Alberta Advanced Education Ministry now maintaining close watch on Athabasca University

Posted on April 21, 2016, 1:14 am
8 mins

PHOTOS: A recent newspaper ad seeking a new board chair for Athabasca University. Below: Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt at the Legislature on Budget Day; Athabasca MLA Colin Piquette; and Athabasca University interim President Peter MacKinnon (CBC photo).

When we last talked about the Athabasca University saga on March 3, the distance-education institution based in the town of Athabasca had just been instructed by the provincial government to hang fire on publishing its budget and to wait for a meeting with then-just-appointed Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt.

MarlinThat report followed the Jan. 25 revelation in this space that the financially troubled public post-secondary university had been quietly negotiating with the city of St. Albert to move its information technology department and possibly other operations 150 kilometres south to the Edmonton-area suburban community.

Since then, there has been a fairly long list of minor developments that, taken together, give the strong impression AU’s Tory-appointed board of governors and the university’s senior administrators are still having trouble singing from the hymn sheet they have been handed by the NDP government, as has been a recent pattern.

So let’s rewind and review the developments for which documentation exists since that last report:

  • March 10: Advanced Education Minister Schmidt meets as planned with AU Acting Board Chair Margaret Mrazek and Interim President Peter MacKinnon, whose term is scheduled to expire this summer.
  • March 11: Mr. MacKinnon emails all staff members to indicate he has attended the meeting, which he describes as substantive but not conclusive on important details, adding, “we have agreed not to comment publicly (including in the media and social media) at this time.”
  • March 11: Mr. Schmidt emails all stakeholder unions and says he has instructed the board chair and the president to come up with a plan to bring stability to AU. “I have made clear to the board chair and president the need to engage with staff, faculty, students and the Athabasca community.”
  • March 14: In the Legislature’s Question Period, Mr. Schmidt is asked if he has confidence in AU’s board. He does not directly answer that question, but does say AU will be remaining in Athabasca and that he intends to fill AU board vacancies.
  • PiquetteMarch 15: Mr. Schmidt tells an Athabasca radio station that he has directed the AU board and president to keep certain principles in mind in their plans, the foremost of which is “to ensure that Athabasca University is kept in Athabasca.”
  • March 18: President MacKinnon indicates in a memo to faculty and staff that in consultation with government officials, he had decided to withdraw the university’s previously proposed budget.
  • March 25: The government publishes an advertisement for a new board chair. It indicates applications not chosen as chair may be considered for other board positions as current occupants’ terms expire.
  • March 29: Mr. Schmidt writes in a letter to the Athabasca Advocate community newspaper in which he confirms the board has been instructed to come up with a sustainability plan and restates that the government understands the importance of AU to the community’s economic wellbeing.
  • March 29: In an email to staff, President MacKinnon confirms that the board has been told to come up with a plan, and says this will be done with the assistance of a third party.
  • April 5: Athabasca MLA Colin Piquette, a New Democrat, tells the local radio station “it is our intention to do everything possible to keep AU in Athabasca.” He adds, in the reporter’s words, “the last place the government would look for cost savings at Athabasca University is layoffs.”
  • April 11: The deadline for applications for board chair.
  • April 12: AU President MacKinnon tells the local newspaper that “layoffs are an option” as a result of the university’s new budget.

So, what are we to conclude from all this? Other than the obvious, that is, that despite the meetings and directives, top AU officials and senior officials of the Advanced Education Ministry are not yet singing in harmony.

peter-mackinnonIt is impossible to know with absolute certainty. However, it is not unreasonable to surmise these developments indicate …

  • The ministry has now intervened in AU’s budgeting process.
  • The ministry has rejected the plan to move any operations south to St. Albert.
  • The ministry has inserted the unnamed third party in the process of coming up with a plan for AU’s future.
  • The minister has tacitly indicated his lack of confidence in the board and administration.
  • The ministry intends to control who now joins the board.

In other words, it might well to fair to speculate that the government has put Athabasca University into a form of “soft receivership” – or, at least, put its current board and administration on a very short leash.

The minister, obviously, will now play a pivotal role in choosing new board members. But it also seems likely in such circumstances that the government will also play a key role, or at least exercise a veto, over who replaces Mr. MacKinnon as president. That, in turn, could affect the outcome negotiations with AU employees’ unions and on future actions by the administration.

We await official developments.

Edmonton Public School Board votes to seek end to public funds for charter, private schools

Edmonton Public School Board voted six to three Tuesday evening to support Chair Michael Janz’s motion to “reaffirm its commitment to the provincial government that public funding to private or charter schools should be phased out and reinvested in public education.”

The motion means the board will continue to press the province to phase out funding for private schools and to transfer the control of all so-called charter schools to the public school board.

This ratchets up the public pressure on the NDP government to do something about an unpopular policy relic of the Ralph Klein era in Alberta government, the more than $200 million in public funds spent on charter and private schools. The demand is the ironic result of an effort by interim PC Leader Ric McIver to get the Legislature to pass a member’s motion supporting public finding for private and charter schools.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

11 Comments to: Alberta Advanced Education Ministry now maintaining close watch on Athabasca University

  1. political ranger

    April 21st, 2016

    As I’ve said, ad nauseum, if the ‘new’ Notley gov’t wants to change outcomes and direction from policies put in place by the previous blind, incoherent, mean-spirited and incompetent gov’ts of the past 40-some years, they are going to have to get rid of significant numbers of departmental bureaucrats who were hired specifically to implement those policies in exactly that manner. I’ve said 30%, not because I have some particular inside knowledge but because what I do know is that it’s way more than the 2 or 3 that seems to be touted by this administration.
    This is just another example. Perhaps all the cutsey pussy-footing around by this gov’t in this case is the right way to handle things. Eventually though, the Notley gang is still going to have to implement whatever enlightened progressive policy they have in mind. Before they run out of money and time.

    Reply
  2. Athabascan

    April 21st, 2016

    Oh, there is more to tell about Athabasca University, especially about it’s existing [old] wayward Tory-appointed Board of Governors and its Chair Margaret Mzarek.

    On April 20 Mzarek informed the faculty association that the outgoing Board of Governors will select and hire the new incoming president of Athabasca University, just a few weeks before the new board takes over.

    In other words, instead of allowing the new Board to determine a new direction for the university, the old and ineffective board will engage in what is akin to institutional sabotage by binding the next board with another poor choice for president of AU.

    The minister should certainly step in and not allow this. The newly established board should be free to hire the best candidate and not have that choice taken from them by an outgoing gang of disgruntled tory cronies.

    Therefore, Mr. Schmidt, if you are reading this please step in before the outgoing board compounds our problems by hiring another unsuitable and problematic president. If this university is to thrive in the future, we need to have a new and fresh start. Let the new constituted Board of Governors led by a new Chair select the next president. That is the correct thing to do.

    Reply
  3. Sam Gunsch

    April 21st, 2016

    Some explanation of U of Athabasca board/CEO machinations can be traced to the neoliberal/RW politicians attempt to make universities operate like corporations…

    A couple excerpts and link below:

    http://www.demosproject.net/the-managerial-university-a-failed-experiment/

    The Managerial University:

    A Failed Experiment?

    – By David West | April 14, 2016

    excerpt: The rise of managers and ‘managerial’ doctrines were supposed to make universities more efficient and productive, more lean and transparent, and above all, more modern. In practice, managerial reforms have given rise to a range of pathologies and side effects. Bullying is widespread, many staff are unhappy. But the spread of managerialism is also threatening the university’s role as a centre of committed teaching, disinterested scholarship and critical research. Examination of the actual effects – rather than stated aims – of the managerial experiment is long overdue.

    ==========

    excerpt: ‘there is an even more sinister implication of this ‘new managerialism’: a pervasive culture of control and intimidation. The imperative of the modern manager is to achieve change at all costs. Just as modern academics are judged by their research outputs, modern managers are judged by the ‘reforms’ or ‘restructuing’ they bring about. These changes are the raw material of their résumé and the condition of their further promotion or dismissal. ‘Unsurprisingly the modern manager tends to be intolerant of opposition.

    An early casualty and necessary condition of the new managerial model was the elimination of any semblance of democracy or collegial governance within the university. The self-governing faculty has been replaced by a hierarchy of managers empowered to direct and instruct subordinates whose opposition or doubts can then be safely ignored. Academics whose opinions no longer have any authority are instead endlessly consulted. ‘

    Reply
    • political ranger

      April 22nd, 2016

      So glad to see harper get trashed. It’s a shame he’s not thrown in jail.
      These managerial managers typically know nothing of the work product produced by the groups they are charged with managing, but they sure do know how to kiss-ass. We see no end of that in the current ranks of managers in the Albaturda public service. And we saw plenty in the PMO.
      Nothing good can come from these types and until they’re gone, voluntarily or otherwise, we will suffer twice. They will occupy a position and a wage that an otherwise competent and useful person would and they will continue to make unrealistic and asinine decisions that will later have to be unwound.

      Reply
  4. Edward

    April 21st, 2016

    Athabasca Universitgy should close. Not a good use of scarce tax dollars. A university in a small town? Really?

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      April 22nd, 2016

      Idiot!

      The fact you can’t spell the word university is proof that we can’t have enough universities and people like you need all the education they can get.

      AU is a virtual, distance education university. It provides university-level education to those who would not otherwise have a chance to earn their degrees. It is not a traditional university with a student centric campus and lecture hall like the University of Alberta or the U of C.

      Students learn from home at a distance using the latest technologies. This arrangement allows them to work full time, or look after the needs of their families. Athabasca University is a unique post secondary institution that defines the Alberta advantage in the best of ways.

      The best way to grow the economy of Alberta is to invest in education, not to scale it back.

      Reply
    • Thwim

      April 22nd, 2016

      The university campus is in a small town.. the university itself is distance based, courses done online, telephone, or snail mail, and has students from across the country and around the globe, with the highest concentration of students in Calgary. It’s actually an exceptionally good use of taxpayer dollars as it typically receives very little in capital funding since it doesn’t need to build buildings to house its students. Also the AB gov’t provides no funding for any out of province students that take courses through Athabasca. This means that the taxpayer is only picking up about 50% of the operating costs of AU with tuition covering the rest, whereas a traditional university sees the government carrying about 66% of the cost, and that’s aside from the capital funding.

      This difference is part of the reason why it seems to be repeatedly facing financial issues worse than other AB universities.

      Reply
      • Peter

        April 23rd, 2016

        The 2015 annual report of Athabasca University ( found here: http://www.athabascau.ca/aboutau/documents/annual/report2015.pdf) shows that among its 131 million dollars revenue, the government of Alberta contributed 45 million, or 34.35% out of the total. This 34.35% is the lowest among all the post secondary educational institutions in Alberta, even those independent institutions (e.g., Ambrose University, http://eae.alberta.ca/post-secondary/institutions/public/types/iai.aspx). In a word, Athabasca University has been contributing to the education of millions of Canadians including Albertans —-most of them are less privileged in terms of their time and other resources and two thirds of them are women, but has not been fairly treated by the government of Alberta.

        Please note that the employees of Athabasca University pay taxes as well; they are paying taxes as the same time suffering the consequences of the university being ill treated by the government.

        Reply
        • Athabascan

          April 23rd, 2016

          Sad indeed, but what makes this even more pathetic is the fact that employees at Athabasca university are being mistreated by their own president, executives and Board of Governor members.

          Without a change in leadership at the top and a new and fresh outlook/vision no amount of money will change the deplorable state of morale among staff.These are great workers with excellent skills who genuinely believe in the value of education. Unfortunately, they have lost hope and trust in the institution, because of how they have been treated and how leaders have shown complete contempt for them.

          Reply
  5. Concerned

    April 22nd, 2016

    I believe when you listen to the people who work there or have worked there, kudos goes to past president Dominique Abrioux. Not saying anyone after was good/bad but Dominique changed a management heavy institution to one of production. Production comes with good management of resources and he managed the resources for AU to be successful. More and more contracting to third parties ‘specialists’, and more and more management leaves big paycheques to be written at a high cost to the University.
    First, applause to current president for taking pay cut compared to the last president.
    Second, the university has plenty of qualified ‘specialists’.
    Third, some of the bottom end people make peanuts compared to the top end people.

    Someone needs to revisit Dominique and his ways because if they were indeed fruitful, ideas may push the step in the right direction.
    Also, as an on-line university catering to students worldwide, it makes no sense to move it. It is on-line so really it could be in Timbuktu and still be able to operate. It has made and should continue to make an impact in Athabasca, such as decided by those who dreamt the idea in the first place.

    Reply
    • Peter

      April 24th, 2016

      Dominique was from the rank and file of the faculty, and I believe that this gave him a realistic view of the university. And he stuck to the mission of the university, his years were the prime time for online learning booming, and the university structure was flat, not as top heavy as is now. I think that those are the factors for his successful tenure. The weak link was that he did not seem to have the ears of the then PC government. The current president should be credited for calling a spade a spade by disclosing in the last year’s report the structural problems the university has been struggling with. What has been unfortunate is that he had failed to rally the troop although he is a prominent scholar and experienced executive. If it has to place some blame somewhere, I have to say that the PC appointed board whose failure to recruit a full-term president after $300,000 had been spent had prolonged the chaotic financial disorder. Let’s hope the government and the new president to be recruited soon can work together to make good strategic decisions to move this great university forward.
      Here I’d like to offer my two cents: (1) The provincial government should take all Athabasca University students, be it Albertan or non-Albertan, into its grant allocation consideration. This is feasible because the government has the authority to do so as the provincial grant allocation has not been based on a formulaic approach, it is totally up to the government’s discretion, and the government has access to resource such as the federal social transfer for higher education at hand. In addition, the provincial government can employ Athabasca University’s service to out province students as a legitimate reason for asking for more federal social transfer fund. The provincial government needs to put as much effort as it has recently been asking for federal government’s re-addressing the unemployment insurance issue in the great Edmonton region. (2) The provincial government has to include investment in information technology in its capital projects investment; it’s a new world and to Athabasca University investment in information system is indeed infrastructural, and this has been recommended by the Auditor General. If the government fails to commit to the above two strategically critical investments, then it just pays lip service to keeping the university realize its great potential. The above two can also be considered as a litmus test to see if this government is caring more about vote grabbing or the future of the university which so far has been a great innovation of Alberta. (3) To the new president, I’d strongly suggest him or her to really treasure the faculty and staff— you are not supposed to rule over them, you have to be among them and lead them.

      Reply

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