A blast from the past

Pam
Pam Frampton
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"If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development." - Aristotle

Memorial University is getting ready to officially welcome its new president next week - Gary Kachanoski's appointment is effective July 1 - and what better time for a little recap?

After all, forewarned is forearmed, as they say, and I'm sure I can speak for many alumni in saying I hope Kachanoski enjoys his tenure and leads MUN boldly and confidently into the future.

But whenever you're driving into the future - or launching forth into the deep, as MUN's motto, Provehito in Altum, exhorts - it's always wise to keep one eye on the old rearview mirror so you aren't caught offguard when something sneaks up from behind you.

In Kachanoski's case, that "something" is how he arrived here.

Once upon a time …

The very beginnings of that long and arduous process, you might remember, were way back in 2007 with the premature departure of president Axel Meisen.

If the finer points of the bungled presidential search that followed escapes you - including then-education minister Joan Burke's ham-handed interviewing of prospective candidates - might I draw your attention to an academic paper that was presented at a national gathering in Montreal on June 3?

The gathering: the Canadian Political Science Association conference at Concordia University.

Our presenter: Scott Reid, a prof in Memorial University's political science and business departments.

His topic: Politics and the Appointment of a University President: A Case Study of Memorial University.

Ah, thank goodness for academic freedom.

Imagine, there are some institutions in less-forward-thinking parts of the world where papers like this would be frowned-upon, censored or even quashed; places where an academic who dared to question the political behaviour of the government that provides the bulk of his institution's funding would be seen as audacious - traitorous even.

Thankfully, MUN and our provincial government tend to see things differently, and open, honest debate is encouraged, if not outright nurtured here.

But back to Reid and his paper, which you can find online at www.cpsa-acsp.ca/conference-pres-2010.shtml#r.

It analyzes media coverage surrounding the political interference in the presidential search at MUN, as well as the government's response.

Let me say at the outset that the paper will be slightly revised in the future. Reid was initially unaware that The Telegram had actually reported on the controversy several weeks before The Globe and Mail did.

No matter - the thrust of the paper remains.

And that is, that academic and public outspokenness helped influence the process of the presidential appointment - forcing the government to change its tactics in the face of opposition; and that the government dropped the ball, big time.

"It is obvious from an examination of this case that not only did the government do the wrong thing, but also they did the wrong thing in a very inept manner," Reid writes.

The rest of this section of his paper is basically a "what not to do" primer for anyone interested in government, communications and damage control. Eastern Health might find it interesting.

"The initial reaction was not responding to media requests for information. … Once the story broke, the local media seemed to feel they were being misled by government on the issue and they became increasingly critical of the government's approach.

"Next, (Minister Burke) attempted to turn her involvement into a virtue, justify her actions, and (argue) that because of the funding provided by government she had an obligation to be involved. When the public reaction to that approach proved to be very negative, the premier came forward with a plausible explanation of the situation which was then collaborated by government appointees involved in the process.

"When several other independent sources disputed this characterization of what had happened, the government seems to have decided to start over again. While this did not involve an admission that what had been done was wrong, it did involve a new approach.

"The final move involved changing the players who had been discredited and replacing them with new people who could start the process afresh."

What a wonderfully succinct summing up!

And that fresh process led us to this very moment, as the university community and the province as a whole prepare to welcome Gary Kachanoski.

All's well that ends well, right?

Wrong.

As Reid so aptly notes, even with all that's gone before, the legislation surrounding the appointment of the university president still has not been changed to enshrine university autonomy and, in fact, "the issue of institutional autonomy has disappeared from the headlines."

Well not quite, perhaps. Not yet.

But as Reid also points out, "(This case) demonstrates that even very popular governments can be forced to change their direction based on a persistent campaign … (and it) highlights the importance of a need for organizations and individuals who believe protecting institutional autonomy is important to continue to advocate for the cause."

Thankfully, history doesn't always repeat itself.

But it can, particularly when the mechanism that allowed this fiasco to occur in the first place has not been fixed.

Until it is, we'll be watching.

Pam Frampton, The Telegram's story editor, welcomes comments by e-mail:
pframpton@thetelegram.com. Pam writes a food blog at
wininganddiningwithpam.blogspot.com

Organizations: Concordia University, Globe and Mail

Geographic location: Montreal, Eastern Health

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