ATHABASCA – A messaging blitz by Athabasca University (AU) last week comes just as Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides has requested the university’s new investment management agreement (IMA) be signed by the end of November.
Nicolaides relayed that message to AU administration Thursday with a revised IMA that will see nine per cent of the AU’s operating funds tied to 10 per cent increases in local employment for the next three years. The previous IMA asked that 65 per cent of the university’s staff be working at the local campus by 2025 ― a number many found unrealistic, regardless of their camp, when it was delivered by the ministry this summer.
An opinion piece by Scott in the Edmonton Journal Nov. 15 framed the status quo in general, as passé and a roadblock to future student success. The 600-word piece, entitled “It doesn't matter where Athabasca students, staff live; it's what they achieve” stated: “Nostalgia for an allegedly idyllic past and fear of change does not help us move forward as individuals, as a society, or as educators. I believe it is the job of universities to help create a road to the future that’s genuinely better than that rear-view glance.”
Scott delivered a similar message in a four-and-a-half-minute sponsored interview on CTV Morning Live Friday morning where he touted the online university’s openness. He also provided interviews to CBC and Global.
An e-mail to staff and students Friday evening then provided an update on the minister’s revised IMA proposal.
“Since my meeting with the Minister in September, members of AU’s executive team have been meeting regularly (weekly) with the Minister’s staff to find a path forward that creates opportunity for AU, for the Athabasca region, and that meets the government’s request of increasing AU’s physical presence in the Athabasca Region,” the e-mail from Scott read.
“Over the last months, we have presented to the Ministry of Advanced Education and the Minister a robust plan that combines AU’s Talent Management Plan (as presented to the Minister on June 30, 2022) and the exciting work we’ve been conducting with Dr. Ken Coates. This comprehensive plan reimagines AU’s Athabasca space as an exciting research destination.”
KAAU advocates Mavis Jacobs and John Ollerenshaw say the new proposal looks OK on the surface, from what they’ve learned, but reserved judgment until they’ve seen more details on re-opening the Athabasca campus and re-establishing Athabasca as the headquarters for the university.
Ollerenshaw specifically said he would like to know the baseline the proposed 10 per cent per year growth will be based upon. He also pointed out that if half of the nine-member board moved to Athabasca as proposed, that would only be four or five people.
“As to moving half the exec staff to Athabasca, there are nine executives, half would be four or five, I'm betting four and not including the president. There is one executive member living in town already, so they're going to add three more? Over what time period? Will they actually work on the campus, or will they be locked out too? Will they even live here or just maintain an address?” he queried in an e-mail to the Advocate.
“I am very sympathetic with AU staff comments on our KAAU Facebook page who honed in on Peter Scott's reference to growing research capacity being more important for the future of Alberta,” said Jacobs in an e-mail. “I also think it's disrespectful of the many administrative staff in the community (support and professional) that have laboured for years to serve AU students, and also to their family members who are integral to our community. Very few, if any, permanent staff can be tied to research activities as most research funding is short-term grant funding. Hence, we see little sustainable benefit to our community.
The next meeting of the AU Board of Governors is scheduled for Dec. 9, but both AU and Nicolaides have indicated they would like to see the meeting, which the minister is expected to attend, take place sooner.
All this activity also comes as the university commences several weeks of site visits at the Athabasca campus.
“As we continue with our near-virtual strategy, we are now organizing site visits in Athabasca. Site visits are for teams to assess, clean, sort, and review their space and storage needs. These site visits are crucial for determining each team’s storage and space needs moving forward in the next phases as we reimagine AU’s locations,” stated a Nov. 9 e-mail to staff.
The message lays out the site visit tasks expected of employees include, “get rid of everything that you can in your office or workstation if your role is virtual. If your role is place-based, please keep only the items you need for your day-to-day work. The only other items that will remain are furniture and non-assigned IT equipment. If your role is virtual with place-based functions, please remove all personal items from the space as well.”
Jacobs called the timing “very suspicious.”
“As well, the need for supervision points out how little AU management trust and respect individual staff members. The experiences of Athabasca staff members are very disheartening of late. So sad,” she said.