The independent board reviewing Canada Christian College’s applications to call itself a university and offer new degree programs expects to make a recommendation to the Ontario government on the controversial request next month.
The province first faced a backlash about the applications last fall when new COVID-19 recovery legislation appeared to transform the private religious college — run by a social conservative ally of Premier Doug Ford — into a university before an independent review of the school’s applications was complete.
In addition to the political connection, the move also prompted an outpouring of criticism in the wake of college president Charles McVety’s critical views on Islam, same-sex marriage, Ontario’s sexual education curriculum, and the theory of evolution.
Although the legislation was enacted in December 2020, the Ontario government says it won’t bring the Canada Christian College section of the legislation into force before the province’s Post-Secondary Education Quality Assessment Board (PEQAB) finishes its review of the Whitby, Ont. college’s applications.
With that decision still pending, CBC News reviewed internal PEQAB emails related to the applications obtained through a freedom of information request.
The correspondence shows the independent body received an expert’s recommendations on the Canadian Christian College applications two days before the province’s legislation started making headlines — and why it’s likely the expert rejected the college’s applications.
Expert finished reports 2 days before ‘public furor’
PEQAB received final review reports on the Canada Christian College applications from the external expert panel it commissioned on Oct. 20, 2020.
Two days later, CBC News reported the province’s Better for People, Smarter for Business Act — framed as boosting the economy by reducing red tape — also included provisions that would turn Canada Christian College into a university with the power to grant bachelor of science and arts degrees.
James Brown, the CEO of PEQAB, addressed the timeline that morning in an email to Ronald Bond, the independent expert that board staff hired. Bond is a former provost and professor emeritus at the University of Calgary and has conducted many PEQAB expert reviews.
“You know, I know … that your Review of [Canada Christian College] was entirely un-affected by politics – and that you submitted it prior to this public furor – which is all to the good,” Brown wrote.
He also directed PEQAB staff not to discuss where the college’s review stands with others, and said in an email that “no comment” is a good answer if asked by anyone, “including anyone in the Ministry.”
McVety given more time to respond to expert reports
Despite having Bond’s reports for nearly five months, Brown says PEQAB has yet to make a recommendation to the Minister of Colleges and Universities because McVety requested, and received, two time extensions to respond to the reports.
“We expect to receive CCC’s response in time for the next PEQAB Board meeting, May 18th,” Brown told CBC News. “The Board would issue a recommendation to the Minister immediately after that meeting.”
McVety says Canada Christian College’s response time to the reports is normal, especially given COVID-19 lockdowns.
“The PEQAB process is exhaustive and requires a great deal of complicated detail,” he said in an email to CBC News.
Expert submitted review reports within a month
PEQAB hired Bond to review what staff described as a “very unique proposal” from the religious college in late September 2020 and Bond submitted his final reports within a month, according to emails.
A post-secondary education consultant, who has been hired by clients to navigate the review process, believes that quick of a turnaround — combined with the fact PEQAB has yet to make a recommendation — likely means that Bond’s reports recommend a rejection of the college’s applications.
“If he reported that quickly it either means a very quick yes, which I don’t think it was because otherwise it would have passed by now, or it was a very quick no,” said Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates.
“Normally, that process will take a bit longer than that because there’s usually some back-and-forth between the applicant and the person doing the review.”
Difference between PEQAB approval and legislation
All private colleges, private universities and community colleges in Ontario have to go through the PEQAB process if they want to create new degree programs, unless the province grants the school that right through legislation.
Canada Christian College currently has only the legal authority to grant degrees in fields such as theology, religious education and Christian counselling, and has to go through PEQAB to create any new degree programs.
But if the province enforces the new legislation that transforms it into a university, Usher says it would never need to go through PEQAB again to create new degrees.
“It puts it on the same level as the University of Toronto essentially,” Usher told CBC News.
The possibility of the religious college bypassing PEQAB oversight the way that public universities can when they create a new degree program contributed to the backlash, said Usher.
“I think a lot of people looked at Canada Christian and said: ‘Well, how is this organization full of creationists going to offer a [bachelor of science]?'”
In a statement, the office of Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano reiterated that the government is holding off on putting the legislation covering Canada Christian College into force until it has the results of the independent review.
“The Minister has complete confidence in [PEQAB’s] independence and expertise,” said press secretary Scott Clark. “This has been the practice for multiple post-secondary institutions.”
Concerns about the college offering bachelor of science degrees were among the many issues raised in more than 3,000 emails PEQAB received from the public in response to the Canada Christian College applications.
Other concerns involved the credibility and integrity of the religious college and arguments that it doesn’t comply with Ontario’s Human Rights Code.
Canada Christian College’s code of conduct requires all staff, faculty and students to “refrain from practices that are Biblically condemned,” including what the college calls “sexual sins” including “premarital sex, adultery, all types of fornication and related behaviour.”
McVety was a prominent opponent in the early 2000s of the legalization of same-sex marriage.
“Married members of the community agree to maintain the sanctity of marriage,” reads the college’s code of conduct.