Department chairs send letter to President Bill Flanagan, call his leadership ‘severely damaged’

Flanagan received the letter following the Board of Governors rejection of GFC's academic restructuring proposal.

Bill Flanagan, the University of Alberta president, received a letter from department chairs describing how his behaviour around academic restructuring has resulted in a “serious breach of trust” in his presidency.

40 of 73 department chairs have signed an open-letter to Flanagan, describing how their confidence in his leadership is currently being questioned.

This letter stems from Flanagan’s actions at the December 11 Board of Governors’ meeting (BoG), the highest decision making body at the university. At this meeting, BoG members rejected the academic restructuring proposal recommended by the General Faculties Council (GFC), the highest academic governing body, approving a management model which re-instated an extra layer of administrative positions known as the college deans that GFC voted against

At the meeting, Flangan, however, did not vote on the proposals and recused himself from board discussion, stating that his dual positions as president of the university and chair of GFC put him in a conflict of interest. 

Department chairs, however, rejected Flanagan’s logic in their letter, believing there was not a true conflict of interest. 

“We do not understand the reasoning you offered that your personal disagreement with the GFC recommendations placed you in a ‘conflict of interest’ requiring you to recuse yourself from the deliberations,” department chairs said in the letter. “This is not a ‘conflict of interest’ under any definition of which we are aware, either in university policy or in law.”

The chairs assert Flanagan’s decision resulted in undesirable consequences for the U of A community. The letter explicitly expressed concerns over BoG’s decision to create new leadership models “on the fly,” after GFC spent months discussing, and ultimately voting on, which model they should endorse.

The chairs felt that the academic restructuring model approved by BoG was simply the exact college model created and favoured by the university’s Academic Restructuring Working Group (ARWG) created, reflecting none of the consultation done over the past months

“It is lost on no-one that the final outcome of the December 11 Board meeting is a reorganization that is scarcely distinguishable from Scenario B in the ARWG Interim Report released in late September,” the letter reads. 

“Our faculty members, staff, and students are expressing the opinion that the three months and countless person hours of consultation and hard work to critique and improve upon the initial models were at best a waste of time, at worst a sham, or even a cynical manipulation.”

Chairs also emphasized their disapproval over the ability of BoG to set metrics to hold college deans accountable, describing the decision as a “terrible precedent.” 

“This is a dramatic overreach and a violation of the established precedents of bicameral collegial governance.”

Flanagan’s decision at BoG, according to the chairs, has impacted trust and confidence in his presidency. 

“It is difficult not to see your actions on December 11 as a serious breach of trust and of your responsibility as president of the university,” chairs expressed. “That shared view accords with what we as academic leaders are hearing from others: your credibility as the leader of this university has been severely damaged.”

In the letter, chairs outlined actions Flanagan should take to regain trust from faculty. These include offering an explanation to GFC on January 25 for his decision to not support their recommendation at BoG and ensuring that GFC has approval over the direction of the new colleges and their deans. Finally, the chairs requested that GFC ratifies the metrics that college deans will be held accountable to.

“We offer these frank comments and requests with a view to working together with you to navigate the University of Alberta successfully through this time of crisis.”

Flanagan disagrees with criticism, believes he made the right decision

In a statement from Hallie Brodie, Issues and Strategic Communications Officer for the U of A, she shared that Flanagan addressed the letter when speaking at the GFC Executive meeting on January 11 and the Chairs’ Council on January 12. 

Brodie also said that Flanagan plans to address the letter at the upcoming January 25 GFC meeting.

Flanagan acknowledged broader criticism about his choice to recuse himself and further explained his decision to the U of A community in a statement on January 14. Brodie said this piece was where Flanagan “shared his thoughts with the community more broadly.”

“With respect, I sincerely disagree and I would like to share my thinking on the matter,” Flanagan said in the online blog post. 

“I serve not only as chair of GFC, but I also serve as president, appointed by the board and reporting to the board. As president and in my capacity reporting to the board, it is my responsibility to provide the board with my best possible advice regarding what I believe to be in the best interests of the university.”

He goes on to explain that, because all board members are under “fiduciary duty” to the university, he had to follow what he believed to be in the U of A’s best interest.

“This fiduciary duty requires that all board members, including those appointed to represent various stakeholder groups, must exercise at all times their independent judgement as to what they believe to be in the best interests of the university, even if that might be at odds with the views of the members of their stakeholder group.”

Chairs have mixed reaction to Flanagan’s response

Despite Flanagan’s explanation, some chairs still question his decision.

Marie-Eve Morin, chair of the philosophy department, believes Flanagan’s response to the letter insufficiently addressed the concerns of chairs. 

“It didn’t address the core issue which was the loss of confidence in his leadership,” Morin said. “The general sense at the [Chairs’ Council meeting on January 12] I would say was: surprise, dismay, shock.”

As a philosopher, she specifically took issue with Flanagan’s reliance on “independent judgement” to explain his decision. 

“The philosophical assumption behind his explanation is that the independent judgement of the chosen few…is more likely to reach ‘the Good’ than our process of collegial governance,” Morin explained. “It is hard not to see a certain paternalism here: he knows better than us what is good for the university.”

“The president said that the consultation process had failed to generate a collective vision. What he meant I think is that we had failed to generate the vision he had for us.”

Not all chairs seem to share these same takeaways from the meeting. Ryan Dunch, chair of history and classics, said he sees a spectrum in how department chairs feel about Flanagan’s response.

“This incident has revealed some important differences in the conceptualization of collegial governance between various stakeholders,” Dunch said. “Those differences call for reflection amongst those in decision-making roles.”

In Dunch’s perspective, there are numerous factors to consider moving forward from BoG’s decision. Specifically, he is concerned over the provincial government’s budget cuts to post-secondary education, along with the effects of academic restructuring at the department level.

“In my view, the priority of chairs now is to move our attention to the many difficult challenges that are going to face us over the coming months,” he explained.

Despite whether chairs agree with the outcome of that December 11 BoG meeting, questions over confidence in Flanagn’s leadership still remain. 

For Morin, trust isn’t even on her radar as she believes Flanagan doesn’t understand the magnitude of his decision.

 “I don’t think he understands the problem,” she said. “He thinks he did the right thing and he understands he failed to develop a collective vision. He doesn’t understand that he quashed our collective vision.”

Dunch, meanwhile, maintains that discussions over confidence in the president are nuanced. 

“Questions like trust, in a community this large, are complicated,” Dunch explained. “Rebuilding trust is a long-term challenge.” 

No matter the outcome from the letter, Dunch believes that at least more light was shone on the conversations about academic restructuring happening around campus.  

“The president and the board members presumably have a clearer understanding now of the discussions that are occurring on campus and that’s a good starting point for thinking about how to move forward on the confidence side.” 

—With files from Mitchell Pawluk

Correction: At 11:00 a.m. the article was corrected to clarify that Bill Flanagan did not provide a direct comment to The Gateway on the letter. The Gateway regrets the error.

Khadra Ahmed

Khadra is the Gateway's 2020-2021 News Editor, dedicated to providing intersectional news coverage on campus. She's a fifth-year student studying biology and women's and gender studies. While working for The Gateway, she continues the tradition of turning coffee into copy.

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