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Local advocacy keeps Athabasca in Athabasca University

Advanced Education has sent three directives to AU Board of Governors to help ensure institution's future in Athabasca

ATHABASCA - “Please, take ‘Yes’ for an answer.” 

That was part of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s response to a rather charged question from a man in the audience during an announcement event in Athabasca March 24 regarding the future of Athabasca University within the community.  

There was standing room only, and even that was at a premium, as more than 300 people crowded the upper level of the Athabasca Regional Multiplex to hear from the premier, Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides and Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Economic Development Nate Horner, who were there to tell the assembled crowd their voices had been heard and that the Alberta government was taking a number of steps to maintain Athabasca University’s physical presence in the community as the institution moves forward with its “near-virtual” strategy that many in the community have vocally opposed.   

The man on the microphone was one of them. He wanted to know, in specifics, what was being done about the “empty building across the street,” pointing out there’s a data facility “that has been totally gutted;” the president’s house continues to sit empty; and staff approval of the chief information officer’s leadership sits at just 13 per cent. 

“That's exactly why we're here. That's exactly the direction we've given the board. Now, how exactly they apply that in terms of the details of what positions and budget decisions, is to them,” Kenney said, noting it’s not the Advanced Education minister’s role to “micromanage” Alberta’s 26 post-secondary institutions. 

Twenty minutes earlier, as the room was still filling, Athabasca mayor Rob Balay and Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken introduced Kenney and Nicolaides, who announced the directions that had been passed on to the AU Board of Governors by the ministry. 

“A post-secondary institution is a community, and it needs a heart. It needs to be able to have a culture and you can’t replicate that virtually online,” Kenney said. “Yes, you can provide lots of services to reach the world, to reach learners across the world through the Internet, but you still need to be grounded somewhere and the vision of this institution is always to be grounded and rooted in the community of Athabasca.” 

The room burst into applause, including from John Ollerenshaw and Mavis Jacobs, two of the many community leaders who helped form the Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University advocacy group in 2021 to bring awareness to the number of jobs leaving Athabasca as the university transitioned to implement its virtual strategy, making living and working in Athabasca unnecessary. 

This led to public outcry in the community and compelled the Town of Athabasca and Athabasca County to each contribute $22,500 to secure the services of a professional lobbying firm to bring the community’s case to the halls of the Legislature. Many members of the community also provided financial support behind the scenes. Tenured AU professor Alex Kondra, for instance, wasn’t shy about putting his money where his mouth is, giving $12,500 in total. 

“The point is this, there has been some tension as some of the positions associated with the university have migrated elsewhere. Leases have been signed in other cities, and the local community, many of you, have spoken to us as the Government of Alberta to express, I think, real legitimate concern about the future,” Kenney said.  

“And so, we are here today to address that and resolve that and let me just say this — We believe that Athabasca University must be rooted in this community for its long-term future.” 

To accomplish that, the Athabasca University Act will be amended to include a directive that ensures permanent representation from the community on the AU Board of Governors. The board of governors was also directed to work toward expanding AU’s footprint in Athabasca and Northern Alberta in general by “consolidating executive and senior administration offices in Athabasca at the earliest possible opportunity.” 

Last, the board will “develop and implement a comprehensive talent development, attraction and retention strategy, by June 30 of this year, to maintain and grow a broad range of employees in Athabasca, and to develop and implement a reopening strategy for the Athabasca campus to resume most employees working onsite, and to allow public access to services like registries, student support and specialized services,” Kenney said. 

Nicolaides said he was incredibly excited for the future of Athabasca University. 

“The university is moving forward in becoming Canada's online university, which I think is a vision we should all embrace, and I think is a vision that is incredibly inspirational,” he said. “I do strongly support that vision in that direction but at the same time, I do firmly believe that Athabasca University can excel in that vision of becoming Canada's online university while building and maintaining jobs right here in the community.” 

In an e-mail to faculty and staff following the announcement, AU president Dr. Peter Scott said he’s looking forward to more discussions with the ministry and the community “on ways AU can continue to contribute to the Athabasca region while prioritizing future growth and service to learners across the province, the country, and the globe who depend on our open and online approach to pursue their post-secondary education.”  

“As AU’s primary physical location, the Town of Athabasca and the surrounding region are important considerations for us as we continue to work with our provincial and local governments on ways to support the community’s plans for growth and development. As you know, as part of AU’s near-virtual workforce design, we are ending office leases in Calgary and Edmonton — reaffirming that Athabasca is our home community,” Scott said in the note. 

“It's an important day for Athabasca and it's an important day for Athabasca University,” said van Dijken, who Nicolaides described as “a fierce advocate for the community.” 

“There's been a lot of work that's been put into advocacy from the community to get us to this day and I'm very happy that we're able to gather here today to essentially announce the ability for Athabasca University to succeed well into the future in the Town of Athabasca. It's been two-and-a-half years of advocacy work and letter-writing and meetings to get us to this point, so congratulations to the community for being involved in that process.” 

Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University’s Ollerenshaw and Jacobs were both seated with the MLAs and other dignitaries, and both said afterwards that they were pleased with what they heard and can’t wait to see those directives put into action. 

“It’s the first step, but it’s a very, very big one. They've set the tone, and the government has given clear direction to the board and to the university. This is a major change,” said Ollerenshaw. “It has been sad to see what's been happening over the last four or five years with the population falling and the number of students in schools dropping. We have a very vibrant and economically successful town largely because of Athabasca University and the payroll there.” 

Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) president David Powell, who is currently in the midst of collective bargaining negotiations with the university, praised the government, the announcement, the community and the advocacy group. 

“The Athabasca jobs issue was originally started by AUFA around seven years ago when we started to notice some trends in the data. And I'm so proud to see how the community rallied around this,” he said. “I say this as the president of a union — thank you for doing this, really.” 

“I'm always amazed by our community, never surprised, but I'm always amazed,” Balay said to open the event, adding how proud he was of the community for supporting the effort, and for coming out in force on a Thursday afternoon. 

Community, and standing together to achieve a common goal, were also themes Athabasca County reeve Brian Hall picked up on to close the event. 

“The sheer volume of people in this room speaks to the passion and commitment we have for our community and for Athabasca University. All of Alberta is made stronger when rural Alberta succeeds,” he said. “Today we see that the Government of Alberta has taken seriously your concerns, the concerns for the future of our community, region and that of rural Alberta. We see what happens and what can be accomplished when we stand united as a community.”

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