The confrontation in Athabasca has reached the height of tension.
The ongoing battle for control between Athabasca University and Alberta’s minister of higher education faces a belligerent impasse, with the university’s president saying the changes dictated by the minister are unreasonable, It warned that it could bankrupt the university.
At the root of the conflict is AU’s business model and approach to staffing. AU is now Canada’s largest online university. Most of its staff, faculty, and her 43,300 students live in the suburbs of Athabasca, a town in northern Alberta, where almost all education is conducted via the Internet.
Alberta’s Minister of Higher Education, Demetrios Nicolaides, unilaterally ordered the change. AU President Peter Scott argues the change would undermine the university’s successful strategic distance learning program. Most controversial is Nicolaides’ purpose in moving hundreds of professors and other staff to the town of Athabasca to boost local economic development.
On Friday, Scott made it clear that he believed the political mandate made no financial or educational sense for the distance learning institution established by the state in 1984.
“Athabasca University is a successful remote work organization,” Scott said in a 12-minute video posted on the university’s website.
“I don’t quite understand why the minister would target and tamper with an online digital university and try to micromanage its successful and cost-effective model.”
Scott notes that when most organizations are looking at ways to foster hybrid work models to attract talent, especially professional talent, “we go back to 1984 and play games that are outdated and irrelevant to us. It seems counterintuitive to go back to the space model.”
“These changes were made unilaterally by ministers without consultation with learners, boards, executives, or team members,” Scott said. Those affected were not consulted or considered.”
Scott’s video statement was posted in response to a letter Nicolaides sent to the university’s board of trustees last Friday and was leaked to the media as part of an escalating battle of wills over the university’s purpose and future.
As first reported by The Canadian Press on Tuesday, Nicolaides said in a letter that the university will receive about $3.45 million a month in funding unless it agrees to his instructions to move more staff to Athabasca. threatened to stop
The directive includes Scott and other senior officials, and Nicolaides said a town of about 2,800 people, located about 150 kilometers north of Edmonton, should be populated by April 1, 2025. said. Scott currently lives in Edmonton.
Nicolaides had previously ordered the university to deliver a new strategic plan incorporating his directive to move more staff to Athabasca by June 30.
In his latest directive, the minister has taken an even bigger step, ordering online universities to abandon their near-virtual strategies by the end of August and deliver new strategic plans by September 30.
In a statement to the media on Tuesday, Nicolaides said the university’s June 30 response was inadequate and called on “substantial action to be taken by the Alberta government.”
In a statement emailed on Friday, Nicolaides doubled down. He said Scott has no power to approve or reject management agreements imposed by the Minister and expects the Board to “take appropriate steps to ensure that employees (Scott) follow guidance and instructions.” is doing.
“This government will not waver in its support for the AU as the primary economic and social engine of the Northern region. We deserve to see it benefit both states,” Nicolaides said.
In a statement to Tyee on Wednesday, Scott ignored the university’s request that Nicolaides meet to discuss the university’s initial plans, before receiving a letter containing revised and new orders on Friday. , said it had received no feedback from either the ministry or the minister. Investment Management Agreement.
In a video statement on Friday, Scott said the minister’s direction requires the university to move about 65% of its staff across Canada, about 500 people, to Athabasca by the 2024-25 academic year. That’s in addition to the 295 staff already living in the area.
“The disruption and costs associated with moving 500 team members and their families are significant,” says Scott. “And it will have a huge impact on the experience of our learners, and of course the lives of our team members.
Scott said the new investment management agreements that Nicolaides intends to impose will “become part of the work-integrated learning and graduate outcomes seen in all other post-secondary institution agreements in Alberta.” It is unprecedented in shifting the AU’s priorities and supporting rural economic development in towns in the Athabasca region.
“We love that town. It’s our base,” he said. “But these directives are not necessary. The minister is essentially using taxpayers’ money and learners’ tuition to fix what isn’t broken.”
Scott said the university recently offered team members living in the Athabasca area the option to return to the office or work remotely. Over 92% say they want to work remotely.
Scott pointed out that the university was on the brink of bankruptcy in 2015. The third-party review has helped shape the University’s current strategic plan, successfully restoring AU’s finances and expanding its global reach.
“We recognize that local economic development programs are important and have a role to play in helping communities,” said Scott.
“But this kind of program belongs elsewhere. The economic health of a community is not the responsibility of a single employer. Investment management agreements prioritize government control over financial accountability.”
Scott said investment management agreements have never been arbitrarily changed at postsecondary institutions in the state, and they have changed so significantly that a large portion of the state’s money is now “supporting the town’s economic development.” It’s tied to metrics,” he added. 2,800 students, not 40,000 student bodies. “
Scott stressed that it was up to the board to decide whether to implement the minister’s instructions, but said he was concerned that Nicolaides had put the university in an “irrational and untenable position”. rice field.
Even if the board agreed to implement the directive, the university would fail to meet the tight deadlines set by Nicolaides and would lose funding. The university eventually goes bankrupt when they don’t agree to sign the contract and lose his $3.45 million monthly fund.
“But more importantly, signing this agreement could set the university back 40 years and put it on a path to ruin,” Scott said.
In an interview with The Tyee on Friday, Scott said: If they do, damn it if they don’t. A really difficult conversation for us. “
Scott pointed out that Nicolyze had sent a letter to the university.
“The minister has given us 22 working days from this week to respond to his message or he will cut off the funding,” Scott said. “It’s 19 business days now, so we’re working very hard to get the board meeting together.”
Scott said there are 20 board members, five of whom are new members, and the remaining 15 who support the university’s original near-virtualization strategy, which Nicolaides instructed it to abandon. I was.
Even before COVID, the university had adopted a near-virtual strategy that allowed staff to work from anywhere in Canada. The pandemic has codified and accelerated an almost hypothetical strategy.
In an interview with The Tyee in April, Scott said Nicolaides wanted to ensure the university offered the best distance learning by hiring the highest quality professors and staff who could work from anywhere in the country. He said he had previously approved plans to do so.
Scott drew a sharp line in the sand.
“We will have a virtual campus,” Scott told Tyee. “Also, our strategy to provide a virtual workforce and make the virtual campus work has been agreed upon over the years.”
Nicolaides responded by firing Board Chairman Nancy Laird, a Calgary oil and gas executive with more than 30 years of experience. He replaced Laird with Byron Nelson, an attorney who ran against Nicolaides for the United Conservative Party nomination at the Calgary Bow.
After sending a letter to Nicolaides, which The Tyee obtained, Laird was dismissed. She clarified that the university had “no intention” to violate the legislative authority to manage and operate the university pursuant to an independent mandate.
“I do not believe that is the intent you wanted to convey to the AU Board,” Laird wrote. I believe that has not issued any instructions to substitute the decision-making powers of ministers for the legislative powers of all other (university) governing boards.
“I look forward to your written confirmation,” Laird wrote.
Laird’s letter to Nicolaides followed a March 24 town hall meeting in which Nicolaides and Alberta Premier Jason Kenny sharply criticized the board’s operations.
None of the college executives or board of directors were invited to town hall meetings. It was widely seen in town as Kenny’s campaign event, as Kenny attempted to sell membership for a leadership vote that ultimately failed.
Kenny announced in May that he would be stepping down after only 51.4% approval of leadership.
At a town hall meeting, Nicolaides voiced his “no confidence” in the board, and when members of the Athabasca University Faculty Association sharply criticized the board and the university’s management, neither Nicolaides nor Kenny resisted.
The outspoken directive from Nicolaides is seen by many within the university community as an attempt to strengthen political support for UCP in the Athabasca region. Local advocacy group Keep Athabasca of Athabasca University hired lobbyist Hal Dantillah, who worked on Kenny’s first UCP leadership campaign, to push for more college staff in town to boost economic development. .
In an interview, Scott said he’s not sure which way the board leans, but it’s his job, and the board’s job, to do what’s best for the university, not necessarily in rural Alberta. He said it is not necessarily the case.
“If the government wants to invest in rural Alberta, it really should, but there is another ministry that can do it,” he said. “This state’s economy should be heavily funded by the government, but not out of the pockets of students.
“I don’t see any rationale for this behavior. It does nothing for this university.”
‘Road to Doom,’ Says UA President
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