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Minister of Advanced Education taking "substantive action" in AU fight

Nicolaides orders elimination of university's near-virtual strategy on threat of substantial funding cuts
20211007 Peter Scott AU President_SUP_02_WEB
Dr. Peter Scott took the position of president at Athabasca University with the understanding it would be moving toward a near- or full-virtual strategy under his tenure but those plans may have come to an abrupt halt after Advanced Education minister Demetrios Nicolaides ordered the institution to go back to allowing staff to work in offices instead of home and 100 per cent of executive must be working full time out of the Athabasca campus.

ATHABASCA — The region's fight to keep Athabasca in Athabasca University (AU) is far from over, but it appears the Government of Alberta is done playing nice with the institution after the Minister of Advanced Education took an even firmer stance last week and ordered an end to the university's near-virtual strategy, which has seen jobs leaving the local campus at an alarming rate.  

It has been a David vs. Goliath story over the past two years, with the Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University (KAAU) advocacy group forming to devise its own strategy to draw attention to what had become an obvious exodus from the campus as the implementation of the university's near-virtual strategy drew nearer. The group was able to hire a lobbying firm with funds from the Town of Athabasca, Athabasca County and private citizens, which now appears to have had a large impact on the group's aim to save what they see as the very soul of the community — the post-secondary institution moved there by Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed in 1984 as part of a larger project to promote rural sustainability. 

Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides issued directives at a town hall meeting in Athabasca with Premier Jason Kenney in March and gave a deadline of June 30 for AU executives to submit a plan on how the university would pull back on its near-virtual plan and return staff to working on the sprawling campus which now sits all but empty.

“Unfortunately, the response received from Athabasca University on June 30 failed to deliver on the directives given by the Government of Alberta from March 2022; this has resulted in the need for Alberta’s government to take substantive action,” Nicolaides said in a July 31 e-mail. “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.” 

The potential reductions are staggering, a loss of $3.45 million per month, which would cripple AU if they don’t comply, said KAAU president John Ollerenshaw in a July 31 phone call. 

“That would close the university if they do that,” he said. “They cannot survive without that money; they can’t survive for a month without it. So, either the current executive destroys the university, or they comply with the minister's request. There's really no in-between.” 

The Athabasca Advocate learned the information over the long weekend, reached out to the minister’s office for clarification and comment and received a reply Sunday. 

Minister Nicolaides detailed key changes to the Investment Management Agreement (IMA) for Athabasca University including three new metrics starting with the AU Board of Governors who must 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. 

“The board has until Aug. 31 to sign the new IMA,” said Nicolaides. 

Then the new plan “must be delivered to government by Sept. 30, 2022, and must be approved by the Ministry of Advanced Education.” 

"One hundred per cent of executive team members (will) work in Athabasca full time by March 31, 2025,” Nicolaides added. “Athabasca University (is) to track and report on the proportion of employees who leave the institution during the year.” 

Town of Athabasca mayor Rob Balay said the news is encouraging and a clear demonstration of the government’s commitment to rural Alberta. 

“The Government of Alberta has sent a strong message,” Balay said in an e-mail July 31. “There is no doubt about the minister’s commitment, and that of the government to the importance of this issue.”

Athabasca County reeve Brian Hall agreed and noted while KAAU and the community may have gotten the ball rolling, this part of the story is being written by AU and the government.

"While we have heard some highlights from the government’s reaction to Athabasca University’s June 30 response I think it’s important to remember that issue is between the Government of Alberta and AU," Hall said in a July 31 e-mail.

Balay added both municipalities are ready to assist AU in any way they can. 

“The community is ready and willing to support and assist AU in this transition. We want AU to be successful,” said Balay. “Anchor employers are critical to the health of the region; when rural Alberta is strong, all of Alberta is made stronger.”

Hall concurred saying, "I firmly believe the community wants to see AU continue the historic success and growth it has achieved to date, success that has been achieved from its home in Athabasca."

Kristine Williamson, AU's vice-president of university relations, was unavailable for comment before press time.

hstocking@athabasca.greatwest.ca 



Heather Stocking

About the Author: Heather Stocking

Heather Stocking a reporter at the Athabasca Advocate, a weekly paper in Northern Alberta. Heather covers all aspects of the news in and around Athabasca and Boyle as well as other small communities.
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