scotia

Cape Breton University dismisses president, votes down faculty contract

David Wheeler is out after a unanimous vote by the school's board of governors. The board also rejected a tentative agreement the administration had reached with its faculty union.

Wheeler to get negotiated severance package, but board of governors has not released details

David Wheeler was dismissed Friday as president of Cape Breton University. (CBC)

The board of governors at Cape Breton University has dismissed the school's president, rejected a tentative contract agreement with professors — and now the faculty union is threatening to strike.

David Wheeler, the president of Cape Breton University in Sydney, N.S., was dismissed from his job following a unanimous vote by the board Friday.

The board, which includes 35 members, voted Friday in favor of the dismissal, which includes a negotiated severance package with Wheeler. Details of the severance package have not been disclosed. 

The board also voted down a tentative agreement the university administration had reached with its faculty union, a deal that had been ratified by the union.

Wheeler's departure was related to the tentative agreement, but the university denied it had anything to do with the specific terms of the deal.

"It was about governance, not the contents of the agreement at this point. It was how it came about — the board really didn't see it. That was one of the issues we had with Dr. Wheeler," board chair Ambrose White said.

"The negotiating committee and the advisory committee were not part of that agreement so the board did not see that, there were no reports to the board. So they had to vote it down at this point."

The Cape Breton University board of governors met Friday in Sydney where they announced the dismissal of university president David Wheeler. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

Wheeler, who had been president since April 2013, was placed on a leave of absence with pay on Nov. 1 while a disciplinary investigation was conducted into "governance issues," a release from the university said.

The law firm representing Wheeler said he would not comment.

'Strained working relationships'

The university release said the issues included, but were not limited to, how recent contract negotiations with the Cape Breton University Faculty Union were conducted, and "how those negotiations were subsequently characterized and reported to the board of governors by the president."

The board also referred to "strained working relationships within CBU."

Concern about Wheeler's leadership came in the fall, White said. Wheeler contacted the board on Nov. 1, suggesting it "should get some independent counsel to look at governance issues between the president and the board," White said. 

"We actually did that, we actually reached out and got some counsel to come in and then one thing led to another and we uncovered some things. So that's kind of when it started."

Wheeler's lawyer requested settlement

During the investigation, Wheeler's lawyer, Ray Larkin approached the board and asked it to consider a settlement, White said.

"Things changed a little bit, the last couple of weeks. We were expecting more of report from the legal counsel on possible disciplinary action against Dr. Wheeler but we got a request to possibly seek a settlement so all of that was discussed today," White said.

At the time Wheeler went on leave, Larkin issued a statement confirming the dispute was related to contract negotiations with the university's faculty.

Earlier this year the union filed for conciliation in hopes of reaching a deal with the university. That move followed a resounding strike vote in the face of concerns about layoffs.

'Prepare for the worst'

Faculty are considering job action, including a strike, union spokesman Andrew Reynolds said.

"From our end, we had this thing locked up, we thought," he said. "This now throws us all into unchartered waters so we'll have to prepare for the worst."

Philosophy professor and former union president Scott Stewart said he sees the board's rejection of the contract as "a call for labour action."

"I don't know if morale could have sunk a whole lot lower than it had but we are in for a tough road ahead," he said. 

Stewart said he questions the capability of the board to govern the university.

Negotiations with faculty to resume

White said he hopes the university and the union will go back to the table for further negotiations as early as next week.

Although Wheeler's contract contained a guarantee he could become a tenured professor at the university at the end of his presidency, the severance agreement includes a provision that he forego any entitlement to tenure at CBU, White said.

"That was part of the negotiated settlement," White said.

"It's difficult, you're dealing with sensitive material, you are talking about a man and his reputation. Everything was taken very seriously, very respectfully. At the same time, you know there's emotion involved here," he said.

Dale Keefe, CBU vice president of academic and provost, will take over as acting president while a search committee looks for a new leader, the board said.

With files from Gary Mansfield