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University top brass salaries capped in Alberta; David Suzuki to get honorary degree from U of A

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David Suzuki (Photo: David J. Climenhaga)

The Alberta government has put a much-needed cap on the salaries of top university administrators, providing a nice break in the news columns from the continuing frenzy over the Trans Canada pipeline expansion project.

At the same time the salary cap decision hit the news, the University of Alberta announced that high-profile B.C. environmentalist, scientist, author and broadcaster David Suzuki will be granted an honorary degree this June.

Readers will be relieved to know there can be no way the two situations are connected.

The new salary regulations introduced by Advanced Education Minster Marlin Schmidt for senior university officials are years overdue, but certainly won't please top administrators like University of Alberta President David Turpin, who has already had a very public spat with Schmidt over his pay.

Turpin, late of the University of Victoria and other well-known institutions, joined the U of A administration in July 2015. Back in mid-March, the NDP's Schmidt said publicly that Turpin should cut his own salary before allowing students to be charged more for tuition, residence fees and the like.

Apparently wounded, Turpin fired back, complaining that "I've worked at three of the country's finest universities in three different provinces and this is the first time I have been personally and publicly attacked by a minister of the Crown." Subsequently, Turpin was yelled at by a crowd of students upset by the fee increases.

Bonuses, incentives, allowances and some other perks are going over the side by provincial decree at Alberta's public colleges, universities and technical institutions, according to Schmidt's announcement Tuesday. A five-level pay scale will take effect next week, limiting the amount a university president can receive, although it will be phased in over two years for top brass already on the job.

Right now, Turpin has a base salary of $500,000 a year but is paid more than $800,000. Under the new rules, a president will only be able to get about 20 per cent more than base salary in perks and benefits.

The government says the cap will save around $5 million a year, but it packs a more powerful symbolic punch.

As has been observed in this space many times, there is no evidence huge corporate-style salaries result in more inspiring leadership or better administration of Canadian post-secondary institutions. Indeed, if one considers the huge contribution made by the postwar generation of university administrators for a small premium over what a senior professor was paid in those days, the contrary would appear to be true.

Meanwhile, a U of A news release published Tuesday said that Suzuki -- widely considered an infuriating villain in United Conservative Party circles and the oilpatch -- will receive an honourary doctor of science degree from the university on June 7 at 10 a.m.

Suzuki is described in the release as "an award-winning scientist, broadcaster, author and activist" with a "devotion to promoting scientific literacy," both statements that cannot be disputed.

Alert readers will recall that when Suzuki was invited recently to address the Alberta Teachers Association, United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney and his online outrage machine went right over the top, condemning "teacher union bosses," as a friendly Postmedia columnist put it, for "flying in a millionaire jet-setter to tell us we should destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Albertans."

One can only imagine that the same kind of stuff is about to hit the fan again, this time directed at the U of A for having the temerity to award this honour to Suzuki.

Meanwhile, one also imagines that Victoria is starting to look pretty good to Turpin, now that he has experienced a couple of Alberta springs … and whatnot.

As noted, the timing of the two announcements is a coincidence. So is the fact Suzuki and Turpin are both PhD biologists.

You couldn't make this stuff up: Entire United Conservative Party Caucus goes missing!

You have to give Alberta's Conservatives their full due -- they don't do things by half measures.

Parliamentarians cross the floor of the House now and again, for example. But politically alert Albertans will recall how the Legislative caucus of the Wildrose Party, precursor to the United Conservative Party, tried to defect en masse to the Progressive Conservatives in 2014. Unfortunately for them, that didn't end well.

On Tuesday, the entire UCP went missing!

Politicians step out of the kitchen from time to time when it gets too hot for them. But for an entire 25-member caucus to disappear is unusual. Nevertheless, Tuesday while the Legislature debated Bill 9, the Protecting Choice for Women Accessing Health Care Act, reliable reports indicated not a single UCP MLA was in the House.

Where did they go? Hard to say. A search party will be checking the bars in the neighbourhood of the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton. If need be, the search can be expanded to neighbouring provinces, although Saskatchewan seems more likely than B.C.

Bill 9, of course, sets 50-metre safe zones around abortion clinics to keep the ever-present protesters from harassing people entering and leaving the facilities.

So this disappearance is really no mystery. It's like those flocks of American politicians who cross state lines now and again to prevent a vote on this or that in their state legislatures. Only the UCP MLAs aren't trying to prevent a vote, they're just trying to make damn sure they're not caught taking part in one.

UCP leader Jason Kenney is well known to be a social conservative who strongly opposes reproductive rights. In the unlikely event he voted for the bill, he'd be in deep doo-doo with his base. If he voted against it, he'd be in trouble with a large number of voters. He must have reckoned that sometimes discretion really is the better part of valour!

I imagine some of the UCP Caucus members -- you know, the ones who have principles -- are none too happy about this development. It says something for Kenney's iron fist that they've gone silent too.

That broody sound you keep hearing in the shed out back? Sounds like … Nobody here but us chickens!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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