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Inside the Kenney Government’s University Debacle

How did the UCP make such bad decisions about the future of Athabasca University?

Charles Rusnell 15 Aug

Charles Rusnell is an independent investigative reporter based in Edmonton.

Jason Kenney’s Alberta government has retreated from its threat to cut funding to Athabasca University unless it moved hundreds of its staff to its nominal home in Athabasca, a small town 150 kilometres north of Edmonton.

But it’s still unclear why Kenney and Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides are attempting to force a mass staff relocation that an expert in rural planning, as well as senior university staff, said was impossible to implement and would cause a mass exodus of employees and, possibly, students.

And it’s baffling that while Nicolaides said the change was intended to help the region’s economy, Athabasca’s mayor didn’t know about the magnitude of the forced relocation plan and doesn’t support it. 

Kenney and Nicolaides want the distance-learning university to abandon a strategic plan, approved by the board of governors, that allows the vast majority of staff to work remotely.

The university has about 1,258 employees. About 295, mostly support staff, live in Athabasca. In a July 29 letter Nicolaides told the university he wanted 65 per cent of its staff in Athabasca within two years. That would mean relocating more than 500 employees to the town of about 2,800.

All but one of the 963 university staff who live outside Athabasca now work remotely after it closed offices in Calgary and Edmonton as part of a work-from-home “near-virtual” strategy, which was accelerated by the pandemic. The university provides online undergraduate and graduate courses to about 40,000 students in Alberta, across Canada and around the world.

University president Peter Scott pushed back against Nicolaides’s demand, saying the plan would set the university on a “path to ruin” and it would be bankrupt if the government followed through on its threat to cut operational funding of about $41 million a year.

Nicolaides had previously fired board chair Nancy Laird after she told him in a letter that the university would not accede to the staff-relocation directive and he had no right to tell the university how to govern itself. 

Nicolaides initially refused to back down and complained the university had not properly considered his offer to pay for the moves. 

But on Thursday, Nicolaides blinked, telling the Globe and Mail the 65 per cent figure was merely a “suggestion” and he was prepared to be flexible and negotiate the number of staff that would be required to move to the town.

In an emailed statement to The Tyee, Nicolaides claimed his directive was simply an opening bargaining position. 

“This is common practice when negotiating the terms of an investment management agreement,” Nicolaides said. The university did not, as requested, provide a detailed plan for moving more people to Athabasca, he added.

Although there had been no consultation with the university, its student union or the town before the directive was issued, Nicolaides’ statement said he was looking forward to “collaborating with and supporting the university in any ways necessary, to achieve the goals we have set out for them, as we await their new plan to be submitted by Sept. 30.”

In an emailed statement, Scott told The Tyee the university “is looking forward to the opportunity to finally meet with the minister. This has been a long-standing request.” 

“AU remains hopeful that the minister is open to finding a mutually agreeable path forward for AU and its learners as this issue has created significant stress for our AU community,” the statement said.

Scott, who lives in Edmonton, has declined to say whether he would move.

Others, like deputy provost Anne-Marie Scott — no relation — are not so circumspect.

“I will leave Athabasca University,” Scott said from Kamloops, where she now lives after her request to live in the central British Columbia city was approved by the university.

A woman with short salt and pepper hair  smiles at the camera.
Deputy provost Anne-Marie Scott says she’d resign if ordered to move from Kamloops to Athabasca. Photo via University of Edinburgh.

 “I love Athabasca University, I love the life I have here in Canada,” she said. “But I have 19 years at the University of Edinburgh and I have turned down bigger jobs to stay here. Some people don't have the same choices. I have other employment choices, and I will just move on.”

Others, like university marketing manager Erin Stevenson can’t move.

“I couldn't and wouldn't do it,” said Stevenson who is also a councillor in Spruce Grove, a community of 40,000 west of Edmonton. “I have a life here in Spruce Grove, including my parents, they're aging, and I want to be closer to them.”

“There are reasons we live where we live, and why so many of us that work for Athabasca University don't live in Athabasca right now. So this is feeling very forced. And it's puzzling to most of us as to why this is a directive from the government.”

Leith Deacon is an associate professor of rural planning and development at the University of Guelph. He previously taught at the University of Alberta for six years. 

He told The Tyee Nicolaides’s directive to force more than 500 staff to move to a town of 2,800 people in just two years was “ludicrous.”

The first obvious issue, Deacon said, is to find housing for the 500 university staff and their families in two years?

“Let's just assume each family is the Canadian average of three,” Deacon said. “So you're bringing in 1,500 people and so you are adding about 66 per cent more population to the 2,800 people who already live there.”

Stevenson, who knows the nuts and bolts of community development as a Spruce Grove councillor, had similar concerns. 

“They have 1,300 dwellings or so,” she said of Athabasca. “And you're now asking to add 500 new dwellings in a two-year span. So that is almost 50-per-cent growth.”

“As a planner, and as a community builder, that is the last thing you want.”

Stevenson said even if the town wanted to build a new subdivision for 500 houses, it takes years of planning for the utilities alone, and there are other considerations from transportation to services.

“There are so many pieces that go into actually developing housing besides building houses,” she said.

Deacon said an influx of that many people would overwhelm the school and health-care systems. There is now a chronic shortage of doctors and nurses in rural and urban Alberta and dozens of hospital emergency rooms across the province are frequently closed due to staffing shortages.

A smiling woman with dark hair with purple highlights stands with arms crossed. She is wearing a short brown leather jacket and blue jeans.
Dean of business Lisa Watson says the Athabasca University campus doesn’t have the space for 500 more workers. Photo supplied.

Lisa Watson, the university’s dean of business, said the university couldn’t support 500 more people working in the town. “We don't have enough office space to accommodate everyone because we have never needed it before.” 

Deacon said the sudden influx would be bad for the town as well. Both he and Stevenson observed that the town’s culture, its fabric, would be changed forever.

“Let's not forget that this is impacting 2,800 people on the other side,” Deacon said. “They love their small class sizes, they love the fact that they don't have to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning on the day that skating opens for children.”

“If you bring in this many more people, that is not going to be the way it is anymore.”

As you drive into Athabasca there is a huge Christian cross near the highway. Deacon wondered how staff of other faiths forced to move to the town would be accommodated.

Watson, the business dean, lives in Airdrie, north of Calgary. She has not decided what she will do if the directive is enforced. 

But like Deacon and every other academic and staff person interviewed by The Tyee, she said Nicolaides clearly didn’t consider all the associated personal costs of a forced relocation. 

What about spouses? Will they be given a job or will they be expected to abandon their careers? Will couples be expected to live on one salary rather than two, and can they afford to? 

Watson said there are staff who have to care for aging parents, who have disabled children who need specialized care, who are joint parenting after divorce, and they don’t want to move hundreds of kilometres away from their children. 

And what about the impact on the children who are embedded in their schools and sports teams and other activities in their current communities? 

Stevenson said if these staff are given the choice between moving or quitting, there will be a mass exodus.

“This isn’t a simple directive,” she said. “People’s lives are complex. It's not like you're moving me down the hall at my office. You are asking me to uproot my entire life.”

If staff quit, Stevenson said, it will be impossible to recruit enough qualified people to replace them. 

“If you have to be Athabasca-based, it would be tough to attract the number of applicants that you would need to fill those positions,” she said. There are very few applications for jobs from Athabasca-area residents, she added, “simply because there are some professional positions that you absolutely have to be qualified for.”

The uncertainty and anxiety created for Athabasca’s staff is shared by its students, student union president Karen Fletcher said. The association represents 36,000 undergraduate students and Fletcher is typical of many who chose distance learning through Athabasca University. 

She lives in Ottawa and has three children. She couldn’t attend a local university because her family couldn’t afford child care and tuition. She is studying applied math and spoke enthusiastically about how the university found an innovative way to teach robotics remotely.

“It's a great example of how AU has figured out how to deliver really hands-on programming at a distance, which I think is brilliant,” she said, “and that is the sort of thing that AU has been forced to figure out because the students are remote in many of the faculties.”

“So I see this innovation and think, ‘This is a university that could figure out how to benefit this town and deliver great programs.’ I don't think it needs to be an either or.”

Fletcher said students want the university to be funded based on how well it teaches them. She said 70 per cent of the university’s funding comes from tuition. Yet the minister has issued a directive that predicates funding on economic development rather than education metrics.

“If students really aren't at the forefront, it seems like the priority isn’t education, which is the job of the university,” she said.  

Many students, Fletcher said, wonder what the directive means for them. 

“They’re asking, “Is the university closing next month?”

She said this uncertainty will cause some students not to enrol in Athabasca and others to consider moving to another online institution.

In an interview with The Tyee, former board chair Nancy Laird said the dispute is harming the university. The university’s uncertain future is causing some students not to register and faculty to wonder if they should look for other jobs, she said.

She too can’t fathom how the government thought the town could absorb 500 families in two years. “I don’t understand what is behind this,” she said.

Laird said she has no regrets about being fired as board chair.

“I was happy to take it because someone had to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough,’ and hopefully that will cause people to ask, ‘What is really going on here?’”

Athabasca Mayor Robert Balay acknowledges his town and a community group, Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University, lobbied the province to move more staff to the town. They hired lobbyist Hal Danchilla, whose website describes him as “a trusted advisor and campaign strategist” to Kenney.

But Balay said he has no idea where Nicolaides came up with the directive to move 500 employees to the town.

He said everyone, including the media, has missed the point. The town never asked for all the academic staff to be forced to move to Athabasca, only the senior executives and core support staff such as those responsible for the registrar’s office and student services.

Balay agrees it is logistically impossible for the town to accommodate an influx of university staff in two years. 

But he said a long-term plan of five to 10 years would allow enough time to make it work. 

“We want to protect the jobs that are here to make sure that the university remains an anchor employer in our community,” Balay told The Tyee. “We don't want, and we didn't want, 500 employees here.”

“We just want to protect what we had.”  [Tyee]

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