It has been a challenging few years for postsecondary education in Prince Edward Island. Since 2020, the province’s only university, the University of Prince Edward Island, has seen allegations of misconduct against its president, a faculty strike and the release of a damning report on the institution’s workplace culture – all while also navigating the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and a destructive Hurricane Fiona.
“It’s been particularly tumultuous for P.E.I.,” says Michael Arfken, president of the University of Prince Edward Island Faculty Association. “When I go to [Canadian Association of University Teachers] events, I have the best stories, which is not necessarily a good thing.”
P.E.I. is home to four postsecondary institutions: UPEI, Holland College, Collège de l’Île and the privately funded Maritime Christian College. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 8,600 postsecondary students are enrolled in the province, the majority of which attend UPEI. While the university has seen growth across infrastructure, student enrollment and program offerings, much of it has been overshadowed by allegations of misconduct against former president, Alaa Abd-El-Aziz, his resignation and the subsequent release of an independent third-party investigation.
A resignation and a scathing report
In December 2021, Dr. Abd-El-Aziz resigned from his role, citing health concerns. Shortly after, the university mandated Toronto law firm Rubin Thomlinson to investigate an allegation against him and to review the university’s workplace policies and practices relating to harassment and discrimination. The resulting 112-page report, University of Prince Edward Island Review was released in June 2023 and “is about as bad as it gets,” says Dr. Arfken. Known colloquially as the Rubin Thomlinson report, it concluded that “the university has failed to create a safe, respectful, and positive environment for working and learning for all members of its community,” and that “the university has not lived up to its stated values of ‘inclusion, equity, and reconciliation,’ and more specifically, its commitment to ‘fair treatment’ and ‘respectful relationships.’”
Dr. Arfken says the Rubin Thomlinson report was a surprise for a lot of people, “but not if you were leading a union, because you were dealing with these things day in and day out … The change was that the administration finally felt like it needed to do something about it.”
The fallout of the report’s release was substantial. The vice-president, administration and finance was placed on administrative leave the day before the report was released. In October, it was announced that she was officially no longer employed by the university. The chair of the board of governors resigned, citing a need for new leadership. The province’s premier even commented on the report in the P.E.I. legislature, saying “we were sickened to read the report that was released yesterday by UPEI and how it erodes the trust, confidence, and faith that we need to have in an institution as important as UPEI.” He went on to say that the report highlights what “appears to be a systemic system of just horrible behaviour and, I would have to say, based on the report that I’ve read so far, an unsafe environment for students.”
“It’s been particularly tumultuous for P.E.I.”
A week following the report’s release, the provincial government passed two pieces of related legislation. The first placed P.E.I.’s postsecondary institutions under the purview of the provincial ombudsperson. The second threatened to restrict the university’s provincial funding if it didn’t take steps towards improving the issues laid out in the report. The university welcomed the inclusion of the ombudsperson, says Gregory Keefe. Dr. Keefe took over as interim president and vice-chancellor of the university in December 2021. “What that essentially means is another layer of appeal for anyone who feels that they didn’t get the result that they thought was appropriate from our internal processes,” he says.
The university has also begun to move forward in addressing the many issues laid out in the report. “There are a number of key recommendations that are within the report. One of them is around the listening culture at the university and ensuring that we’re listening to people and getting their input,” says Dr. Keefe. “So, we’ve made some early actions with respect to the report, but we also want to ensure that we do a consultative process before we make major changes moving forward.” The university has held a town hall and a staff forum, developed an action plan advisory group and committed to a series of listening sessions. UPEI has also undertaken a governance review and the board of governors has already seen a significant refresh, with a new chair and multiple new members.
However, Dr. Arfken maintains the university could be doing more. “I feel like there has been insufficient consultation with the unions on this process,” he says. “I think there are ways that they can be more transparent. I think there are ways that they can take a more trauma-informed approach to how they engage with the campus community on this,” says Dr. Arfken. “We’ll continue to raise concerns.”
For students, the report doesn’t seem to have struck as deep a chord. Camille Mady, the president of UPEI’s student union, says it shared a survey about the report a few days after it was published. “We received four responses and two of them were just upset with the student union for other reasons,” she says. “We realized that the majority of the student statements in the report weren’t necessarily the toxic environment ones but more of the [sexual violence prevention and response office] issues that we see on campus.” She says the statements related to a need for more resources to address sexual violence on campus and that the student union plans to work on related initiatives with the provincial government.
In a written statement to University Affairs, a representative of the department of workplace, advanced learning and population, the provincial government arm responsible for postsecondary education in P.E.I., said “the changes UPEI has begun to make during these past months are a positive step forward, and we understand more changes are underway.” They added that “the department remains in regular communication with UPEI leadership to follow their progress and will be having more conversations on how the province may be of assistance to ensure the university community has the appropriate supports to address the findings of this report.”
Adding to the challenges, there was a faculty strike in spring 2023. Among the key issues were health and safety and greater protections for academic staff, says Dr. Arfken. “Over 50 per cent of our union is contract academic staff, so we wanted to see greater protections for them, increased salaries and things of that nature,” he says. “At the time that we were on strike and beforehand, P.E.I. had the highest inflation in the country, so we were trying to address wage increases that recognized our unique inflationary context and also doing some things around equity, diversity and inclusion.” The strike lasted 26 days, with an agreement reached a week before the end of the semester. “We didn’t get everything we wanted but we got what we were fighting for, which was a fair and reasonable offer,” says Dr. Arfken. “I think as a union, we’re very proud of that.”
A focus on health
In the midst of the strike, there was a provincial election, which resulted in a second term for the Progressive Conservative Party. Following the election, the portfolio for postsecondary education was moved from the department of education to the department of workplace, advanced learning and population. According to a statement from the department, “we know that many industries and employers are facing labour pressures. Including postsecondary education within the department allows for greater synergies between postsecondary programs and workforce needs.”
Dr. Keefe says the impact of the shift has been minimal. “We work really well with our provincial government. The university used to fall under a similar department,” he adds. While they do have a new minister and a new deputy minister, he says, the directors and staff that they previously worked with have switched over.
The Progressive Conservatives ran on a platform that included a promise of free tuition for paramedics and licensed practical nurses in return for two years of service. In August 2023, they announced the associated program to make this promise a reality. Dr. Keefe says the current government has identified health education as one of its key priorities. “They’re interested in what are the particular needs in the province here in P.E.I., so health education has emerged as an important one, as in other provinces. They have invested in our expanding nursing program and, of course, they are investing in the development of the medical school on campus,” he says.
The new medical school, which was announced in October 2021, is a partnership between UPEI and Memorial University. “The program will initially operate under Memorial’s accreditation because it will take us another year, or perhaps longer, to get full accreditation of the UPEI-Memorial joint degree. So, it will operate as a campus of the Memorial program [starting] in 2025,” says Dr. Keefe. Construction on a new health education building is currently underway. The $48.8 million project is being jointly funded by the federal government, provincial government and UPEI.
In terms of overall operational funding, Dr. Keefe says, “the province of P.E.I. has been better than some in keeping up with costs but certainly it has not kept up the rate of growth of our costs here on campus.” He notes that they have typically received a two per cent increase each year, while last year they received four per cent. However, he says they don’t have a long-term funding agreement with the province. “We would like to work on at least a three-year funding window. This is particularly relevant now that we have a four-year collective agreement [retroactive to 2022],” he says. “We know what the escalation in our costs is going to be and we need to have our funding partners participate in that as we move forward.”
“The province of P.E.I. has been better than some in keeping up with costs but certainly it has not kept up the rate of growth of our costs here on campus.”
The Atlantic Veterinary College, which is housed at UPEI, receives interprovincial funding from the Atlantic provinces. Dr. Keefe, who previously served as the college’s dean, says that under its interprovincial funding agreement, the veterinary college has only received one per cent funding increases annually for most of the last 10 years. “They’ve been in a very difficult budget situation for a number of years based on this 10-year agreement. That agreement expires in 2024,” he says. “Like human medicine, veterinary medicine is seeing a very severe labour shortage right now, so there’s very much a need for more veterinarians in the community and they’re having good discussions about how provinces support the veterinary college.”
While increasing funding is important, what is funded should also be a consideration, says Dr. Arfken. “One of the things that we’ve seen over the last few years is the UPEI administration and the board of governors being very interested in new projects,” he says. “We haven’t seen as much support for maintaining the existing programs or the existing infrastructure.”
For P.E.I. students, money is also a concern, particularly when it comes to housing and affordability, says Ms. Mady. “We have a lot of emails coming in about issues with housing and living standards. Our food bank is getting an increase in uptake. Our financial aid resources, our funding for our students, is also definitely being stretched,” she says. In January 2023, the vacancy rate for rentals in P.E.I. was 0.8 per cent. “The new residences that were built for the Canada Games do alleviate some of that issue,” says Ms. Mady, but “the issue is the affordability.” She adds, “for the students that cannot afford it, they’re forced to compromise by having worse living conditions or living outside of town, and we’re trying to find solutions that would allow them to have affordable housing, not just housing.”
As the university moves forward in dealing with the recommendations of the Rubin Thomlinson report, its new faculties and the general operation of the university, the faculty association has raised concerns about the number of leadership positions currently filled on an interim basis. “Our deans, vice-presidents and even our current president are serving in an interim interacting role. So there have been a lot of issues around collegial governance and due process for administration,” says Dr. Arfken. “We’re talking about people that have never been through a formal process.”
Dr. Keefe says that, while some of the hiring processes were delayed by the pandemic, they were running a number of dean searches simultaneously and, by early fall 2023, had completed the search for the majority of them. The search for a new president was launched in May 2023 and applications for that position were officially opened in September 2023.
How do the past few years compare? “I’ve had this conversation with a number of people over the last several months,” says Dr. Keefe. “When I became a dean in 2015, I was witness to some of the struggles, I guess I would call them, or challenges that we were facing more broadly as a university. I don’t know if that’s just because I became more aware at that time because of my role or whether those challenges were becoming greater. I expect, based on the report, that they were, in fact, becoming more evident due to the management style of the previous administration,” he says. “It has certainly been a period of change and some challenges.”