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University of Alberta Arts Faculty Council passes non-confidence vote on president’s leadership

The governing body of one of the University of Alberta’s largest faculties voted overwhelmingly Thursday against president Bill Flanagan’s leadership after his handling of a pro-Palestinian student protest camp earlier this month.

The vote of non-confidence in Flanagan by the Arts Faculty Council passed 56–7, with seven abstentions.

“Most of the people in the room … wanted to send a message to him that they’re not happy with his leadership,” said Andy Knight, a political science professor and Provost Fellow for Black Excellence and Leadership who voted in favour of the motion.

“He’s going to have a very difficult time leading the institution.”

The vote comes after a series of public calls from students, faculty and alumni for Flanagan to apologize or resign over his response to the encampment, which was set up May 9 and forcibly removed after the university called in police on May 11.

David Kahane, a political science professor who put forward the motion, was also present during the encampment as a go-between for the student organizers and university security.

He said the camp was completely peaceful and the justifications offered by the university — which he addressed in a seven-page letter to the Board of Governors — are absurd.

Bill Flanagan says the new college structure will foster interdisciplinary research and teaching.
Bill Flanagan is the president of the University of Alberta. (Sam Martin/CBC)

“The president is the most senior decision-maker at this university,” said Kahane. “He was faced with a peaceful political assembly and protest for which constitutional law professors have [said] there is a high constitutional bar for clearing.”

CBC News reached out to the university to ask for Flanagan’s reaction to the vote. A spokesperson said only that “the president has had meaningful conversations with faculty, students and staff, and will continue to do so over the coming days and weeks as he focuses on the needs of the university community.”

Motion developed organically

According to multiple people present in the virtual faculty council meeting, Flanagan himself appeared at the start of the program to offer remarks and answer questions.

“There was a lot of negative reaction to what he was saying,” said Julie Rak, a professor and H.M. Tory chair in the english and film studies department.

“I believe ‘poorly received’ is a very good description.”

A man in a suit gestures with his hands as he speaks with a large bookshelf in the background.
Andy Knight is a political science professor and provost fellow, Black Excellence and Leadership, at the University of Alberta. (Submitted by Andy Knight)

Kahane and others present said that there had been no plans for a non-confidence vote at the start of the meeting — the motion came about organically due to Flanagan’s remarks.

“People in the meeting openly told him, we have lost faith in your leadership,” said Rak.  After Flanagan left, the conversation continued. “We thought we need to send him a message about how we’re feeling after this meeting. And the best way to do that, we thought, was to take a vote.”

The motion approved by the faculty council states its lack of confidence in Flanagan is due to his decision to call EPS “to clear a peaceful political protest,” his failure to provide “compelling evidence” of the camp’s danger, and his “inaccurate and damaging” statements following the camp’s removal.

Flanagan is seeking a second term as president when his current appointment expires next year.

Protesters forcibly removed

The saga began on May 9, when protesters established a makeshift camp on campus, resolving not to leave until the university engaged with their demands. They called for the university to disclose its investments and cut any ties with Israel. They also wanted the situation in Gaza declared as a genocide while calling on the federal government to end military contracts with Israel.

In the early morning hours of May 11, when the number of people at the camp was at its lowest, Edmonton police officers in riot gear forcibly removed anyone who didn’t heed their orders to disperse.

Videos shared on social media show police hitting protestors with batons, while pepper spray was released. Mayor Amerjeet Sohi said he found the videos disturbing, and the province’s police watchdog has launched an investigation of police actions during the camp removal.

Flanagan was in Italy on a previously scheduled work trip during the period of the encampment.

WATCH | Edmonton’s mayor weighs in on campus arrests:

Edmonton mayor disturbed by images of police response to pro-Palestinian protesters

12 days ago

Duration 2:00

While speaking on Edmonton AM, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi weighed in on how the University of Alberta and police responded to a pro-Palestinian encampment early Saturday morning.

The university and police have said the protestors were trespassing and their removal after several written and verbal warnings was justified. Officials were concerned that the encampment could become entrenched if not removed.

A protest camp at the University of Calgary began the same day as the one at the University of Alberta, but was swiftly removed within hours by police in riot gear. The provincial government has said it asked the watchdog to investigate police actions there as well.

An open letter signed by 19 law professors at the University of Alberta and University of Calgary said that legal precedent established that universities’ “discretion to serve notices of trespass is not unfettered,” and raised the possibility that the protesters’ Charter rights may have been violated.

‘Culture of care’

Student organizers have said that University of Alberta leadership never engaged with them directly before the camp’s removal, and that their conduct was peaceful. Since then, they have waged a pressure campaign against Flanagan with social media posts and protests, and called for a third-party investigation into decisions that led to police being called.

Rak said there was a stark contrast between Flanagan’s words at the council meeting about the university’s “culture of care” and the police response.

“The culture of care shouldn’t involve shooting pepper spray bullets,” she said.

Knight described himself as “one of the biggest supporters” of Flanagan in the past. Now, he’s considering resigning his provost fellow appointment due to the conduct of Flanagan and the university leadership.

“It’s been very awkward for me to stay in that position,” he said. “It makes me feel like I can’t be a hypocrite anymore, if I’m advancing these causes and then working at cross purposes.”

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