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No decisions made on future of AU staff, says university

Chief of staff expresses frustrations with community letter-writing campaign

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 – The future success of Athabasca University is tied to embracing a digital-first model that includes the way in which team members work, and a Near-Virtual Working Group is still in the process of determining the criteria that will be used to decide if a role should be in a specified physical location. 

That is the onus of Athabasca University’s strategic vision, said Kristine Williamson, vice-president university relations, and the notion that the institution intends to uproot its operations in the Town of Athabasca, as alleged by the newly-formed ad-hoc group ‘Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University,’ is “simply false.” 

“Over the last four-and-half-years, AU has made incredible progress on ensuring the long-term sustainability of the university and positioning it at the leading edge of online education. AU’s online and digital-first model is essential to its success which includes the way in which team members work,” she said in a May 17 e-mail response to questions sent by the Athabasca Advocate.   

“There are many inaccuracies in the ‘Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University’ community campaign materials. 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. For clarity, AU’s Board of Governors approved a motion for a near-virtual design, not a virtual design, in May of 2020. We recognize that there are some roles that are better suited to being based in our administrative buildings rather than virtual. 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. Until the work of this group is completed, it is far too early to know which roles will be placed-based and which ones will be prioritized for remote work.” 

For its part, the ad-hoc group notes the number of jobs in Athabasca has decreased from 409 in 2017 to 270 in 2021, and says it expects only 40 to remain in the coming year. Town of Athabasca councillors decided at their May 18 meeting to support a request from the ad-hoc group for a contribution to help hire a lobbyist to communicate the community’s concerns regarding AU directly to the provincial government. Council agreed unanimously to offer up to $7,500 for half of the cost of a professional lobbyist, which will come from town reserves. 

Williamson said, “AU has no reaction to the steps the town is taking to hire a lobbyist.” 

In response to a question regarding why the same concern continues to arise in the community, Williamson said the university “has not altered 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. AU continues to work with Athabasca County's Tourism and Economic Development (TED) committee on development strategies for the region.” 

Gilbert Perras represents the university on the TED committee, and is chair of the sub-committee on broadband connectivity. He is also chief of staff in the Office of the President, and the single member of the executive team that resides in the Athabasca area. 

He told committee members at their April 28 meeting that he and the university understand the concern of the community and recognized it has not changed significantly over the last several years. 

“I'm a little bit frustrated because from my perspective this whole initiative started after I had a conversation with a couple of community members, and then they took my words and sort of twisted them around and started this initiative,” Perras said. “So, I guess my main message that I just want to leave with the committee was, don't believe everything you see on Facebook. There's definitely lots of inaccurate information on the ‘Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University’ Facebook page. There's no plans for Athabasca University to leave the community, there's no plans for us to do anything in terms of getting rid of our campus, getting rid of our facilities, we've had no conversations about that at all at the university. 

“The only conversations we have had is that as we move to near-virtual we may not need to keep our leases in Edmonton and Calgary. So, if people are in offices, they will likely be at offices in Athabasca, not in Edmonton and Calgary — that seems to be lost in this in this conversation.” 

He also noted that about 600 of 1,100 AU staff have been working from home for years, even decades. 

Williamson added in a May 21 follow-up e-mail that due to COVID-19, about 95 per cent of staff throughout the institution are currently working from home. 

Perras was clear about his frustrations with the letter-writing campaign, but reaffirmed his commitment to working on the TED committee and helping to improve broadband access in the region, which in turn will help attract more people to live and work in the region. 

“I'm at the point where I'm going to be very hesitant in the future to have candid conversations with people and be transparent in terms of what's going on. Because things I say, then get taken out of context and seem to be used against the university,” he told the TED committee. 

“The comment that I've made to a couple of community members that maybe got lost in this conversation is the community needs to work to attract people to the community regardless of where they work or what they do. Some of the rhetoric on the Facebook page, like all our young people are going to move out of the community. Well, if that's the case, what are we doing to maintain to keep the young people in the community? It's not Athabasca University's role to find a way to keep young Athabascans in Athabasca. 

“As part of my participation on this committee, I will make a commitment to this group that I will bring information to this group about what's happening with the university, and what's happening to the university in Athabasca, and I'm adamant, and I'm being totally transparent when I say there has not been a single conversation that I am aware of about disposing of any of our assets in Athabasca.” 

With the departure of president Neil Fassina in April, the search for his replacement is ongoing — a process which is confidential and Williamson declined to comment on. In the meantime, interim president Deborah Meyers has taken the helm after two-and-a-half years as vice-president, finance and administration and chief financial officer. 

One of the goals of the ad-hoc group’s letter-writing campaign and apparent hiring of a professional lobbyist is to pressure the university, through the government and Alberta Advanced Education, to require the new president to live in the immediate region. 

Williamson didn’t comment directly on that but reiterated the implementation of the strategic plan is a critical part of the university’s future success, but she added its home is in Athabasca. 

The 10-page strategic plan document “Imagine: Transforming Lives, Transforming Communities” outlines a five-year path for the institution’s adjustment to future operations, that covers the time-frame from 2018 to 2022. It is clearly centred on themes of Moving Beyond Open, Moving Beyond the Norm, Moving Beyond Place, and Moving Beyond “the Now,” in a learning and working environment that also moves beyond specific geography by taking risks to provide innovative alternatives for how things are traditionally done by students and staff — with a careful eye on the public institution's bottom line and sustainable financial future. 

“Our shift to a near-virtual model for our operations, which is distinct from a virtual model, reinforces that we have one main physical location, and that is in Athabasca,” Williamson said.

with files from Heather Stocking 

[email protected] 

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