Grant Devine responds to NDP criticism of appointment to U of S board of governors

Former premier Grant Devine tells CBC News he's proud to have been named to the University of Saskatchewan's board of governors and is prepared for the inevitable criticisms.

Government minister says Devine's extensive agricultural background 'a great benefit'

Former Saskatchewan premier Grant Devine was awarded the province's Order of Merit in 2009. He has been appointed to the University of Saskatchewan's board of governors. (CBC)

Former premier Grant Devine says he no longer pays attention to critics in the media or politics.

"There's always two sides to things. People seem to forget the positive things we did," Devine said in an interview with CBC News.

I love the university. The university's been a big part of my life.- Grant Devine

Those critics are out in force this week after Devine was named to the University of Saskatchewan's board of governors.

The provincial NDP called the appointment "the latest in a series of crass partisan appointments" by the Saskatchewan Party. Others said Devine's record of massive deficits makes him a poor choice to steer the U of S through turbulent financial times.

Devine said he was elated when Advanced Education Minister Bronwyn Eyre called Thursday to give him the news. 

He was one of three new people appointed by the provincial government to the university's board of governors this week. Shelley Brown and Ritu Malhotra have also been appointed to three-year terms.

"I love the university. The university's been a big part of my life," Devine said.

Devine is a University of Saskatchewan agriculture graduate who went on to earn a PhD from Ohio State University. He taught at the U of S in the 1970s before entering politics. He served as Progressive Conservative premier from 1982 to 1991.

The Saskatchewan Party was later formed in 1997 by former Progressive Conservative and Liberal party members.

The board of governors oversees the management of the university's financial affairs.

"How, at a time of budgetary challenges created by the Sask. Party, could they even consider appointing to the board of one of our universities the person who led our province to the brink of bankruptcy?" said NDP advanced education critic Ryan Meili.

The NDP said the appointment is "clearly an imposition on what should be an autonomously-run university."

In a written statement Friday, Eyre said she's pleased Devine accepted the job. She said his background in agriculture will be a valuable asset to the board.

"The College of Ag generates 50 per cent of the research income at the U of S, and Dr. Devine's background in Ag Econ will be a great benefit to the board of the U of S," Eyre said.

The Opposition is also critical of the appointees chosen for the new provincial health care board last month, as six of the 10 had donated money to the Saskatchewan Party.

11-member board

The new appointees to the university's board of governors replace outgoing members David Dubé, Kathryn Ford and Greg Smith.

The board of governors comprises 11 members, five of whom are appointed by the government of Saskatchewan. There is also one student member, one faculty member elected by the faculty, two members appointed by the university senate and two ex-officio members.

U of S secretary Beth Bilson said they look forward to working with Devine and all other board members. She said the government asked the U of S board for advice on new appointments, but Bilson wasn't part of those discussions.

And, in the end, "it's the government's call" on those five spots.

One of the two ex-officio members is the university's chancellor, Roy Romanow, who served as NDP premier from 1991-2001. He became chancellor last fall.

Roy Romanow, a former Saskatchewan premier, became U of S chancellor last fall. (CBC)

Romanow and Devine sat across from each other in the legislature for years while each served as premier. Romanow levelled withering criticism of Devine's deficit spending, as well as a spending scandal, which led to criminal convictions for several of Devine's cabinet ministers and staff. Devine was not among those charged.

Devine said he governed during a period where interest rates often topped 20 per cent and commodity prices cratered. He said there were deficits and mistakes made, but there were also a lot of successes. He cited the privatization of the potash industry, oil upgraders, water projects and companies such as Ag-West Bio. He also oversaw construction of the agriculture building on the U of S campus.

As for the spending scandal, Devine said he can't control the poor decisions of others.

"Some people made mistakes. That's public life and some people can handle public life better than others," Devine said.

Devine said he has rented out his farm west of Moose Jaw, Sask., and plans to retire to Saskatoon in the next several months.