From the exam-marking trenches to the ivory tower executive suites, Premier Danielle Smith has injected nervousness throughout Alberta's post-secondary sector.

It initially seemed her Bill 18, the Provincial Priorities Act, was intended to make her government play checkstop or gatekeeper whenever the federal government and mayors made deals without provincial involvement.

Then it became apparent that Smith's government would apply the same scrutiny to the higher-learning sector, and the premier's remarks made it clear she had federal research grants and notions of ideological "balance" in her targets.

"When the government of Alberta states that it wants to align research funding with provincial priorities, it risks colouring research coming from Alberta post-secondary institutions as propaganda," wrote Gordon Swaters, a University of Alberta mathematics professor and academic staff association president. 

"Students are caught in the UCP's forever war with Ottawa," stated James Steele, head of the University of Calgary Graduate Students' Association.

Bill Flanagan chimed in on his University of Alberta president's blog Wednesday: "I will continue to do all I can to advocate for a regulatory framework that does not impede our ability to secure federal funding and operates in a manner consistent with the university's core commitment to academic freedom."

An academic world, wondering jointly: what's Smith going to do? 

It doesn't appear even she knows, not yet revealing any clear direction. 

Several signs, in fact, suggest that the UCP government did not initially conceive of the post-secondary realm to be a major player in this Bill 18 drama — at least, not until journalists began asking last week how those provincially controlled entities could get tangled up in the bill's oversight.

Consider the following:

  • Advanced Education Minister Rajan Sawhney didn't participate in the April 10 news conference; only Smith and Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver did.
  • The premier didn't mention post-secondary once in announcing the program; it only came up when a reporter asked about it, and Smith mentioned a curiosity about social-science research.
  • When Smith began speaking in more detail in interviews on April 12, she extensively referred to a Nova Scotia business professor's criticisms of the system, which appeared in an Edmonton Journal column that very day.

If this policy approach involved more forethought, one imagines there would be a body of evidence or anecdotes beyond that morning's newspaper. Smith did cite one political scientist's survey that indicated far more left-identifying Canadian professors than right-wing ones — which was mentioned in that same Journal column.

This week, she tabled that article in the legislature.

A few days later, in her 38-minute debate speech on the bill she extensively quoted from that piece, but also brought in a second anecdotal point — another article.

This one came from the National Post in 2021, a McGill University chemistry professor's protests that he was denied a science research grant because the "woke" granting agency expected him to factor diversity and equity into his assistant hiring. Unmentioned by Smith — that agency's peer review committee gave the same scientist, Patanjali Kambhampati, a $144,565 grant last year.

For those keeping score at home, that's two articles about out-of-province profs forming almost the entire public justification for Smith's coming policy on universities.

Now, journalists love to imagine they have massive influence in high offices, and probably inflate their self-importance too often (or maybe this is just me). But it's likely that most journalists, and more importantly most citizens, don't expect or intend for articles or columns to form not just the backbone but the entire skeleton of political decision-making.

But even if Smith cobbled together her justification from news clippings after she tabled Bill 18, there is at least a sense of where her grievances lie. And if it's not clear what route she'll take with this legislation, she's signalled what the desired destination is. 

She's made it clear she believes more conservative-tilted research would bring more like-minded academics and then students. "If we did truly have balance in universities, then we would see that we would have just as many conservative commentators as we do liberal commentators," she told the CBC's Power and Politics.

Smith offered this week two potential paths she could pursue. One is using this provincial oversight bill to track all federal research grants to determine what share goes where — even though the granting agencies already publish everything online, as many academics have recently noted to the UCP.

"The other way is that we could also establish our own research programs to make sure that we're providing that kind of balance," Smith added.

The UCP government, in this notion, would create a new body to support ideologically focused research that Smith doesn't feel gets its fair shake from the non-partisan, peer-review committees that dole out agency grants, at arm's length from the Liberal government or the governments of various stripes that have overseen these agencies for more than a century.

Believe this to be far-fetched and heavy-handed, for a partisan government to set up their own shop to conduct public-interest research? 

It's already happened in the UCP government era — twice.

Former premier Jason Kenney gave his "energy war room" twin mandates to advocate for and research oil and gas, to do work he felt was lacking elsewhere; Smith has maintained this program.

In early April, Smith announced a new Crown corporation for research and expertise on addiction recovery — to bolster, hone and spread elsewhere the type of drug-crisis response her government has already invested heavily in.

The constitution squarely places post-secondary education into provincial jurisdiction, but the federal level has long led the way on supporting research projects.

The province topping up federal research funding could be a good thing, said Richard Sigurdson, past arts dean at the University of Calgary. Emphasis on could.

"It would only be great if the provincial government was to provide funds at an arm's length, non-partisan fashion," he wrote in an email while on academic administrative leave in Berlin. "There cannot be any interference with institutional autonomy or academic freedom."

If the government takes this approach and establishes its own research body in the style of the Fraser Institute — a conservative think-tank where Smith herself used to work — expect heaps of controversy. But it could be less messy than actually using Bill 18's gatekeeper function to interfere with federal agency grants, something that the Quebec government doesn't do, despite long having the provincial go-between powers that Alberta now intends to mimic.

Alex Usher, a longtime analyst with the consultancy Higher Education Strategy Associates, doesn't expect the Smith government to intervene with agency research grants.

But he still expects a fight that universities won't like.

"While the UCP government may not be targeting tri-council grants specifically, they are firing a shot at the province's universities, warning them that they will be expected to show 'ideological balance,'" Usher wrote on his website.

"God knows what this will mean in practice, but my take would be that it will be low-level skirmishing and attempts at micro-management for the rest of the UCP's term of office, combined with attempts to [wage] culture war [over] odd-sounding research projects in what the right likes to call 'grievance studies.'"

The premier's recent rhetoric doesn't make it clear she knows what it will mean in practice, either. The Bill 18 debate seems to have become the jumping-off point, perhaps due to a combination of fluke and expansively written legislation. 

Now the premier has been thinking about it, and finding articles to read. So an entire sector will be left to wait, wonder and worry.

2024-04-20T08:04:49Z dg43tfdfdgfd