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AU gets brief extension

Minister and university still negotiating, but not in public

ATHABASCA – Athabasca University was granted a brief extension beyond the Aug. 31 deadline to respond to a draft Investment Management Agreement (IMA) delivered by Alberta Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides at the end of June that essentially flew in the face of the university’s near-virtual plan.  

In an Aug. 31 media release Nicolaides said he and the ministry are continuing to negotiate “in good faith” and hope to soon reach an agreement with the university, at which point he will provide another update to the public. 

“Recently I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Athabasca University’s board of directors about the institution’s IMA. The board has written to request a brief extension beyond the Aug. 31 deadline, which I am happy to grant. 

“Since presenting the draft IMA to the board of directors, I’ve remained collaborative and flexible to ensure we have an agreement that works for our government and the institution, and provides long-term certainty to students, faculty and staff. 

“Alberta’s government believes that Athabasca University can excel in its mandate while at the same time strengthening ties to the community and driving employment, economic growth and opportunity in the region,” reads the release. 

The Advocate reached out to the Athabasca University communications department with specific questions about the extension via e-mail Thursday and received a response on behalf of AU vice-president of university relations Kristine Williamson later that morning. 

“AU has been extremely disappointed with the way the Athabasca Advocate has treated our team members and learners and we have not received a response to the concerns we have expressed to the publication’s leadership. 

“At this time, we are not comfortable providing a response to your inquiry and engaging with the publication. 

“As we publicly share information about AU and its programs with media, we will include you in our distribution,” the e-mail read. 

The next day, a further e-mail from AU content and media relations manager Brian Alary shared the response the institution has sent to other media outlets. 

It reads: “AU’s Board of Governors met on Friday, Aug. 26 in a specially scheduled closed board meeting. The board responded to the provincial government by the Aug. 31 deadline established by the minister. AU and the ministry are committed to working together to continue discussions to find an appropriate direction forward for the benefit of our learners, our institution, our team members, the Alberta post-secondary sector, and the Athabasca regio


Following the hiring of Canadian Strategies Group by the Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University advocacy group to lobby the provincial government on its behalf, Minister Nicolaides visited Athabasca in March along with Premier Jason Kenney and laid out three directives, presenting a deadline of June 30 for AU executives to submit a plan on how the university would pull back its near-virtual plan and return staff to working on the campus in Athabasca which now sits virtually empty. 

When that deadline was not met, Nicolaides said he was prepared to take substantive action, which included a threat of withholding $3.45 million from the institution per month. Soon after, AU board chair Nancy Laird was removed from the position several months before the end of her term and replaced by Byron Nelson. Several new board members with direct ties to Athabasca have also been selected. 

In a July 31 e-mail Nicolaides said, “Through the tools available to us, we’ve directed to Athabasca’s Board (of Governors) that the University must end its pursuit of the near-virtual strategy and must deliver a new strategic plan to Advanced Education for approval by Sept. 30. Failure to comply will result in reductions to Athabasca’s future funding.”  

Minister Nicolaides detailed key changes to the IMA for Athabasca University at that time, including three new metrics starting with the AU Board of Governors was to provide direction by Aug. 31 to AU president Dr. Peter Scott to cease the near-virtual strategy and to start implementation of a new plan expanding and reinforcing AU’s physical presence in the Town of Athabasca. 

Scott decried what he called “government overreach” in a video that was released soon after Nicolaides’ announcement.  

“Rural economic development programs are important and while we acknowledge they have a role to play in supporting the community, we are eager to do so but these types of programs belong elsewhere,” he said. “The economic health of a community can't be the responsibility of one single employer.” 

Chris Zwick

About the Author: Chris Zwick

Athabasca Advocate editor
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