PHOTOS: Athabasca University’s spooky headquarters in the forest near the town of Athabasca. Below: Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater NDP MLA Colin Piquette, AU President Peter MacKinnon and Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre Wildrose MLA Jason Nixon, once a member of Dr. MacKinnon’s task force on AU sustainability.

Athabasca University’s three-day convocation begins today, but what should be a joyous occasion for the publicly owned distance-education institution’s graduates may be marred by its ongoing financial crisis, which at times resembles the proverbial slow-motion train wreck.

A “task force” struck last year by AU President Peter MacKinnon has now completed a grim and controversial report, “The Future is Now,” which states bluntly – though not necessarily persuasively – that, “based on our most reliable assumptions, we project the likelihood of insolvency in 2016/2017.”

Piquette-RThe recommendations of the report – not yet officially released, but unanimously endorsed by the university’s Tory-appointed board of governors and sent directly to the government in Edmonton – is for several reasons likely to cause one of the first serious political problems to be faced by Alberta’s just-elected New Democratic Party Government. It’s unlikely this will be the last time, of course, that the government of Premier Rachel Notley faces challenges dealing with the PC appointed boards of institutions, agencies and commissions.

Certainly many in the Athabasca University community passionately dispute the conclusions of the presidential task force, which the AU Faculty Association calls the work of “a handpicked committee that deliberated in secret and presented this report as a fait accompli.”

In addition to the prediction of AU’s imminent insolvency, recommendations include the idea of only admitting students from Alberta and pulling all operations out of the Town of Athabasca. The report also blames the collective agreements negotiated by the university’s unions – with no mention of irresponsible management by past administrations – for AU’s current financial predicament. It demands major takeaways from employees, especially faculty members.

Appalled professors, employees and community members say the suggestion implicit in the report that the current financial situation equals insolvency is nonsense – the university could and should continue to operate with a small deficit while a plan for a sustainable future is developed.

AthabascaMacKinnon-L“Can a public university become insolvent to begin with?” asks the author of a local blog. “AU has been posting surpluses for years, which further confuses their narrative. We’re not denying structural problems and major underfunding, but the insolvency narrative, the entire basis for the report, collapses under scrutiny.”

Critics also say restricting students to Albertans would effectively kill an institution that now depends on tuition for 70 per cent of its operating budget – compared with 20 per cent three decades ago.

Moreover, it is hard to dispute the critics’ additional argument that pulling out of Athabasca, for which there is seemingly no solid rationale in a digital age, would devastate the economy of the community of 3,000 located 145 kilometres north of Edmonton. It would also involve walking away from $100 million or so in public infrastructure and laying off as many as 400 employees.

To this reader, the report smacks of a document drafted with the anti-labour attitudes and austerian policies of the previous Progressive Conservative government in mind.

This should not come as a complete surprise. Remember, it was AU’s administration that shortly before President MacKinnon’s appointment in 2013 got into hot water for spending $125,000 on lobbying in a failed attempt to wring more funding from the Progressive Conservative government of Alison Redford.

Perhaps when they came up with these ideas they were remembering the advice of the lobbyists, who did their work around the time Ms. Redford was promoting the idea of a “Bitumen Bubble” to justify slashing post-secondary budgets.

JasonNixon-RRegardless of such speculation, at the start of 2015 when Dr. MacKinnon struck the task force, the reelection of the Tories under Jim Prentice seemed like a certainty and another round of destructive post-secondary budget cuts appeared inevitable.

During the campaign for the May 5 election, Colin Piquette, NDP candidate in the riding where the university’s headquarters are located and now the government’s MLA for Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater, pledged at an all-candidates’ meeting to defend AU. Then-MLA Jeff Johnson, at the time the PC minister of education, skipped the meeting – which must have seemed to him like a good idea at the time.

The committee that drafted the report, interestingly, initially included Jason Nixon as representative of the institution’s students. Mr. Nixon, former constituency association president for former Rimbey-Rocky-Mountain House-Sundre Wildrose MLA Joe Anglin, withdrew from the task force when he was elected on May 5 as the MLA for Mr. Anglin’s former riding and the same conservative Opposition party. Mr. Nixon was for a spell president of the AU students’ union and reported to be “the highest-paid student executive in Alberta.”

The other members of the task force were Dr. MacKinnon himself, who served as chair, Board members Diane Davies and Marg Mrazek, Associate Professor Jane Arscott, Strategic Initiatives Director David Head, Gilbert Perras of Alberta Advanced Education and Humanities, and Social Sciences Dean Veronica Thompson.

The report concludes: “It is important that we not lose a sense of urgency. We have time, but no time to lose.”

The NDP Government, however, would be well advised not to be stampeded by shrill claims and rash advice, but to ponder carefully the future of Athabasca University, founded in 1970 by Alberta’s Social Credit government for a predominantly rural province, and the future of distance education in a digital age in general.

The future is now, but it sure doesn’t seem like the future imagined by the task force members when they wrote their report.

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  1. This is most unfortunate. Athabasca University has been the answer for many who for reasons that vary, simply cannot attend traditional university classes. Some may be ill, some may be isolated, some may work full time and only be able to do a degree from home, at night. AU has accommodated these situations. AU has formed a good reputation locally and nationally. Its name has grown. I find it pretty amazing that one can obtain an quality undergraduate or a graduate degree online, on one’s own time, at one’s convenience. The bottom line regarding university sustainability – that means ALL types of universities, is money. Money via funding/grants and via student tuition fees and money within provincial budgets are the nourishment that feeds universities. Alberta has been privy to a series of post-secondary budget cuts within the last couple of years. Clearly, those in the university community have not taken this lightly. Nor have students. Let’s hope that AU can carry on “carrying” a deficit, continuing to provide a unique form of quality post-secondary education to so many.

  2. David, Tutors /Academic Experts from CUPE 3911 – around 400 workers at AU ; were not represented on this committee. Yet we are the ones who adversely affected by some of the recommendations of this report. That is an insult to us. We are getting tired of being the whipping boys.

    1. This is pretty clearly the way every group that has a collective agreement with AU feels. At the risk of sounding preachy, you all need to make it clear to Alberta’s new government, and especially the MLA for Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater, that what the administration is proposing through this report is not good for the university, the province or labour relations in Alberta, and in fact grows out of a view of labour relations favoured by the PC Party and particularly the Redford Government. AU’s troubles are obviously much deeper than too-generous collective agreements, which is the fairy tale this report wants us to believe.

  3. Hmmm…it almost feels like AU Board wants to pull out of Athabasca and relocate their base of operatios to a place like India.

    1. My suspicion is equally cynical, but slightly different. I think they want to be in Edmonton or Calgary, where administrators can enjoy an urban lifestyle and hang around with other university big shots, as well as perhaps having better and more convenient employment opportunities with more prestigious universities.

      1. I hate to break it to you David, but they are already enjoying the urban lifestyle. The president and his entourage (execs) spend very little time in the town of Athabasca. The University spent an enormous amount of money for their digs in Edmonton and Calgary.

        Perhaps, if MacKinnon did spend more time in the town of Athabasca he too would come to appreciate it and the wonderful people who reside there. Instead, he chooses to deride the township and its residents.

      2. True. But I wonder if they can still ship a lot of their daily nuts and bolts to India (especially if it involves digital learning materials) leaving the administrators behind in Edmonton or Calgary to enjoy the urban lifestyle they so richly deserve (which will no doubt be enhanced thanks to India’s sweatshop culture)

  4. The MacKinnon report is inflammatory and misleading.

    Any President who lays blame at the feet of his employees is shirking his responsibilities. The report uses words such as “impediment”, and “conspiring” in the context of union-management relations and resistance to change management.

    Staff are not impressed, and are predictably downtrodden as a result of the name calling by the President. Good luck motivating the troops now for the hard work ahead. No wonder the staff association is seriously contemplating censuring the university, albeit on a different issue, but one that is equally rooted in disrespect for staff.

    MacKinnon made a mess of the U of S during his tenure. If he hadn’t my guess is that he would have remained there, but he ran out of options. Now, unfortunately, he is at AU. His views on bicameral governance, faculty associations, and collegiality are well known. Perhaps, that is why the PC dominated AU Board of Governors gave him the nod.

    Premier Notley, the staff at AU are begging for your help and intervention to make things right. Please help, before all is lost.

  5. I agree with David’s analysis. Athabasca University, where I taught Canadian history for 36 years, is at once under-funded and over-administered. The Lougheed government did generously fund the university and encouraged it to view itself as “Canada’s Open University.” But the boards it named began a process of pretending that AU, despite its modest size, required all the same administrative positions that the bigger universities had. The Klein cuts forced a rethink and AU survived them by appointing a new president, Dominique Abrioux, who cut a variety of administrative positions, including associate v-p positions, deanships, and even director of HR (he handled that himself, and found that most of the work was done just fine by the small HR staff). But within a decade the Governing Council (predecessor to the current Board of Governors) and the next president began restoring the monster that had existed earlier on, adding a huge recruitment arm (which had almost no effect on adding students), and a risk management arm (which mostly risks the university’s finance) while restoring the positions that the former president had retired along with various new ones. The entire Board should be fired along with President MacKinnon, author of a book that argues for universities to be run like big corporations with absolute powers for the president–he is the very argument against what his book advocates. At its core, in terms of its courses, the quality of its faculty and staff, there is not much wrong with Athabasca University. But it needs to receive funding for all its students; the Klein government removed all funding for students without an Alberta address, though the tuition from those students actually reduces operating costs (a course written for 200 students rather than 80 a year has economies of scale). Proper funding and a stripped-down administration would allow Athabasca U to operate as successfully as it did from 1995 to 2005. It has gone south because of bloated administration and underfunding.

  6. It has always seemed curious to me that we have so many universities in Alberta. I’m surprised we have also allowed conversion of some colleges into universities. This isn’t (in my mind) a good thing for students. We get dilution of the education system so we have lukewarm results.

    Money to pay for these post secondary institutions is increasingly being generated from student fees which results in some students not going to university.

    The PCs were big on getting corporate donations and sponsors for university needs– instead of developing a stable funding model for both public schools as well as for post secondary institutions.

    This failure to develop a sustainable education revenue stream was exacerbated by the AHS type mentality at places such as the University of Alberta which seems to be paying executive staff excessive amounts of compensation for very little deliverables. Why for example is the university president getting paid such big bucks? Why can’t we offer lower salaries and compensation packages? If this means we have less leadership in place, well I doubt this will make any difference since there is a dearth of leadership wherever I look.

    The current downturn in the economy may be the perfect time to rethink post secondary education in Alberta. Do we need so many advanced education institutions, each of which require increasingly expensive academic faculty and administration? At the University of Alberta for example, there is (in my opinion) a great cadre of staff that I don’t see many deliverables for.

    We get all these folks at the top of the pyramid of power and what do they do for the major money taxpayers spend on them other than yap a great deal? The paring down of the highly paid executive staff with downsizing of the salaries offered to them–might ensure that we have front end staff in reasonable numbers and that class sizes for university students are reasonable. In addition, staff that aren’t doing their jobs need to be fired; we have no reason to retain folks who loaf on the job.

    While I understand that Athabasca University may serve an group of students who might otherwise not get the opportunities of advanced education it still seems to me that we have too many advanced education facilities in Alberta. All this duplication of staff in these various institutions could be avoided with common policies and protocols in place so as to streamline major processes. Fewer universities mean fewer associated costs in terms of staff and ongoing infrastructure costs.

    I don’t believe we are getting value from our post secondary institutions. A lot of the research that is carried out in these places is not worth the money being spent on the research. There needs to be a major shift in the way we do education and the NDP have the opportunity to review education and its costs in Alberta— from kindergarten to graduate school.

    Do we for example need to have the school boards in Alberta? The school boards do not serve a productive function and if boards are needed all the various boards in Alberta for public education could be merged into one board as was done for AHS. It’s also possible we don’t need to have any school boards and that Alberta Education could take over the administrative functions of school boards.

    I’m a big supporter of universities but we need to concentrate limited resources to fund a few universities. We need to ensure that the system is sustainable. We don’t need to have public institutions offering salaries of the AHS sort –we need reasonably well paid staff who focus on education of our students. We may not acquire the best faculty but certainly such a more modest education system would allow for a faculty committed to providing good quality public education without the boom and bust economics of the past 44 years which results in poor outcomes in terms of both faculty retention and development of a fine educational system.

    1. You have some good point, Julie Ali. However, I am going to take exception to two points you made. Athabasca University is a very different university from any of the others in Alberta and even in Canada. It is an open university which means that almost anyone can enrol without jumping all the hoops and doing the dances that other universities use to sort their students. Adults who have not been able to get the marks that they may need to be accepted into closed universities (for lack of a better term), are admitted to Athabasca and often graduate with a degree. Many of the university’s students are women in rural areas who cannot leave their families and communities (their jobs) to live in a major centre to attend university. So Athabasca University serves a need that no other university serves.

      The second point I question is doing away with school boards. School boards in Alberta are the body that decide how best to implement the government’s directives and monies in the board’s particular region. This differs hugely from board to board. Because the board is composed of elected members of the community, they are able to respond to the needs of their constituents far more effectively than the government can. Speaking as a teacher, doing away with school boards would be a disaster for Alberta.

      1. Mary, your points are well taken. AU has allowed various folks who may not otherwise have been able to earn a degree, to do so. This includes graduate level degrees. And while many moan about School Boards, ie: the politics therein, u are on point about them being needed. Can u imagine school districts being run efficiently without Boards? I can’t.

    2. How did you come to the conclusion that the research being done isn’t worth the money? (the majority of the funds which support research are not from provincial coffers!)

  7. Not sure if this is still the case but at one time, AU would only hire profs who earned their credentials at traditional land-based institutions. Gotta eat your own dogfood, folks.

    1. Idiot troll!

      What does any of that have to do with the present crisis?

      Don’t you get it? There’s no dog food in the pantry to feed the dogs (what you equate to profs). I’m sure they would be glad to eat it if there was some. Alas, the well-heeled administrators took it all.

  8. This report mostly leaves me with questions.

    Why write a report that advances four completely unrealistic options?

    Why ask the staff for input and then mostly ignore it?

    Why over state the university’s financial problems to such a ridiculous degree?

    Why hint that Athabasca is failing because it is located in Athabasca?

    If I had to guess, I’d suggest it was written with the PC’s in mind and designed to squeeze out more funding out of them by threatening closure (which would damage support in a rural riding).

    If so, then the recommendations (which are just complete crap) aren’t meant to be taken seriously; they are just a medium to convey the real message.

    If this is right (and this view is widely held among the Athabasca faculty I talked to at convocation today) and if the government changed on May 5, why go forward with the report?

    Why not write a report that sets out an actual vision that a friendlier government might back?

    This looks like a major leadership failure by the administration and the Board. Maybe time for a change?

    1. It leaves me with a lot of questions too such as:

      Why blame the unions and claim they are conspiring, and therefore are an impediment to sustainability?

      Why not take responsibility for the poor financial management by the previous administration?

      Why insult the residents of Athabasca and imply they are an impediment?

      Why make a stupid suggestion that AU should only serve Alberta based students?

      Why claim to be broke when in fact they will have a small surplus?

      Why release a report damning the union while collective bargaining negotiations are underway?

      Why send the report before circulating a draft internally to elicit improvements?

      Why did the AU Board of Governors unanimously approve the report despite its obvious shoddy methodology, lack of coherent analysis, and flawed logic?

      Obviously, the NDP needs to step in.

  9. Hi Telmea,

    I imagine the reason AU only hired profs form traditional land-based institutions is that accredited academics from institutions that educate at a distance are just now coming onto the market. Athabasca University is a world leader in this area of education and if it is closed, the loss would be felt literally world-wide.

    1. I would not go that far, LOL “World leader” is a pretty strong argument to make. Even the U. of Alberta, ranked 58th I believe, in 2009 or 2010 by a reputable ranking, is not necessarily considered a “world leader” in post-secondary academia. Many in the US, for instance, have no clue what the U. of A. is, or where it is. Furthermore, many universities now offer a plethora of online courses, that dynamic continues to grow. But as I indicated above, AU has been a good choice for those who only can, or wish to, “attend” class via their computers.

  10. I read this story & the comments with a growing sense of unease, because as a part-time AU grad student I’ve already invested a good deal of time, money & brain sweat into my Master’s programme, and still have the steepest hill to climb: my thesis.

    If I’m lucky, AU will stay in operation long enough for me to finish, but I wonder what happens to the credibility of my degree if the institution folds soon after I get it?

    Sadly, though, as a full-time worker, parent and now grandparent I really have not had time to pay much attention to the internal machinations of AU; it’s all I can do to just keep up with my studies. Guess I just need to cross my fingers that everything works out in he end.

  11. It seems to me there’s a sensible solution staring us in the face: why not have the University of Alberta acquire Athabasca University? We already have the Augustana Faculty in Camrose, why not the Faculty of Athabasca? That would deal with the problem of Athabasca not being able to afford a university administrative structure: They would use U of A’s administration instead, and the President of Athabasca would be demoted to Dean of the Faculty of Athabasca. Perhaps he wouldn’t prefer this as his first choice, but surely it’s better than going bankrupt and having to shut the place down?

    1. The University of Alberta, from the administration on down, views distance learning as inferior to professor in your face learning and is not all that sympathetic to arguments about either different learning styles or the life situations that make it impossible for many students to do all or part of their degree in a classroom setting. Before I started at AU in 1978, I taught as a sessional for two years at U of A. Everything I heard at U of A about AU was both contemptuous and wrong. Have things changed? Not much. Though the U of A also now uses distance learning to a degree, it does so in ways that correspond to professors’ schedules and union agreements and not students’ schedules and preferences. Athabasca University has developed an internal culture that is very student-focused and that focus is on students who are very different than U of A’s students. If AU were to be federated with another institution, MacEwan or Lethbridge would be a better fit. There’s nothing wrong with AU having a president but because AU is small, that president should not make 550 grand a year in salaries and benefits like our former president Frits Pannekoek did. Nor should she or he have a large travel budget. The pay should be like a dean’s pay in a conventional university (around 200 grand perhaps) and there should be no benefits beyond what a regular prof gets and the travel budget should be about $2000 a year, not 100 grand. There’s nothing wrong with small, purpose-built universities but they need an administrative structure and pay schedule at the top that reflects their being small.

    2. Using that argument, by extension, Grant MacEwan should be a faculty of the U of A, and Mmount Royal should be a faculty of the U of C. With those savings in consolidation of administrations, the government would have lots of money to support Athabasca University.

      Why stop there? Why not just have one big university and put the U of C as a satellite of the U of A. Oh wait, that used to be the case.

      There is a fundamental flaw to the idea of consolidation and merging. While it may work well in the private sector, for profit, it doesn’t hold up in academia. We could easily make the case the Athabasca University is so unique that it cannot and shouldn’t be merged or consolidated.

      Besides the only reason we are having this discussion is because of the incompetent leadership at AU for the past seven years, and the continual plundering by the PCs. Address those things and it will do quite well on its own.

      1. I agree – it is a ridiculous idea. It also piles admin on top of admin, and that is what we want to get away from.

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