Chakma apologizes, sets engagement plan

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Calling the wave of criticism he has faced in recent weeks “a wake-up call,” Western President Amit Chakma apologized to university Senate Friday and outlined his plan for broader engagement between his administration and the larger campus community.

“I stand before you profoundly humbled by – and deeply sorry for – the events of the past two weeks,” Chakma told a packed BMO Financial Group Auditorium in the Richard Ivey Building. “I am grateful for this opportunity to express my deepest regrets and most sincere apologies to you for the disruption the issue of my compensation has caused for our community.

“I ask for your forgiveness.”

The president promised to dedicate his attention “to internal matters within our academy that will help me begin the process of regaining your trust.”

He outlined a 100-Day Plan promising widespread engagement, including faculty-by-faculty town halls, direct consultation with faculty, more regular engagement with staff and employee leadership groups, as well as more connections with students and alumni.

“I have heard your concerns. I take them very seriously. And the intensity of that concern is itself proof that I made a mistake. For this I am profoundly sorry. Again, I ask for your forgiveness,” Chakma concluded. “When I was installed as President in 2009, I pledged to give my heart and soul and devote all my energy to the service of Western. Today, I renew the same pledge to you to give my heart and soul and to devote all my energy to work with you to advance our common goals.

“It is my sincerest hope that together we can continue our work, make our voices heard and change Western and, indeed, the world, for the better.”

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A pointed, uncomfortable, emotional and, yes, occasionally rambling question-and-answer session from Senators followed the president’s prepared remarks. The session was light on questions and heavy on statements. Most of the discussion did not remain focused on pay, but touched on larger issues of Chakma’s leadership and the university’s governance. The pay was, as Senator and Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson described it, “the match that has gone into the bucket of gasoline.”

Six Senators or Senate observers spoke; only one asked a direct question of the president.

Alison Hearn, University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA) president, asked one of the few remaining unanswered questions following the president’s remarks: “Thank you for your apology; I think we are all happy to hear it. I have just one question, why did it take you this long?”

Chakma’s process to this moment was, as he described it, “a very human one.”

“I was inundated with so much information, so much reflection I needed to absorb all of those and internalize them. The decision I made – to refund the money – was a quick one. Then I was looking for the opportunity to face Senate and offer you my apology in front of you.”

The president consulted with the Board of Governors, deans, as well as other colleagues, in advance of the Senate meeting. But when it came to the Senate – “the body that represents the academic heart of the university” – Chakma said he felt his public apology should come before them first.

“My family needed to reflect on our priorities,” he continued in response to Hearn “It just took me time to think this through and seek advice. When you are in a crisis mode, inundated with so much criticism that you were not expecting, what do you do? You are at a loss.

“That was how my mind was working and the venue I chose to offer my apology.”

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Alumni Association President John Eberhard, BA’66, LLB’69, offered the Alumni Association’s full support to the president and his vision, as well as to the Board of Governors.

Eberhard personally called on the Senate to withdraw a motion for a special meeting to discuss a non-confidence vote in the president, and give Chakma time to implement the change he promised Friday. If the president did not follow through, then, and only then, Eberhard said, the motion could be returned.

Earlier this week, 22 Senate members filed a request for a special university Senate meeting addressing a single issue, “That the Senate of the University of Western Ontario has lost confidence in President Amit Chakma.” That meeting has been scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Friday, April 17. Location has yet to be determined.

“I do not regard recent events regarding the salary issue to be cause for a proposed motion of non-confidence,” Eberhard said. “Certainly, the optics were terrible, but the result of a pre-bargaining process in a very competitive employment marketplace between the two parties is understandable. The president took the high road, did the honourable thing and repudiated that part of the employment arrangement that has led to the angst we hear in this room today.”

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Just prior to the 1:30 p.m. meeting, dozens of protesters made their way from Main Campus and held a short rally on the steps of the Richard Ivey Building, prior to making their way into the meeting. With signs reading ‘Change Is Coming,’ ‘We Need Transparency,’ ‘PhD: Paying Huge Debt’ and ‘By Any Means Necessary,’ speakers, including the UWOSA and UWOFA presidents, called for a re-working of the university’s administration practices.

The protest continued inside the room, as Chakma started to deliver his prepared remarks, some attendees in the gallery turned their backs and stayed that way throughout prepared his remarks.

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“I have let my friends down,” Chakma said following the close of the questions-and-answer session. “I am going to reach out to you. You are my friends. I am pretty sure you are going to tell me what needs to be done. … I need your help.”

Paul Mayne contributed to this report.