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David Mulroney, head of St. Michael’s College, chastised for shaming students

David Mulroney on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pawel Dwulit

Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press

Public comments by University of St. Michael's College president David Mulroney unfairly shamed the school's students, almost two dozen professors, librarians and former administrators say in an open letter sent to the school's governing body Monday.

Mr. Mulroney "actively promoted a clear impression of SMC students as party animals and Islamophobes" in a presentation at a Catholic public-relations conference earlier this summer, the letter argues. It was signed by a former principal of St. Mike's, the school's long-time registrar, senior librarians and professors.

Controversies over university leadership have rattled Canadian postsecondary institutions for several years. At the universities of Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Cape Breton, presidents have been forced to step down, while others, including at the University of Western Ontario and McGill University, have faced questions over compensation or governance decisions.

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Mr. Mulroney rejected the allegation that his presentation had been relentlessly negative.

"A lot of my stories were about the exciting things we are doing, investing new funds in student life, hiring new teachers," Mr. Mulroney said in an interview. "It is something that needs to be described as a turnaround because we've moved from some practices and habits that were, frankly, counterproductive."

St. Michael's is focused on humanities and theology education and is home to almost 5,000 primarily undergraduate students. It is an independent university that is federated with the University of Toronto, one of several colleges to which students can belong.

Over the past year, Mr. Mulroney has waged a controversial battle against the school's student union, focused on questionable financial practices and social events. A student video that was widely criticized as Islamophobic led to apologies and resignations among student government councillors.

The letter said the president's presentation "was very disappointing and embarrassing to members of this community who have come to appreciate the gifts of our students and the legacy of the University of St. Michael's College as a leader in post-secondary education. … Your remarks, in our judgment, have dishonoured this legacy and shaken our confidence in you as President."

Some of the faculty who signed the letter said they had been willing to accept a president not drawn from the ranks of either academia or university administration, but Mr. Mulroney, who is a former diplomat, author and ambassador to China, squandered that goodwill by not consulting with them on a variety of issues.

Others said they could not stand by and allow the students to be "publicly shamed." None wanted to be identified because of concern for their professional reputations.

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"He used a function that was supposed to be about communication and hope and decided to dwell on a student ethos that he does not approve of," one faculty member said in an interview. "There were irregularities with the student government, but they represent a fraction of the 5,000 students we have at the college."

Student issues go back as long as a decade, Mr. Mulroney said. "The revelation for me was the really significant problems in student life," he said. "It was as much about hazing and bullying and treating the most vulnerable students with disdain as it was about financial malfeasance."

But alumni of the school said they did not recognize their work in Mr. Mulroney's remarks. Club nights were held to raise thousands of dollars for charity, such as the Remix Project, an organization that helps underprivileged youth enter the creative industries, former students said.

"St. Michael's College has a stigma as a party college," said Amir Torabi, a former student union member and alumnus. "I'm sure in the administration's eyes it may not be desirable, but in terms of attracting students and making it less of a commuter university, these events brought people together."

Mr. Mulroney says he believes the school needs to continue having a serious and open discussion about the values and image some of its students project.

"This is a failure of the university's administration and its students, but also of its teachers. What frustrated me is the attitude that first, I am interfering in student life, and now it's that I am saying mean things about our students."

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Mr. Mulroney was appointed by the school's Collegium, its governing body, for a three-year term. In June, he announced he would not seek a second term. A search for a new president is under way.

Academia had been a challenge, Mr. Mulroney allowed.

"It's a difficult environment to work in. I had a sense of that coming in, but it has been confirmed many times over," he said. "I'm here as a change agent; I never expected everyone to support me and I found I was correct in that."

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