As last years presidential search at MUN was going off the rails,
"Eddy Campbell is settling in very well at UNB - he is off to an energetic start and shows all the promise of being a great president, as I expect he would have been at Memorial had he been given the chance."
- Stephen Strople, university secretary, University of New Brunswick
Here in Newfoundland and Lab-rador, we pride ourselves on our uniqueness.
Well, we're unique all right.
Of the at least 12 Canadian universities that were searching for a president a year ago, ours is the only one still looking.
And it's a hunt that will cost twice what it should have.
This week, Memorial University issued a news release on its current search process, which began this spring and is expected to be completed in early 2010.
"I am very impressed with the high calibre of candidates we are considering," said board of regents chairman Bob Simmonds, who heads the search committee.
You can't help but wonder how many more quality candidates there could have been to choose from in 2008 when the initial search was botched by political interference.
Since then, nearly a dozen institutions in this country have conducted successful high-level searches - without government meddling - and have hired the kind of multi-skilled presidents who can be in demand right across the globe. (For a list of who was hired where, see page A17.)
And new presidential searches have started up, including at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, McMaster University in Hamilton, Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, and at the University of Calgary.
MUN's search went off the rails when then education minister Joan Burke quizzed candidates in interviews about their "vision" for the university and then rejected them - including MUN's favoured candidate, then acting president Eddy Campbell. Meanwhile, other universities were announcing appointments and toasting their success at receptions and instalment ceremonies.
Last year's search process, by the way, cost MUN nearly $167,000, and got it nothing in return but a reputation for being the kind of institution where you're required to sing whatever song it is the premier has stuck in his head at the moment.
That amount is pretty standard. Some Canadian universities pay more, some less. Brandon University, for example, spent $87,255, while the University of Northern British Columbia spent $140,000.
The University of New Brunswick spent $213,000 on the search that netted them Eddy Campbell, whom we could have hired during our $167,000 search.
Add to that $167,000 whatever this year's search will cost - an amount that the search committee did not provide by The Telegram's deadline - and whoever MUN's new president is will have cost a pretty penny.
It seems a strange way to be fiscally prudent in a province that
is shutting down lab and X-ray services in parts of rural Newfoundland and has other aspects of health care under "review."
Among the candidates that got away while MUN's wheels were spinning? Experts in the fields of fish and fish aquaculture, and petroleum research and energy management - not that we need anyone like that here, of course.
All eyes upon us
Whether the ramifications of the bungled search still linger or whether the current search really does represent a clean slate remains to be seen.
But it was quite evident in the aftermath of Burke's clumsy interview sessions that real damage had been done to the university's reputation.
In a Sept. 8, 2008 article ("The search is on at the top," by Rosanna Tamburri) in University Affairs magazine, the well-respected publication of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the fiasco at MUN was referenced quite pointedly.
Jean-Marie Toulouse, a professor at the international business school HEC MontrÉal, called the situation at Memorial "worrisome" for all universities.
As the article points out:
"The government's involvement, (Toulouse) says, not only hampers the board's search for a new president, but could also affect the university's ability to recruit new faculty. There's also a risk that some of Memorial's best faculty members could choose to go elsewhere. In (Toulouse's) opinion, governments have a duty to get involved in university matters in certain exceptional circumstances, such as suspected fraud or other criminal activity. 'But apart from that, it's difficult to justify such an intervention,' says Dr. Toulouse."
Trust me, this is not the kind of national attention good universities seek out.
And while the provincial government here has said it will not repeat the same mistakes with this new search, it was still hell-bent enough on cherrypicking a candidate last time that it vetoed the person who was the university's choice and wasted $167,000 in the process.
As for Eddy Campbell, well he's doing just fine.
"The people here are full of commitment and energy, devoted to their university, communities and to their province," he wrote from New Brunswick on Wednesday. "The provincial government has plans to build the best system of post-secondary education in Canada - what a great place to be!"
Campbell said he wishes Memorial University well and has confidence in the current search committee.
"The leadership team at the university and on the board is very strong, and they are people of integrity and goodwill," he said. "I believe they will find an outstanding president for Memorial."
If Premier Danny Williams is wise, he will show the same magnanimity now and amend the legislation governing Memorial University so that the university's right to autonomy is acknowledged and protected.
If he doesn't, we could well find ourselves with an institution that has a reputation for being unique - and not in a good way - for many years to come.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram's story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at
Read her columns online at www.thetelegram.com.