ATHABASCA — In a move to show how serious he is, Alberta's Minister of Advanced Education Demetrio Nicholaides made a change at the head of Athabasca University's (AU) Board of Governors on May 25.
An Order in Council removing Nancy Laird from her role as chair ahead of the end of her term in August and replacing her with Calgary lawyer Byron Nelson after Laird sent a “scathing” letter, as reported in The Tyee May 26, to Nicolaides saying he was overstepping his role.
“We did receive a letter,” Nicolaides confirmed in a May 27 interview with the Athabasca Advocate. "The contents of the report, I think, were somewhat accurate.”
He added he did not have the letter in front of him so was unable to comment further but did say he doubted anyone else would be removed.
“I don't believe so,” he said. “The chair of the Board of Governors and the majority of the board are appointed by the government. The government sets the broad mandate and direction for all post-secondary institutions, and we've requested the university to make some changes to their operations and I think that with a change in direction there, new leadership at the board level, is helpful to help facilitate change and I think that's common practice.”
Recently there have been several appointments by Nicolaides to the Board of Governors including local dentist and former Town of Athabasca mayor Roger Morrill, among the first of two local representatives to sit on the board since current mayor Rob Balay completed his term in 2019. Two others in Elena Gould and Jacqueline Hobal have close ties to the Athabasca community as well.
“The Board of Governors has always had representatives from the Town of Athabasca on it and ... around 2019 to 2020 through the normal process of board appointments and renewal, we realized that there were no longer people from the community on the board so, we wanted to make sure that that convention continued,” said Nicolaides.
Nicolaides said he has not heard anything from AU president, Dr. Peter Scott, but wants to ensure the university meets the mandate set by Premier Peter Lougheed in the 1970s to decentralize several industries to rural areas to help ensure prosperity across the province.
“The university, of course, is there for a very specific reason,” he said. “It's very clear that it was moved from Edmonton to Athabasca for a very specific purpose and it's important that that underlying objective is not lost.”
He wants to ensure while AU follows their mission, they also follow the governments.
"I'm not telling Athabasca University to no longer offer online education to tens of thousands of students across the country. Absolutely not. I want them to continue to do that and I want them to excel,” said Nicolaides. “But I also want them to do that without losing focus of why the university is based in the town. I think that's really important, and we have to remember that original part of the institution's mission.”
It was during a March 24 announcement by Premier Kenney and Nicolaides during a town hall at the Athabasca Regional Multiplex that the government issued three directives to the university that would help the community, which has been shedding jobs in the lead up to the near-virtual strategy AU has been working toward.
Scott later said in an interview with The Tyee that AU would not be forcing people to move to Athabasca.
“People commute all the time and people relocate all the time for employment opportunities,” Nicolaides said. “And at the same time, we're not saying that every single person who works for Athabasca University needs to be based in the town; that's up to the university to determine what operations can be based there. If you recruit a world-leading professor in a particular area, and they're not too keen on residing in the town and reside somewhere else, I think that's fine. I don't think that's a big challenge.”
It’s the administration and support staff the minister would like to see using the multi-million dollar campus, noting it has already been something AU has done well for decades.
“When it comes to the non-instructional staff, particularly the senior administrative and executive management positions, those should indeed be based in the town,” he said.
“I had some challenge understanding some of those arguments because A: Athabasca University has already been doing it successfully for decades and B: other post-secondary institutions in Alberta and around the world are able to bring talent to their communities without significant problems.”
And while it is not commonplace for a university president to sit down with the minister, Nicolaides would welcome the chance to talk if AU reached out.
“I continue to be optimistic and open to working with President Scott and the entire executive team at Athabasca University to achieve this goal. It’s a challenge, I acknowledge that, but let's work together and find some innovative and creative solutions in the true Alberta spirit and come up with a creative solution to create a very unique institution that brings jobs to the community. I'm really confident we can do that.”
Scott provided an e-mailed statement on May 27 about the changes with the board:
“On behalf of Athabasca University, I want to thank Nancy Laird for her leadership and support during her term as chair of the Governors of Athabasca University. With Nancy’s tremendous support, the university’s strategies have been advanced, ensuring AU’s sustainability and innovative place in the post-secondary sector as Canada’s only open, public, and research-intensive university offering distributed learning from its virtual campus.
"We look forward to working with our new chair, Byron Nelson, as we continue to implement our strategic plan in accordance with our mandate to improve the learning experience and ensure open and accessible learning is available to learners across the province and the country, particularly learners living in remote communities.
"AU’s board is composed of an exceptional group of people with diverse experiences, backgrounds and expertise and we are grateful for their support.”
Nelson was unavailable for comment.