U of W loses vice-president academic in sudden departure

Neil Besner, new VP academic, presents bold vision for the future

Neil Besner. Supplied

The University of Winnipeg’s vice-president academic - considered the most influential administrator on campus next to president Lloyd Axworthy - recently departed the university in a sudden move, leaving many unanswered questions in his wake.

On Friday, Nov. 16, it was announced vice-president academic John Corlett had accepted a post at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton and would begin an administrative leave - before the end of his term and without a replacement named - the following Monday, Nov. 19.

In short, no public announcement of Corlett’s departure was made until just two days before an administrative leave that will last until March 1 of next year.

Corlett - who has served the University of Winnipeg as vice-president academic since September 2010 - is a well regarded professor of kinesiology and applied sciences who has been the university’s public face in an environment of faculty cuts and transformative change.

Axworthy was unavailable for comment about the sudden departure and the university’s human resources department responded with only an emailed statement.

“On behalf of the entire campus community, we thank Dr. Corlett for his dedicated service to the University of Winnipeg and we wish him all the best in his new role,” vice-president of human resources Laurel Repski said in a statement.

Just six days after Corlett’s departure was announced, vice-president international Neil Besner was appointed the interim VP academic.

He will be hired on a permanent basis, the university said in a press release, once Corlett’s term and administrative leave run out on March 1, 2013.

Besner - who has been involved in various roles at the University of Winnipeg as a professor and administrator for 25 years - refused to comment on Corlett’s departure or the process that ultimately appointed him as the new VP academic in less than a week.

“I cannot talk to you about appointment processes, hiring processes, that stuff is confidential stuff,” he said, adding that his primary concern is the academic mission of the university going forward.

Besner added he will use his wealth of experience as an academic to respond to the shifting ground in Manitoba post-secondary education.

Namely, he hopes to address changing demographics among university students - the average age for a student is now over 21 and most students work part-time, according to Besner - through innovations that will allow more academic and scheduling flexibility.

“We’re in a new age, really, in the classroom; ... the whole issue of lifelong learning is on everyone’s mind,” he said, adding there is a diverse student population that includes many advanced education students, international students and a great deal of part-time students.

In addition to these substantial opportunities for change, Besner added he will advocate for a provincial post-secondary education strategy to address the issue of grant funding, tuition fee increases and the strength of college programs.

A greater level of mobility for students who would like to transfer credits from an out-of-province institution is another necessary change, he added.

Despite Besner’s ambitions, however, some faculty members are critical of the administration’s hiring process and feel Corlett’s sudden departure may put faculty hires in jeopardy.

“His (Corlett’s) departure was quite sudden, ... so there wasn’t a sense of transition and you wonder about all the different projects he was involved in,” said Peter Ives, politics professor at the U of W, adding that in a time of major changes at the university - including major capital infrastructure additions and last year’s round of faculty cuts - students and faculty have a right to be concerned.

He added the absence of a competitive hiring process to replace Corlett is also problematic considering the importance of the position.

“There was definitely a competitive process when Dr. Corlett was hired ... and one would think that would be the normal course of events and I don’t know why they wouldn’t have gone through those normal course of events (when they appointed Besner). ... I would like to know why they didn’t.”

Among the significant administrative figures who have departed the university in the past year are former dean of libraries Jane Duffy, Global College principal Marilou McPhedran, associate vice-president of external affairs Dan Hurley, founding dean of the U of W’s business and economics faculty Michael Benarroch and vice-president academic John Corlett.

Published in Volume 67, Number 14 of The Uniter (December 7, 2012)

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