SMU slammed for spending $476K in legal fight over football player's eligibility
'It's surprising to us a university has short of half a million dollars lying around to spend on lawsuits'
A decision by Saint Mary's University to spend almost $476,000 on legal bills over the eligibility of a football player is generating calls for greater accountability about how universities spend taxpayer money.
CBC News revealed a year ago the bills in the Archelaus Jack case had reached almost $447,000, but the costs continued to grow until recently.
CBC obtained the $475,973.49 figure in heavily redacted documents for the Halifax university through freedom of information requests. The first invoice was dated Nov. 30, 2017, while the final one was Feb. 28, 2019.
"There's a lot of financial pressures around the universities, so when I hear that that's the amount of money that was spent on something like this, it's a lot of money," said PC Leader Tim Houston.
For the university's 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years, the university received $36.25 million and $37.8 million, respectively, from the province, according to figures provided by Saint Mary's.
"I think the province needs to be sending the message to the institutions that as a province, we value the institutions," said Houston.
"And it's important to us that we're a province that provides higher education to a number of students, but at the same time, the money that's invested by taxpayers is for the purpose of educating people."
The question of Jack's eligibility resulted in Atlantic University Sport (AUS), the governing body of university sport in Atlantic Canada, cancelling a 2017 playoff game between Saint Mary's and Acadia University. A judge later ruled the game be played, which the Huskies lost 45-38 in overtime.
Saint Mary's University spokesperson Cale Loney said the legal matter is resolved and there won't be more invoices. He declined further comment on the case.
The Department of Labour and Advanced Education also turned down an interview request.
"We are respectfully declining your request for an interview, as universities are independent, board-governed institutions, and any operational decisions would be made at the university level," said spokesperson Shannon Kerr in an email.
One year ago, when the then-current $447,000 in legal fees was announced, Advanced Education Minister Labi Kousoulis said he was confident the money was well spent.
The chairperson of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students isn't impressed with what SMU spent on legal bills in the Jack case.
"It's surprising to us a university has short of half a million dollars lying around to spend on lawsuits when students are told every single year that there is no funding to make education more accessible, to reduce tuition fees or otherwise invest in student services," said Aidan McNally.
She said the case highlights the need to have open board of governor meetings at Saint Mary's and other institutions, so there can be better transparency around the spending the universities make.
The Saint Mary's University Students' Association and CUPE 3912 — the union for part-time faculty — declined comment. Michael Vance, the president of the SMU Faculty Union, did not respond to interview requests.
The legal battle played out in courtrooms in Ontario and Nova Scotia in the fall of 2017, and included a Remembrance Day court sitting in Nova Scotia.
At issue was the eligibility of Jack, a wide receiver, because of time he spent on the Saskatchewan Roughriders' practice roster in 2016. He was on that roster until Oct. 11 of that year.
What the fuss was about
The eligibility guidelines in place at the time stipulated former CFL players must wait a year to play at the university level. Saint Mary's interpreted the one-year wait time as being for one academic year, not a calendar year.
Whether Jack was considered eligible will never be known. Saint Mary's had filed an injunction in Ontario to prevent the release of the findings of a U Sports player eligibility tribunal.
The almost $476,000 in legal fees is the equivalent to tuition and fees for one year at Saint Mary's for roughly 52 full-time arts students, or about 46 commerce students.
What other institutions paid in legal fees
Other institutions racked up legal bills as a result of the Jack case:
- Acadia University — $26,254.48.
- AUS — $44,000.
- U Sports — "Well over" $100,000, plus a "significant" amount of unpaid legal services, said Graham Brown, the president and CEO of U Sports.
About $281,000 of Saint Mary's legal bills went to Nova Scotia law firm McInnes Cooper, while roughly $195,000 went to Blakes in Ontario.
While it will never be known whether Jack was eligible to play, U Sports has changed its eligibility guidelines so that there's no room for confusion moving forward.
The 2017-18 rules said that former CFL players who were listed on a roster after Aug. 15 of a given year had to wait one year before they could suit up for a U Sports team.
The guidelines in place for 2018-19 now say that players facing the same situation must wait 365 days.