Recommendations of independent review of Athabasca University seem unlikely to survive Alberta political reality

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PHOTOS: University of Saskatchewan Professor Ken Coates, author of the independent review of Athabasca University released last week. Below: Athabasca U President Neil Fassina, AU Board Chair Vivian Manasc, and Alberta Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt.

Recent news reports about the continuing woes of Athabasca University and in particular coverage last week of Professor Ken Coates’s independent third-party review of the troubled distance-learning institution could leave a reader feeling dizzy.

The University of Saskatchewan public policy professor’s anxiously awaited “independent third-party review,” commissioned by Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt five months ago, reminds one of Charles Dickens’ famous depiction of Paris in throes of the French Revolution … It’s as if for AU, like Paris in the Terror, it’s the best of times and the worst of times!

Dr. Coates, Alberta’s NDP Government, the university’s new president, and its even newer board chair, by the sound of it, all want the public and potential students to think this is AU’s the spring of hope.

“The president exudes confidence in the university’s workforce when he talks about the changes to come,” said the university’s press release last Thursday, when the report was released in the Town of Athabasca, 140 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Dr. Neil Fassina, appointed to the job late last year, “says planning to implement the report’s recommendations will start ‘immediately,’” the release burbled. At the news conference, Dr. Fassina described the review as “unbelievably optimistic.”

“The university administration and president will have the board’s full support as they implement the recommendations in the report,” the release quoted Board Chair Vivian Manasc cheerfully pitching in.

Barely two weeks ago, Dr. Fassina was touting the university’s emergence from deficit to a budgetary surplus.

Meanwhile, media reporters who glanced through Dr. Coates’s 72-page review or even just skimmed the press release, glommed onto the bit about the winter of despair.

Postmedia’s Edmonton Sun-Journal emphasized Dr. Coates’s apocalyptic prediction that “a dangerous and potentially unstoppable spiral awaits if major steps are not taken this fiscal year.”

Global News chose the same quote from the conclusion of Dr. Coates report, editing it to remove the professor’s qualification the apocalypse is merely a potential one.

For anyone who has been following the recent travails of Athabasca U, the theme of Apocalypse Now, or at least very soon, is familiar. It’s been a key part of the university’s “death spiral” messaging to internal audiences for at least five years as administrators try to persuade faculty, unionized employees and concerned citizens of the Town of Athabasca to accept the changes it wants to make.

These changes include layoffs, rollbacks, programs closing and the movement of substantial numbers of administrative and technical jobs from Athabasca to the Edmonton area, as in last year’s leaked plan to move some operations to suburban St. Albert.

In reality, there is precious little evidence the university is in a death spiral – unless, at least, the Alberta government decides it is, now or in the future.

Meanwhile, in messaging to potential students and academic partners, the university administration has been anxious to convey stability, optimism and business as usual.

With the developments of the past few months – and now with publication of Dr. Coates’s report – it would seem the contradictory messaging streams have crossed and created a weirdly Dickensian mash-up in which AU is at once going direct to Heaven and going direct the other way.

Dr. Coates’s report recommends an extremely aggressive, ambitious and rapid reorientation of AU’s focus to providing post-secondary education to rural, northern and Indigenous students.

Something like this may indeed be necessary for the long-term survival of the university – once a leader in distance education that has been overtaken by technological change (to wit, the Internet) bringing many other traditionally structured universities into the former specialty field.

But if as seems likely this involves dropping courses and eliminating programs, especially if AU has to come up with a plan within a single year as Dr. Coates is proposing, the word is bound to leak out quickly, reinforcing the death-spiral narrative in public.

Since Dr. Coates has included in his plan the removal of substantial university assets including most of the best professional and academic jobs from the Town of Athabasca, where the economy depends heavily on AU, this is bound to present both the NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley and the conservative Opposition with a political time bomb.

Remember, the university is now located in a rural NDP riding the government wants desperately to hang onto. That makes keeping AU alive and in Athabasca a likely political necessity for the government.

If the province sticks to the plan in its preliminary redistribution of electoral districts to shift the town into Opposition Leader Brian Jean’s Fort McMurray area riding, the conservative Opposition will find itself in exactly the same position.

Athabasca townspeople, of course, are not fools, and will soon figure out what is being proposed on page 38 of the report when Dr. Coates blithely calls for the office of the president and other senior administrators to relocate to the Edmonton region. Expect serious political blowback.

Likewise, AU’s unions are not going to roll over and agree to Dr. Coates’s suggestion they immediately negotiate new contracts to replace agreements that, he opines,  “can limit institutional flexibility responsiveness.”

Just a guess here, but I very much doubt AU’s unions will agree with Dr. Coates’s assessment on pages 35 and 36 of his report that their hard-won collective agreements “reflect institutional priorities and values from the past and are not necessarily well-suited to present and future needs.”

Indeed, I think readers can count on it that they will argue their collective agreements are not the problem at all, but that under-funding and chronic bad management over several years are at the root of AU’s problems.

This presents more of a political problem to the NDP than the anti-union Wildrose and PC parties, I grant you, but it’s the NDP that’s the government in 2017.

On page 40 of his report, Dr. Coates calls for the Government of Alberta to commit to an additional two years of financing so AU can implement a new strategy, and then, “if a plan acceptable to the government is not forthcoming, to wind down operations.”

Sorry, but with an election looming in 2019, winding down the university is not in the cards.

The story of Athabasca University has been a political story from Day 1 in 1970. It’s very hard to imagine that Dr. Coates’s report represents anything like the last chapter in that saga.

Categories Alberta Politics