Frits Pannekoek

What the heck is going on at Athabasca University?

It was revealed to the university’s faculty earlier this week that four senior administrators have left their positions at the on-line correspondence university based in the town of Athabasca, 145 kilometres north of Edmonton. 

They are:

– Margaret Haughey, Vice-President, Academic

– Brian Stewart, Vice-President IT and Chief Information Officer

– Murray Walford, Associate Vice-President Finance

– Dietmar Kennepohl, Associate Vice-President Academic

The university’s spokesperson, John O’Brien, refused today to confirm the names or comment on the situation beyond saying: “Athabasca University did make some changes to its executive team on Wednesday. The university considers this an internal personnel matter and out of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved, we will be making no further statement.”

So the reason for these departures cannot be stated with confidence, although Athabasca U insiders say that shortly before the university board’s meeting Wednesday afternoon, at least some of the four administrators were summoned to a meeting with university President Frits Pannekoek and Board Chair Barry Walker at a downtown Edmonton hotel.

Additional comment on what the Edmonton Journal now calls an “executive shuffle” came in an email to faculty from Pannekoek Thursday, first reported by this blog. In that email, the university president stated: “I am informed that the executive personnel changes announced yesterday have fueled speculation about the future of our university, particularly with reference to rumours about the budget process and the possible merger of AU with another Alberta post-secondary institution. Such rumours are totally without foundation.” 

However, faculty members were informed that Haughey and Stewart were gone before Wednesday’s 5 p.m. board meeting.

The rumours cited by Pannekoek were first reported in the blog on Feb. 13. Blog author Dave Cournoyer quoted Advanced Education Minister and Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk as saying he was not aware of discussions between Athabasca and the University of Alberta, but that “it would be positive if one school could utilize another’s infrastructure.”

Coverage of the university’s affairs last spring by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. indicated there are deep divisions within the administration and faculty of the provincially funded institution about its future direction.

In the absence of other information, it is not unreasonable to assume that the latest administration departures from Athabasca are related to that history. And if all or some of the four senior administrators have received buyouts, as seems probable in the circumstances, it is fair to assume the cost to taxpayers is likely to be substantial.

In April 2012, the CBC reported that the university’s faculty association demanded the resignation of President Pannekoek “over what they say is the institution’s precarious finances and outrage over illegal donations to the provincial Progressive Conservative party.”

An earlier CBC report in March 2012 revealed the university made more than $10,000 in illegal donations to the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, with the direct knowledge and approval of senior university executives, including Pannekoek.

CBC reported in April that internal union documents showed members of two of the university’s three unions representing faculty and support staff overwhelmingly passed non-confidence votes in Pannekoek’s leadership.

The CBC also reported at that time that Athabasca had spent almost all of its $30-million reserve fund. However, according to the university, as reported in the CBC story, the expenditure was planned “and had nothing to do with a strategy to obtain more operating grants out of the province.”

Interestingly, when Haughey appeared before the Alberta Legislature’s Public Accounts Committee in early December 2012, she was queried by Conservative Janice Sarich, MLA for Edmonton-Decore, who mentioned in passing the work of a government internal audit committee looking into Athabasca University. 

This too raises interesting questions, chief among them, if the work of this audit is completed, what did it find?

It is said here that blowing off questions about the departure of a considerable portion of its senior administrative team as a private personnel matter is not really good enough for an institution that each year receives more than $40 million for its budget of close to $140 million directly from provincial taxpayers. 

Nor is it good enough for the government to carry out an audit of the institution’s books, and then not release the information to taxpayers.

Taxpayers have a stake in this matter, as do above all the university’s 32,000 students in Alberta, Canada and around the world.

All of us deserve to be informed what the heck is really going on at Athabasca University.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...