Skip to content

Ad-hoc group concerned for local university jobs

Campaign aims to pressure Athabasca University to bring jobs back to the region
20210516 AU ext_HS_01_WEB
The main entrance to the beautiful Athabasca University campus in Athabasca. A local ad-hoc group of concerned citizens has started the ‘Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University’ letter-writing campaign to prevent what they see as a continuing trend of AU jobs slowly moving out of the Athabasca region. AU says it has no intention of abandoning the community.

Editor's note: This is one in a series of four articles in the May 25 print edition, covering different perspectives regarding the ongoing relationship between Athabasca University and the Athabasca community. Please see below for links to the other three stories - cZ

ATHABASCA — It's not a new concern, but this time, a coordinated community effort by residents of the Athabasca region who are concerned the university that shares its namesake with the river and the Town of Athabasca remains a part of the community in more than name alone. 

The local ad-hoc group has started a letter-writing campaign called 'Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University' and is encouraging people to write to all levels of government asking for intervention before a new president of the university is announced.  

“Rotary did engage the university previously and came up short with their efforts because they basically were told by the board that they didn't want to talk about it – I guess is one way to put it,” said Noel Major, who is part of the campaign. “And then from there, because Rotary is not political they dropped it, but the community at large has picked it up and they're pushing forward with what's going on.” 

Part of the local engagement from the Rotary Club of Athabasca was a recent discussion with Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken encouraging him to lobby on behalf of the community as members provided their perspectives on the thought that it is hard to attract top talent if they are forced to live in Athabasca.  

“Maybe the No. 1 person doesn’t want to come here, but if the No. 2 person in the world considers coming here, how much have we really lost,” local businessman Gerry Kiselyk said in the meeting with van Dijken April 7. “We’re missing the fact that we’re throwing a town under the bus.” 

The group also notes that now former AU resident Neil Fassina himself did not relocate to Athabasca when he took the job, which the group says led to other key roles relocating from the region. Now, with a new president on the horizon, the group wants to take the opportunity to bring the head of the institution back to living in the area.  

“We really believe it's important that the president is here in Athabasca and they run the operation from here,” Major said. “This is where the infrastructure is, this is (Premier Peter) Lougheed’s vision and I think it's gone astray on us here somehow.” 

The issue was also brought up at a May 19 Rotary meeting with Lakeland MP Shannon Stubbs. 

“I am well aware of what is going on,” said Stubbs. “I'll tell you my own personal view is to have learned that there are no local representatives on the Board of Governors for the university just seems absolutely mind boggling to me. I hope you know, and are confident that I understand very well, the damaging and destructive impact that the closure of that campus would have on the town." 

She added that while she usually avoids crossing jurisdictional boundaries of government, she has reached out to Alberta Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides and MLA van Dijken. 

"My office has reached out directly both to the Minister of Advanced Education and we have received an update from your MLA who says that his understanding is that a final decision hasn't been made yet,” she said. 

Stubbs added her office will support the ad hoc group in whatever way they can. 

“So, you are all doing the right thing speaking up for your community and for your friends and neighbors,” she said. “And hopefully there'll be a responsiveness to your activity.” 

AU however has remained consistent for years, denying the university is leaving Athabasca and has specifically stated the information associated with the letter writing campaign is based on inaccurate information. 

“There are many inaccuracies in the ‘Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University’ community campaign materials,” said AU vice president of university relations Kristine Williamson in a May 17 e-mail. “As one example, AU has not had any discussions, has not made any plans, and has not approved any motions to abandon our buildings within the Athabasca community – any comments to the contrary are simply false.” 

John Ollerenshaw, who is also involved in the ad-hoc group said they have had a discussion with AU about the inaccuracies and when asked AU would not tell them which parts were wrong. 

“They wouldn't say what information exactly was incorrect,” said Ollerenshaw. “It's the information that we got from (AU chief of staff) Gilbert Perras. You know the numbers might be off a little bit; the number of employees and things like that, but generally the information that we have is that by the end of this year – AU has gone from 650 employees here 12 or 13 years ago to 30 or 40 employees at the end of this year. That's like $60 million just in salaries that's been taken away from the town.” 

Williamson noted AU’s online and digital-first model is essential to its success and includes how team member's work. 

“For clarity, AU’s Board of Governors approved a motion for a near-virtual design, not a virtual design, in May of 2020,” she said. “We recognize that there are some roles that are better suited to being based in our administrative buildings rather than virtual."  

She said an AU working group has not completed determining which roles will remain in an office and which will be remote. 

“The Near-Virtual Working Group, made up of AU team members from across the organization, is currently working on the recommended criteria that will be used when determining whether a role should be place-based or virtual,” Williamson said. “Until the work of this group is completed, it is far too early to know which roles will be place-based and which ones will be prioritized for remote work.” 

Ollerenshaw noted it does not matter how many staff stay if full staffing at the campus is not maintained, saying it would be another blow for the Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock constituency which already lost the Alberta Distance Learning Centre in Barrhead.  

"That's the real worry; we're going to lose $100 million in economic benefits in this area. We've already lost the ADLC in Barrhead,” said Ollerenshaw. “I really wonder whether the government is really aware of what of what the board is doing.” 

Williamson said yes, the Ministry of Advanced Education is definitely aware. 

“The government, and specifically the Ministry of Advanced Education, are indeed informed of the near-virtual board-approved motion at Athabasca University,” she said. 

Based on previous public annual reports for AU the ad-hoc group estimates there could be $118-120 million in infrastructure sitting empty if the exodus ever does come to pass, but Williamson said AU is still committed to the residents of Athabasca. 

“AU has not retracted its commitment to hire people from the Town of Athabasca and surrounding area or its commitment to hire people interested in moving to the community,” she said. “As AU continues to design its near-virtual work environment, new and current residents of the Athabasca area will have the opportunity to apply for more roles at the university, both those that are place-based (post-COVID) and those that are remote.” 

The group has started a Facebook page calling for an immediate roll back of the near-virtual plan for executive and administrative staff and to require newly-hired executive and other professional staff to work in Athabasca and includes template letters and a list of government and AU officials to send them to. To clarify, the group does not want to relocate AU employees in positions that are already filled in locations other than Athabasca, and the union representing many of those employees has stated it would not support such a policy and would fight against it in court if necessary.

[email protected]  

No decisions made on future of AU staff, says university

Town will pitch in for government lobbyist

Athabasca not a liability to university, says AUFA president


push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks