An escalating feud at Acadia University has left the prestigious school deeply divided
By John DeMont in Wolfville
Mark Taylor had a good feeling when he first stepped on to Acadia University’s tiny campus back in 1971. For the British-born mathematician, joining the faculty was like becoming part of a close-knit extended family that included everyone from janitors to university alumni. “There’s a fair chunk of me at Acadia,” says Taylor, 57, whose wife, Hilda, teaches biology at the university and daughter, Robin, now a professor in the United States, is an alumna. No wonder he grimaces when asked to explain what has happened to shatter the calm at the Wolfville, N.S., school, one that was honoured last year by Washington’s Smithsonian Institution for innovation in education. “Its like a family feud,” says Taylor. “One that’s just gone way, way too far.”
This week, the feud is set to spill onto the floor of the Nova Scotia legislature. The venue: the provincial government’s
committee on private and local bills, which normally deals with small, noncontroversial pieces of legislation. But there are sure to be fireworks when attention turns to Bill 44, a measure that would allow amendments to the board of governors of Acadia University, which has fractured any remnants of family unity at the elite school. By the end of last week, the Nova Scotia legislature was still receiving telephone calls from students, alumni, faculty and members of the board of governors, all wanting to appear at the public meeting and plead their case for or against the bill, before the third and final reading. Ruth Petrykanyn, 20, a fourth-year political science student from Princeton, N.J., who is also president of Acadia Students’ Union, plans to appear before the committee. Says Petrykanyn: “It’s all about control and power.”
That is one of the few points on which both sides agree. The board members say the bill’s critics want to ensure they can continue to wield influence over Acadia’s affairs. But among students, alumni and faculty, there are deep suspicions that the whole restructuring is a veiled bid for control by Acadia’s ever-controversial president Kelvin Ogilvie, who has a history of butting heads with campus groups.
Speculation persists that Ogilvie has a master plan to turn Acadia into a for-profit, private university
There is little dispute that Acadia’s current board of governors, which has 37 members and meets three times yearly, has long been unwieldy and inefficient.
The proposed solution would shrink the board to 24 members, do away with all but a few “task-oriented” committees and convene as frequently as every month. The composition of the new board would also change. Perhaps most significant, the proposed arrangement would mean a huge drop in representation for alumni and for the Nova Scotia government, and less clout for the United Baptist Convention of the Atlantic Provinces, which founded Acadia in
1838. And who would have the most power? Eight “at large” members, hand-picked by the other board members, representing fully one-third of the board.
The proposed new arrangement rankles those with the most to lose: Acadia’s student union, its faculty association, plus some alumni. Banded together under the name United for Acadia, they argue that the new board will be less accountable, making it easier for Ogilvie to dominate decision-making. Says former provost Erik Hansen: “There’s a question of independence here.” Board chairman George Bishop insists that the aim is “equality and fairness among the various constituent groups.” He stresses that Ogilvie played no part in the board’s decision to restructure. But the president has too many enemies on campus not to be a lightning rod for controversy. “It is easy for these groups to personalize or demonize issues when logic fails,” Ogilvie told Macleans last week.
A brilliant research biochemist, Ogilvie is recognized as a visionary: he launched Acadia Advantage in 1996, a revolutionary program that has incorporated computer and Internet technology into every discipline on campus. But even his allies admit he sorely lacks people skills—and his autocratic ways have alienated members of the Acadia family. Two years ago, students brought a motion to the board of governors, requesting a full review of the president’s administrative practices. At the same time, many faculty felt they had helped introduce the Acadia Advantage program, but had been poorly rewarded during the tough 1998 contract negotiations. That same year they sent a letter to the board, expressing a lack of confidence in Ogilvie. They followed up by issuing a bulletin to the national media, putting a bounty on the president’s head by promising to donate
$100,000 to the university’s capital campaign if he resigned.
At the same time, Ogilvie’s managerial style again fell under the microscope when the administration tried to take over the principal functions of the Associated Alumni of Acadia University, which has looked after the university’s alumni affairs since 1860. When the association objected, the university fired staff members, locked the association out of its historic campus offices and refused to release alumni funds. Now, the Associated Alumni still supports students and the interests of the university—but from an office building a few blocks from the Wolfville campus. “Acadia,” says Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, “is the first example in living memory where a university president is at war with his alumni.” With his current six-year term not due to run out until 2005, Ogilvie is still not winning friends. Speculation— which he steadfastly denies—persist that he has a master plan to turn Acadia into a for-profit, private university. The constant battles are starting to take their toll. Harvey Gilmour, Acadia’s director of development, says all the bad press is making fund-raising difficult. Meanwhile, the bad blood between the administration and faculty cannot bode well for the latest round of contract negotiations, which began last week. For Acadia students, who already pay the highest undergraduate tuition in Canada—$5,597—the environment is wearying. “Acadia is a great place,” says Petrykanyn. “I just wish all this fighting would stop.”
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