A Letter To The University of Alberta Board of Governors

As an alumnus of the University of Alberta, I am horrified by the president’s recent handling of student protests on the U of A campus.

Andy Grabia
9 min readMay 14, 2024

The following message was sent on May 14, 2024, to Kate Chisholm, chair of the University of Alberta’s Board Governors. A similar message was also sent to Ashton Rudanec, president of the U of A’s Alumni Association.

“The modern state university has sprung from a demand on the part of the people themselves for intellectual recognition, a recognition which only a century ago was denied them. The result is that such institutions must be conducted in such a way as to relate them as closely as possible to the life of the people. The people demand that knowledge shall not alone be the concern of scholars. The uplifting of the whole people shall be its final goal. This should be the concern of all educated men, it should never be forgotten.” –Henry Marshall Tory, 1908

In the early morning of May 11, 2024, Edmonton Police Service members moved in on a small number of peaceful protestors sleeping in an open, grassy space on the University of Alberta’s north campus. The campers were there to protest what they perceived to be the university’s complicity in the ongoing mistreatment of Palestians by the state of Israel.

By all indications, the protestors were passionate in their beliefs, but also respectful. There were no calls to violence, no anti-Semitic signs or sidewalk messages. Members of Edmonton’s Jewish Community were present, and a prayer service had been held on Friday evening to mark the beginning of the Shabbat, the Jewish holy day of rest.

The decision to call in the police, who then attacked these peaceful protestors with batons, tear gas and pepper bullets, was made by current university President and Vice-Chancellor Bill Flanagan.

To justify his decision, the President has issued two statements, one on May 11th, and one on May 12th, both of which I take issue with:

The president has asserted that only 25% of the protestors were students.

There is simply no way for the president to know this, unless every individual there was asked to show a OneCard. This did not happen. Furthermore, the argument is a red herring. The University of Alberta community is made up of a variety of stakeholders. This includes undergraduate students, graduate students, non-academic staff, faculty, alumni, and members of neighboring communities. It’s also part of a large municipality, a province, and a country. To assert that only students are welcome to express their Charter Rights on the U of A campus is simply false.

The president has asserted the university’s right to clear anyone it wishes off of its campuses, because they are on private property.

While this might be technically true, it’s not as clear cut as the president makes it sound. First off, the University of Alberta is not a private university, like Harvard or Columbia. It is a public university, governed by a provincial act and a government-appointed Board of Governors, while receiving the majority of its operational funding from taxpayers. Its land was originally purchased by the Alberta Department of Education in 1908, and the control of its property is vested in the Board of Governors. Unlike a truly private institution, the Board can not sell or exchange any interest in university land without ministerial approval. It also has to provide long-range use and development plans of university land to the minister. So while institutional autonomy remains critical for academic reasons, and the property has been set up as private for governance purposes, the university itself is not. It belongs to the people of Alberta.

Secondly, the University of Alberta was explicitly established by its first president, Henry Marshall Tory, with the purpose of serving Albertans and “uplifting the whole people.” During Indira Samarasekera’s time as U of A president, this was actually the “promise” the university used in its academic plans, marketing campaigns, and fundraising efforts. The university has consistently encouraged Albertans to see the U of A as belonging to them, in hopes of raising money from donors and support from the public when it comes to provincial funding. A reverse-course on this issue is a betrayal of the university’s values, and its founding promise to Albertans.

Thirdly, the Alberta Court of Appeals ruled in 2020 that a student’s right to Charter expression supersedes the university’s claims regarding private property. University administrators know this because the Court of Appeals ruling was against a previous attempt to stifle free speech on campus. President Flanagan knows this because he referenced it in a “From the President’s Desk” statement on freedom of expression on December 7, 2023.

The president has asserted that the presence of wooden palettes were a fire hazard.

There are currently no fire bans in place in Edmonton, and the protestors were sitting in a large field away from buildings. The palettes were no more of a fire hazard than the trees in Quad or the paintings and papers in the President’s office. Furthermore, the president himself has admitted that the protestors moved the palettes out of the encampment at the university’s request, hours before the police moved in on those sleeping in their tents.

The president has said students will not face any penalties for their participation in the protests.

There is video evidence of UAPS Threat Assessment Manager Frank Page threatening students with this very punishment. The president does not acknowledge or apologize for this in his statement of May 12.

In his initial statement of May 11, the president reported no injuries to students.

Again, there is video evidence of students being hit by batons, tear gas, and pepper bullets. According to the protestors, several individuals were injured, and one ended up in hospital. The president makes no mention of or apology for those attacks or injuries in his statement of May 12.

The president has stated that the presence of wood palettes, hammers, axes, screwdrivers, and syringes all created a serious risk of potential violence and injury to community members and the larger public.

Putting aside the fact that what the president calls weapons are actually common tools used at a campsite, that the syringes were part of a naloxone kit, and that the EPS attack happened on a Saturday morning, during Spring session, with barely anyone on campus and summer camps for children over a month away, the president himself has admitted that the camping tools were only found after the police had begun dismantling the tents. This is a justification for his acts after the fact, and would be swatted around as insufficient grounds for a police raid by any philosophy, political science or law professor marking a first-year student’s paper.

The reality is that the university has failed to provide tangible evidence that anyone on campus was being threatened by the existence of the encampment, and there is therefore no justification for calling in Edmonton Police Services to clear it out. The only evidence of violence and injury, in fact, came at the hands of EPS and the university itself.

There were any number of different decisions that President Flanagan and the university could have made last Saturday, including simply being transparent about its investment choices. If they deemed that either unwise or impossible, they could have explained to the protestors and the public at large why they could not, or would not, meet that or any other demand.

They could have highlighted the fact that students and faculty have long been members of the university’s governance structure, and could bring forward motions asking for change to either General Faculties Council (GFC) or the Board of Governors (BoG).

They could have just let the encampment remain, with the knowledge that the onset of summer and incoming forest fire smoke would ultimately quell the enthusiasm of those who wished to sleep outside overnight.

While none of these may have been ultimately successful in curtailing protest, they at the very least would have indicated an attempt to engage in dialogue with other members of the U of A community.

The university could have also just asked for a court ordered injunction to break up the encampment, as is currently happening at McGill, giving them legal protection and ensuring that the public at large had seen that they’d exhausted all the peaceful and democratic channels available to them.

Instead, the president behaved like an authoritarian, and has manufactured the pretext of violence to gloss over his poor decisions.

Ultimately, the president determined that the potential risk from fifty people, some wood palettes and some tents in a massive outdoor space was more dangerous than calling in a police riot unit with body armour, batons, tear gas, and pepper bullets. He was wrong.

Even if the violence that resulted was not his desire, his experience as a former Dean of Law should have told him not to trust the enforcement of safety on his campus to an agency outside of his control, particularly a police service with a reputation for overreaction. His decisions, however well-intentioned he claims them to be, were naive, arrogant, and faulty.

As a consequence of President Flanagan’s actions, members of the University of Alberta community were physically attacked by members of the Edmonton Police Services. In my 30-year association with the university — as a student, staff member, alumnus, and donor — I have witnessed my fair share of questionable decisions made by senior administrators. I have also seen many students protest on campus, on issues as far-ranging as tuition increases, the Iraq War, and the recipients of honorary degrees. Never, ever, have I witnessed a full-fledged assault on protestors by police officers on the U of A campus. In fact, no one has.

This is the first time in the history of the University of Alberta that a president or any senior administrator has signed off on violent police action against students. President Tory had students over to his residence for tea. President Davenport would regularly walk over to SUB to spend time with the Students’ Union Executive. President Gunning actually planned on marching with students in protest of government cuts to post-secondary education in 1978, until the Board of Governors passed a motion to prevent him from doing so. President Flanagan, on the other hand, ordered a police attack on students, faculty, and alumni who were engaged in peaceful, non-violent protest. His legacy will forever be stained by his actions.

So too will the reputation of the University of Alberta. This act of university-sanctioned police brutality will have consequences when it comes to student, staff and faculty recruitment, as well as alumni engagement and donations.

The university will likely also end up as co-defendants in a number of court cases, and face constitutional challenges regarding the president’s attempt to suppress free speech on a university campus.

If Mr. Flanagan is still in his role as President and Vice Chancellor in June, he will also preside over two weeks of convocation ceremonies involving thousands of students and parents, faculty, alumni and dignitaries from around the world. His presence will lead to more protests, including walk-outs, heckling and other disturbances.

Lastly, one must consider the very real possibility that the protestors will again try to camp out in the Quad, this time in much greater numbers and with a less peaceful attitude. Given how disproportionate the response was in the initial breakup of the encampment, can we really trust Mr. Flanagan to make decisions that will de-escalate tensions and keep people safe?

If he has any respect for the institution he administers, President Flanagan should resign immediately. If not, the Board of Governors should remove him from his position, and immediately begin seeking a temporary replacement for Spring Convocation, followed by a full search for a permanent replacement. If one believes this step is unnecessary, consider that in 2019 Vice President (University Relations) Jacqui Tam resigned from her position following the reputational damage of a “Beefier Barley” advertisement approved by her office. A poorly thought-out campaign ad simply does not compare as a matter of severity to a president supporting the physical assault of his own students and community members.

If possible, the Board of Governors should also create a sub-committee, or hire an outside body, to investigate the events of the past week, and provide a report to the public. If it is found out within that investigation that the decision to call in EPS was actually made by another member of senior administration in the president’s absence, such as the Provost or one of the Vice-Presidents, they too should be relieved of their duties.

Thank you in advance for reading my message and hearing my concerns. I look forward to your reply.


Andy Grabia

BEd ’02, BA ‘20