University Governance


Alberta’s social and business elite—particularly banks, many newspapers, and the legal profession—were openly critical of Premier William Aberhart and his policies. While Aberhart’s detractors may have been unable to bring him down during the 1940 election, they took every opportunity to undermine him.

When Aberhart first came into office, the University was concerned about how supportive he would be towards the institution. As it turned out, Aberhart respected the University and wanted a friendly relationship. The University claimed to advocate non-partisan politics, and, under President Robert Wallace, the University passed a policy that disallowed full-time staff from running for or actively participating in politics. However, the University was unable to fully live up to to the ideal of non-partisan politics. This eventually caused the relationship between the University and President Kerr to sour.

The hypocrisy and the way some of the University’s Senate members treated Premier Aberhart led to President Kerr’s resignation. Beginning in 1928, the University customarily granted honorary degrees to premiers who were elected to a second term. The selection committee for recipients of honorary degrees consisted of the President, the Chairman of the Board of Governors, the Provost, the Chancellor (Alexander Cameron Rutherford) and the Deans of Faculties. The committee’s recommended candidates were identified months before Convocation. The committee unanimously selected Aberhart for an honorary degree and invited him to give the Convocation address. Aberhart was thrilled with the idea of being conferred an honorary degree of LLD and began writing his speech.

It was the role of the full Senate to meet and approve nominations for honorary degrees. A week before Convocation, the Senate met and Aberhart’s nomination was not acceptable to many members. This open resistance, to what was a tradition, was unprecedented. The Senate decided to resolve the issue by secret ballot. By one vote, Aberhart’s nomination to receive an honorary degree was not passed.

By all accounts, President William Alexander Robb Kerr was a gracious, fair-minded individual. He was appalled at the treatment and the humiliation Premier Aberhart received at the hands of the Senate.

One day after Convocation, Kerr resigned over the matter and refused all attempts to make him reconsider. The Chairman of the Board of Governors, Mr Justice Parlee, also resigned but he was persuaded to reverse his decision. Chancellor Rutherford passed away fewer than 14 days after the 1941 Convocation. Mr Justice Frank Ford became the next Chancellor.

With the exception of the Edmonton Bulletin, Alberta’s newspapers reported this event without commentary. The Bulletin’s front-page editorial included a statement that Kerr, the University’s supposed non-partisan policy, and many Albertans would have supported: “We may expect politics to be played in parliament. We do not expect nor will the public permit politics to be played in universities.”

In 1941, Dr Robert Newton replaced Kerr as Acting-President and then in May 1942, he took the permanent position as President of the University of Alberta.

In 1941, the Alberta government set up the Survey Committee to study the University’s entire operation. The six-member committee consisted of Mr Justice Parlee, chairman of the Board of Directors; Robert Newton, University of Alberta President; Dr Fred McNally and Mr H.C. Newland, both from the Department of Education; Mr John L. Barnett, Secretary of the Alberta Teachers’ Association; and Franis G. Winspear, a prominent businessman. Some of the Committee’s recommendations dealt with long-range plans such as expenditures.

Recommendations that required immediate action included raising the College of Education to Faculty status with Dr Milton Ezra LaZerte as its Dean (1942) and creating an official position for an assistant to the President. The Committee’s most challenging work was the new University Act, passed in 1942.

Under the 1942 University Act,

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