Louie Villanueva

Eyes Too High: A Brief History of Administrative Controversy at the U of C

By Chris Adams, November 26, 2015 —

“Mrs. Cannon, as a student, I believe that your actions have hurt the standing of this institution. I was wondering if you’d be willing to resign from your post as president immediately.”

Frank Finley was the student at November’s budget town hall who asked the question everyone knew was coming. And he got the answer everyone knew university president Elizabeth Cannon would give.

“Not sure what you expected me to say, but I’ll give you a no.”

Cannon seemed annoyed, dumbfounded that one of her students had the chutzpah to ask her to resign.

But Finley didn’t take the question lightly. He prefaced it with a threefold shit-list of controversy: “The Enbridge affair,” excessive administrative spending and quarrelling with the Students’ Union over MacHall. Finley was locked and loaded, his question well-prepared. Cannon’s reign gave him years’ worth of ammunition. He may have landed only three punches, but there are plenty more to throw.

There’s the $4.6-million executive renovations to Cannon’s office from 2013 — nearly double the expected price. Internal Board of Governors documentation show they were aware of the “reputational risks” associated with the cost.

And the “Enbridge Affair,” as Finley called it, wasn’t the first whiff the public got of university administration ponying up to the corporate world.

In a 2013 report titled “Open for Business on What Terms?” the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) discovered that the $10.2-million agreement that formed the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for In Situ Energy (AICISE) compromised the U of C’s academic integrity.

AICISE partnered the U of C with companies like Nexen, Shell and Repsol in 2007 with the stated goal of researching technologies that help reduce the environmental impact of oilsands extraction. But CAUT found that control over AICISE research was given to a 10–11 person “management advisory board” comprised mainly of non-academic, private sector members. This board has the power to approve or reject plans and budgets proposed under AICISE, and a majority vote is all that’s needed to sway budgetary and research decisions.

Incriminating details of another research deal — the Consortium for Heavy Oil Research — also surfaced in CAUT’s report. They found that deals struck with donors like Husky and Nexen stipulated those companies could pull research funding if their money wasn’t fuelling projects they liked.

The details of the deals were previously unknown to the public.

At the time, Council of Alberta Faculty Associations president Robert Sutherland said those most affected by the deals — students and staff — had no way to understand how their experience on campus would change.

“The secrecy and lack of transparency of these agreements is extremely important,” Sutherland said in 2013. “We’re talking about public institutions that have public boards of directors that are supposed to be looking after our interests and they entered into secret agreements.”

University administration claimed that even though the deals didn’t contain specific protections for academic freedom or “other important principles,” things like peer-review and university policy would protect students and staff from breaches of academic integrity.

CAUT’s revelations foreshadowed a CBC Calgary investigation that revealed the dubious relationship between the U of C and pipeline company Enbridge in early November. The corporation committed to fund the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability with around $2.25-million spread over 10 years.

But that deal had strings. Experts, including one who helped establish the centre, said it compromised the U of C’s academic integrity by giving Enbridge special privileges. Cannon was a director of Enbridge Income Fund Holdings — where she made over $130,000 in 2014 — until the story broke and the nature of her involvement disclosed. The U of C is now under independent review, while CAUT — the same organization that questioned the U of C’s integrity with their 2013 report — is undertaking their own investigation.

People often ask why post-secondary institutions look for corporate money in the first place. The most common answer was a lack of “predictable and stable” government funding. And Albertan universities have seen their share of painful funding cuts in the past five years. The former Progressive Conservative government cut over $140 million from post-secondary in 2013 and cut  again by around 2 per cent in 2015.

Urban studies department coordinator Byron Miller said public funding cuts necessitate corporate donations. The U of C is currently trying to PR its way out of the storm questionable corporate partnerships have created, but Miller said professors have their own set of problems to deal with when the university partners with the private sector — academic self-censorship.

“Part of this self-policing among academics has to do with issues of funding. A significant part of [university] funding comes from business and industry, so we don’t want to scare off funding from business and industry,” Miller said. “That’s part of the motivation for watching what we say because we don’t want to offend those funders.”

But corporations aren’t the only target administration looks to for alternative sources of funding, and students often find themselves in the crosshairs.

Administration twice sought to increase tuition over and above the inflation-tied cap using a legislative loophole called market modifiers. Their rhetoric during the second round of back-door tuition increases in 2014 centred around the notion that adequate student consultation occurred before they submitted proposals to hike tuition. Student leaders, however, didn’t agree. They saw a deliberate, unjustified fast-track to raise tuition on bankable degrees like engineering or law, all in the name of “enhancing quality” and ensuring Alberta has “the best post-secondary education in the country.”

Market modifiers were first introduced in 2010 after the U of C sent six proposals to the provincial government. Over a thousand students took to MacHall to protest the modifiers, something we didn’t see in 2014 despite the best efforts of then-SU vice-president external Levi Nilson. Regardless, two proposals for the Haskayne School of Business were approved, hiking fees $239 per course for undergrads and $179 per MBA course.

When the former PC government approved the 2014 proposals on Dec. 22, Nilson, now SU president, said it was “clear the decision was made before [consultation] even began.” He called the move “gutless.”

A survey conducted by the Engineering Students’ Society found that over 80 per cent of engineering students facing a $170 per-course hike didn’t want the modifier.

At a budget town hall in Oct. 2014, provost Dru Marshall said she thought “the question for consultation for us was, ‘We are going to do a market modifier. What do you think is important in improving the quality of your program?’ I think the students in engineering wanted to ask the question, ‘Can we have a market modifier or not?’ ”

Market modifiers seemed inevitable — barring a change in government — no matter what students did. Then-minister of advanced education Don Scott approved the proposals after he delayed his announcement when a student protest over 300-strong took to the steps of the legislature on Nov. 17.

After the approval, Marshall acknowledged students’ “passionate views” on the subject and thanked everyone for participating in the process.

Rachel Notley’s NDP government has since rescinded the modifiers — a move applauded by student activists across the province. They froze tuition and closed the market modifier loophole indefinitely, putting the “predictable and stable” back in university funding, albeit without restoring previous cuts.

But the relationship between students and university administration hasn’t improved. First they came after student money, and now they want student space.

The negotiation over MacHall’s ownership had trudged along unsuccessfully for years. Each new SU executive passed the responsibility on to their successors. Former SU president Raphael Jacob and vice-president operations and finance Eric Termuende reached a stalemate with administration by the end of their terms in 2013–14. Talks were unsuccessful due to different negotiating styles. But the following year’s vice-president operations and finance Adam Swertz was optimistic they could hash out a deal before the Dec. 9 deadline.

“We’re the SU. You’re not going to get us out of the students’ centre,” Swertz said in Sept. 2014.

Rhetoric from both sides used to be more optimistic. Vice-provost student experience Susan Barker said in 2013 that students shouldn’t be concerned about the negotiations.

“I don’t see anything sinister about this,” Barker said. “MacHall is a great facility for students.”

That kind of wishful thinking looks less likely to hold with each passing week. The original agreement stipulates the SU has 55 per cent ownership. However, university administration now claims to have “50 years of documentation” proving their ownership of the building, though they’ve never shown those documents to the public.

The SU served administration with a lawsuit and negotiations ended, culminating in the latter’s decision to seize control of the student building when the lease agreement expires on Dec. 9, 2015.

Losing control of MacHall would gut the SU. They generate around 90 per cent of their operating budget — over $18 million — from the building. Administration would control clubs space, MacEwan Conference and Events, Bake Chef, the Q Centre and every other space the SU has cultivated in the building for decades.

The SU filed an injunction to protect that from happening. A court decision is expected on Dec. 4.

In the few statements administration has made to media since the start of negotiations almost three years ago, they always trumpet student experience as a top priority. Marshall  said that they would have preferred to solve this “at the table.” But Nilson speculated just last year that administration was waiting for a weaker SU executive before resolving the negotiation. He wasn’t going to let that happen, clearly, and now everyone’s laundry is out to dry.

All this controversy precedes the U of C’s 50th anniversary and the conclusion of its Eyes High strategy, which sought to position the U of C as one of Canada’s top-five research institutions. That plan has largely failed. The U of C tied for ninth in Macleans’ University Rankings this year. That’s three spots better than last year, but still four shy from administration’s Eyes High goal. And we continue to rate poorly in student experience. According the National Survey of Student Engagement, only 19 per cent of first-year students claimed to have had an “excellent” experience at the U of C. That’s the seventh lowest score among Canadian post-secondaries.

Cannon maintains that the cost of her staircase didn’t impact student experience. She and other administrators beat the same drum after nearly every controversy. But Cannon and her administration have never received this much public scrutiny. Students have no idea whether she’ll resign. And until the independent review concludes, no one really knows if she should.

According to research conducted by Public Policy Forum vice-president Julie Cafley, 18 Canadian university presidents have left their posts in the last decade because they were either fired or resigned. She found that presidents with a background in academia often have a difficult time balancing the interests of various stakeholders on campus — including students and donors. Cannon was a professor at the U of C for 20 years before becoming dean at the Schulich School of Engineering.  And now students are calling for her resignation a little over five years into her presidency.

The U of C Faculty Association said the outcome of the independent review will ultimately determine whether they’ll call for Cannon’s resignation. Finley has cast the first and only stone, yes. But if the school’s management structure is as deeply flawed as some say it is, we might find others echoing his cries in the months to come. 

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