Editorial–All A-Board!

The UCP government of Alberta has made its first legal concrete moves (as opposed to those that a judge found concerning enough to reverse) toward post-secondary education.  I don’t think they’re good ones.

They have started appointing/rewarding their cronies on the campaign trail, including failed UCP candidates, by putting them on various boards across the province. Including those of post-secondary institutions.  Now, it is their right, and indeed is expected that they will make their own selections for various boards that reflect their own political ideology.  I’ve got no issue with that.

However, there are two things I do take issue with. The first is that the UCP are not simply filling these positions as they come open, as the NDP government did before them, respecting the terms that the previous conservative government had provided.  Instead, they are moving wholesale to simply replace anybody that the NDP appointed.

The second, more serious problem is that most of the people they are appointing have almost zero connection, experience, or relevance to the fields that the boards they’re being appointed to control.  It has been noted that most of the people the UCP has seen fit to appoint were all primarily people involved on the boards of oil and gas industries within the province, where they were not failed UCP candidates or large donors to the UCP cause.

For Athabasca University, our new board chair is Nancy M. Laird.  Unlike the previous chair, Vivian Manasc, who had some considerable experience with Athabasca University (including helping design AU’s own architecture program) today marks the first day of Ms. Laird’s involvement with AU, at least from what I can find of her resume and experience.  Her education was all completed in Ontario, and the only connection I can find to Alberta education is that she was once a board member of SAIT Polytechnic back in the early 2000s.  Her primary claim to fame seems to be as a president and director for various oil and gas projects and companies, especially in the marketing departments.

Which is great. If you want to run a university like a business, making sure to cut off all the non-profitable ventures (aka everything that involves helping students once you have their tuition money) and focus only on the profitable ventures (aka research and development of technologies that might support the oil and natural gas industries, and marketing to get new students).

Another appointee to the board includes Mr. Bryan Berg, a managing director at CIBC world markets.  He, at least, was educated in Alberta, so may have some idea about how the system works.  His major? Petroleum Engineering, of course.  His work in education before now?  None he felt worth mentioning on his own linked in page.

The final new appointee to the Athabasca board is Ilario (Larry) Spagnolo.  Mr. Spagnolo is probably the most appropriate of the new appointees when it comes to Athabasca University as he not only graduated from NAIT, but was on the board of it for a time, and is currently the Vice President of Emerson Automation System’s spin off company Zedi, concentrating on Cloud SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems.  Cloud systems and data acquisition have been something that Athabasca University has been looking at for some time now in an effort to improve and modernize their course delivery systems and to make them work better for students. However, if you’re one of those students that dislikes e-texts, I think you should get used to seeking your own solutions.

Of course, none of this means that these people come into this position with anything but the best interests of AU students at the forefront of their minds, but certainly there’s nothing in their backgrounds that suggests this will be the case, or that they’ll be able to integrate with AU’s own organizational culture, to say nothing of the wider culture of an academic institution.  Corporate boards are useful for running corporations, but academic institutions, especially universities, are a different beast, one where profit simply cannot be the first concern.

Still, this is what we in Alberta voted for.  I’ll remain hopeful that my first impressions are too cynical, and that what will result won’t be a lessening of the idea that a university is supposed to search for new truth in the unknown, often failing in the hopes of sea-change advancements.  That instead of being relegated to a super-charged technical institute – confined to refining and making iterative progress on what we know already works, these new members will see the advantage in Universities being a place of risk and creativity.  Reaching for things that may have no obvious value now, because we’re reaching for what may be of worth in the future we don’t know yet.  Enjoy the read!