Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Carleton Board of Governors (BoG) member Michael Wernick as Canada’s top bureaucrat on Jan. 20. Wernick will now act as deputy minister to the PM, secretary to the cabinet, and head of the public service.
At Carleton, Wernick chairs the Board’s Governance Committee, as one of 18 unelected BoG representatives, and has entered the public spotlight on two separate occasions over the past year for controversial statements and actions.
Students protested a proposed tuition hike at a Mar. 30, 2015 Board meeting, prompting Wernick to send an email which was later published by the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA).
“The physical disruption and attempt to suppress the functioning of the lawful governance of the university…has no place in a lawful democratic society – it is the tactics of Brownshirts and Maoists. It has no place in a university – it is the antithesis of free speech and open debate,” he wrote. “What I would like to hear from the administration is what sanctions will be brought upon the disruptors and how it proposes to protect the peaceful lawful governance of the Board from being intimidated.”
Wernick’s response to the student protest is striking and prompted a response from Dr. Root Gorelick, one of 12 elected BoG representatives, who contended the students “staged a beautiful example of peaceful free speech and civil disobedience.”
“The protesters certainly did not act like the paramilitary contingent of Hitler’s Nazi Party, as suggested by Michael Wernick’s brownshirt hyperbole,” he blogged. “Michael Wernick and several of his supporters on the Board claim that they were concerned for their own physical safety, which is absurd. There were no threats of violence. As far as I can tell, there were no reports filed with Carleton’s safety office about threats to personal safety arising from the student protest.”
The BoG released a media statement on Dec. 14 referring to Gorelick’s posts as “problematic” and calling into question the appropriateness and legality of his blogging.
Wernick defended the university’s attack on Gorelick. “Personal blogs that attack fellow Governors and university staff and dissent on matters the Board has decided are simply not consistent with the role of a Governor,” he told the Ottawa Sun.
Trudeau’s appointment confused some and prompted important questions from others.
“Michael Wernick is an outstanding public service leader,” said the government in a statement. “He has the depth of experience and the skills we need to move full-speed ahead on the implementation and delivery of our government’s agenda.”
In response to the appointment GSA President Michael Bueckert posted on social media, “Wernick seems to be behind the most regressive and autocratic trends in academic governance at Carleton University. Is this who we want as the head of Canada’s public service?”
Detailing Wernick’s controversial track record, Bueckert wrote, “As chair of the Governance Committee, Wernick then attempted to overhaul the Board’s bylaws, with proposals that aimed to: remove labour and student union representatives from the Board; impose a life-long “gag order” preventing Board members from speaking publicly about Open Meetings; ban the public from attending Open Meetings; and remove the right of student unions to nominate their representatives to the Board, giving the university control over all elections.”
Carleton’s December media statement addressed to Gorelick contains a short sentence that gets at the heart of the matter at hand. “The Board is not a democratically elected body…” This is the point that students, staff, faculty and alumni have been raising for quite some time. Why is a small, elite, majority unelected body responsible for the governance and decisions that affect thousands of people on campus? It’s time to democratize the university.