Came across this story last week and I've been meaning to highlight it, as I think it raises some interesting discussion points about the potential for political interference in Canada's universities, or at least how the fear of that potential may be driving university decision-making.
Recently Stephen Owen, formerly the Liberal MP for Vancouver-Quadra, was hired by the University of British Columbia as vice-president, community and external relations. During the hiring process, the hiring committee expressed concerns about whether Owen’s political career may prove detrimental to the university’s relationship with Canada’s Newish Conservative government.
Mr. Peets said concern that Mr. Owen's appointment could sour relations with the Conservatives “was an immediate and obvious thought in almost everyone's mind” during the hiring process.
“You are hiring a guy for government relations who is from a party that is not in power and that should be a concern,” he said. “You worry that if you hire someone from the opposition side that they may have burned some bridges with the government side and the government relations thing may not work well for them.”
It may be a pragmatic concern certainly, although its rather unfortunate that a candidate’s politics should have to be an issue. Owen invited the committee to contact members of the other political parties to discuss Owen’s political career, and whether or not it may prove an impediment to his new potential role.
UBC took him up on the offer, and Conservative godfather and former campaign director John Reynolds was among those contacted to ask whether appointing a Liberal MP to the VP’s role would be a “problem” for the university. Since Owen got the job I guess Reynolds gave him a pass, although one wonders what would have happened had Reynolds said it would be a problem.
When reached for comment by CP, Reynolds comments were a little odd:
“I am a private individual and I got nothing to do with the party,” he said.“I don't decide with the Conservative party who spends money and who doesn't spend money. I am not involved with that end of things at all. I don't think this was done at all or had anything to do with funding whatsoever. It's not (Mr. Owen's) job — his job is community relations.”
John Reynolds has nothing to do with the Conservative Party? Believe that and I have a bridge to sell you. He also has nothing to do Ottawa mayoral races of parole board appointments.
Anyway, while one hopes that no government would let politics enter into decision-making around things like grants and research funding, we do also live in the real world. And the potential for abuse is certainly there:
The last Conservative budget was the first to bypass the peer-reviewed process of federal granting councils by directly funding seven research institutes to the tune of $105 million in matching dollars.
“That is what has a lot of people in the academic community really concerned,” said Mr. Robinson, whose association represents about 55,000 academics ranging from librarians to researchers across the country. “No one is questioning that these institutes weren't deserving, but there are a lot of deserving institutions and the question is how do you decide which one? Do you make a political decision or an academic decision? We would argue that, for a whole number of reasons, it has to be an academic decision. We can't have political interference in the academic world.”
It seems an unfortunate path to be going down, where universities feel they have to vet potential hires for political compatibility with the government of the day. There needs to be a separation of politics and academe, with government setting the broad outlines, goals and mission of a program and non-political learned experts vetting applications and allocating the funding to specific institutions.
Remove the potential for political interference and testing candidates for political purity won’t be necessary. Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers