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U of W head to be let go

Rooke negotiating six-figure severance

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The University of Winnipeg is in the final stages of negotiations on a six-figure severance package to remove president Constance Rooke, the Free Press has learned.

Sources confirmed that for more than a month, the board of regents has been locked in sensitive talks aimed at ending Rooke's tenure at the school. The sources said Rooke is not fighting to keep her job.

"I will not discuss any such rumours," Rooke said last night in a brief interview. "I cannot -- this is craziness."

Rooke just began the fourth year of a five-year contract that pays her an annual salary of about $150,000. Sources said a severance package would probably, at minimum, have to pay Rooke the remaining $300,000 due under her contract.

Her record at the U of W is a mix of successes and struggles. Under her tenure, the school has set enrolment records in each of the last two years and is closing in on its historical high of 7,580 students, set more than a decade ago.

Rooke has also significantly raised the university's national profile. It was fourth among 21 small Canadian universities in last month's annual Maclean's magazine rankings, and was again the highest-rated small university in Western Canada.

An initiative to renovate inner-city houses for use as student residences has been an enormous hit with students and a boost for core-area revitalization.

And the U of W is expected to announce the latest in a series of Rhodes Scholars tomorrow.

But sources said Rooke has lost the confidence of a good portion of the board of regents over financial management of the school.

Despite her successes, the university has been forced to slash spending, sell assets, empty its reserve funds and forgo payments to its pension plan to reduce an accumulated debt of $3.2 million.

The province gave the U of W $14 million for desperately needed repairs to crumbling Wesley Hall, but that money is still sitting in the bank, and there is no sign of a long-awaited capital fund-raising campaign. Under political pressure, the Doer government took the extraordinary step of allowing the university to use interest on the $14 million to help balance the books.

In the midst of these choppy waters, more concern was sparked at the Manitoba legislature when the university recently unveiled an ambitious $34-million plan that includes constructing new buildings outside the current campus.

Sources said a good portion of the board of regents felt it had lost control over Rooke and her ambitious agenda. "It was complete loggerheads between the board and Rooke over money," said one source.

She sparked the ire of the board for expensive capital projects, such as the purchase and renovation of nearby houses for student residences.

Board of regents chairman Richard Graydon has refused interview requests. U of W communications director Katherine Unruh would neither confirm nor deny the rumour. "It's rumour, and I cannot dignify rumour," Unruh said.

One source said the 30-member board of regents, which next meets Dec. 9, has created a powerful five-member committee to restructure the university's finances at the urging of chancellor Sanford Riley.

"Sandy Riley came to the board in September and outlined a reorganization package to get the university back on (financial) track," said the source. "Other plans had not been successful. They're looking at more serious things than cutting budgets."

As the U of W's finances worsened, Rooke blamed the Doer government for failing to provide adequate funding. The NDP government responded by accusing the university of spending money it does not have to buy buildings, hire staff and add programs.

The Doer government has also expressed concern that the U of W took a pension contribution holiday of $1.6 million in each of the last two years to help balance its budget. The pension plan could need millions of dollars in additional university contributions within two years if the investment market does not rebound significantly.

The renovation of Rooke's university-supplied house on Oak Street has caused friction on campus.

Unruh did not have cost figures available, but said the house needed extensive structural, plumbing and roof repairs when Rooke arrived in 1999. Sources confirmed the cost of renovations approached $200,000.

Unruh said the board of regents approved insulating a sunroom and upgrading a deck so Rooke could entertain for a major capital fund-raising campaign that has yet to get under way. An unidentified "friend of the university" initially offered to cover the renovation costs, but "this contribution was not realized to its anticipated extent," Unruh said.

Rooke, 60, came to the U of W in 1999 from Guelph University to succeed the retiring Marsha Hanen as president. She came to Canada from the United States in 1969 and spent much of her career at the University of Victoria, teaching English and women's studies.

A founder of the Eden Mills Writers Festivals along with her husband, author Leon Rooke, Constance Rooke has written seven books and long been a champion of a liberal arts education.

-- With files from Aldo Santin

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 3, 2002 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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