PHOTOS: Athabasca University’s administrative building, just outside the Town of Athabasca, about 150 kilometres north of Edmonton, as seen from the air. Below: Alberta Advanced Education Minister Lori Sigurdson, interim Athabasca University President Peter MacKinnon and interim AU Board of Governors Chair Margaret Mrazek.

The Notley Government, clearly aware of the serious problems faced by Athabasca University and anxious to find a way to save the foundering distance-learning institution, has ordered the school’s board and administration, in effect, to straighten up and fly right.

In response, the financially troubled public university’s Tory-appointed and dominated Board of Governors seems to have defied Advanced Education Minister Lori Sigurdson and, on at least one key point, done the opposite of her bluntly worded instructions.

Sigurdson Judging from the decisions by the AU board and administration to overrule their own authorized bargaining team and reject a letter of understanding agreed to in negotiations with the Athabasca University Faculty Association, as well as to cut union representatives from the presidential search committee, it looks as if AU officials have no intention of paying attention to the government’s wishes.

Ms. Sigurdson’s instructions to the university were contained in an Oct. 7 letter to interim board Chair Margaret Mrazek, who is a former president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Ms. Mrazek, a lawyer and former nurse, also continues to serve on the Alberta Government’s Seniors Advisory Council and is a director of the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. Sigurdson’s letter, a copy of which has been obtained by, made reference to a meeting on Sept. 21 between government and AU officials to discuss the report of the university’s Presidential Task Force on Sustainability.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that the grimly worded report, requested in 2014 by interim AU President Peter MacKinnon, asserted forcefully – though not necessarily persuasively – that “based on our most reliable assumptions, we project the likelihood of insolvency in 2016/2017.”

MacKinnonIn addition to predicting AU’s imminent insolvency, task force recommendations included admitting only students from Alberta and pulling all operations out of the Town of Athabasca, which would be an economic disaster for the community and a political catastrophe for whatever government allowed it to happen.

The task force report blamed collective agreements negotiated with the university’s unions – with no mention of irresponsible management by past administrations – for AU’s current financial predicament. It demanded major takeaways from employees, especially faculty members.

In her letter to the board’s chair, Ms. Sigurdson described her meeting with university officials as productive, but went on to state: “I would like to reiterate what is required as the next steps from Athabasca University.”

Ms. Sigurdson set out five specific instructions for the AU board:

  • Review AU’s institutional mandate and identify a “sustainable role” for the university
  • Explore “partnership options” with other Alberta post-secondary institutions, with costs analyzed
  • Provide details of how AU will increase efficiency and effectiveness, and explain how the university will be made sustainable
  • Provide details of how AU will work “more collaboratively” with faculty and staff while ensuring student and community concerns are considered
  • Provide an update on AU’s ongoing search for a permanent president

The board was instructed to provide the minister with its response by Dec. 1, 2015.

MrazekWhile it is known the board did provide a formal response on time, a copy of that document has not yet found its way into your blogger’s hands.

Clearly, though, one part of the board’s response was the decision it made on only a week after the minister’s letter, on Oct. 14, to adopt a new presidential search policy that dropped faculty and staff union representatives from the search committee.

The old policy, dating to 2013 and seen here and here, required representatives on the search committee from the faculty association as well as units represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

The change obviously flew in the face of Ms. Sigurdson’s specific instruction to Ms. Mrazek that the university “work more collaboratively with faculty and staff on sustainability issues” – unless, of course, the board doesn’t think finding a new president is a sustainability issue.

With the university in open revolt and its immediate future in question, the search for a president to replace Mr. MacKinnon – a former University of Saskatchewan president and law dean who was appointed temporarily when the last search failed to come up with an appropriate candidate – is again turning out to be a problem.

As for negotiations with the faculty association, the board undercut its own negotiating team in December when it refused to vote on the memorandum of agreement, which both negotiating committees had accepted in bargaining. Association members by then had ratified the deal. The board’s problem was with a proposal from the board bargaining team to change how the university paid out relocation payments.

The decision of the board not to vote on the MOA it had already agreed to meets the normal labour relations definition of bargaining in bad faith. However, because the faculty association is forced to bargain under the Post-Secondary Learning Act it has no recourse to adjudication by the Alberta Labour Relations Board.

Other parts of the Post-Secondary Learning Act, however, may now offer the provincial government the only options for resolving the crisis at AU, which the university’s board and administration now seem incapable or disinclined to address.

Section 99 of the Act gives the government the power to appoint an investigator with the authority to examine the financial and administrative condition of the board or any other matter connected with its operation.

Section 100 gives the government the power to fire the board and replace it with a single administrator.

Given the continuing crisis at Athabasca University, the government may have no choice but to take the actions permitted under Sections 99 and 100 if the institution is to survive.

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  1. I’m a big fan of Lori Sigurdson, and usually agree with most of your positions Dave. However, I question your logic in the first part of this post. You suggest the changes in the search committee were somehow malevolent and contrary to the Minister’s directions. Obviously the existing search committee couldn’t find a suitable candidate. Is it possible that the committee was the problem?

    1. A more likely explanation for the “failed search” (as it was called at the time) is that no one wanted the job. There were several impressive and qualified candidates and yet no one took the job. This is understandable given the state of the leadership at AU and the antics of board over the last 5 and more years….sadly, the antics continue to this day.

      1. I’m not so sure it was a “failed search.” The Board hired the perfect front-man to advance their agenda. MacKinnon’s pro-corporatist, anti-academic, and anti-union views and actions are well known and publicized. He even wrote a book about his dystopian vision of how universities ought to be transformed. That is why the U of S was so happy to be rid of him.

        He was hired on an interim basis – but now he is reluctant to leave, and his BOG overloads aren’t in a hurry to see their “boy” leave either.

        1. Yes but after he left the U of S had an even bigger disaster with Ilene Busch-Vishniac and the TransformUs agenda that was essentially lifted from the way the U of A was run with its Vision 2020.

  2. My daughter-in-law lives in the NWT and takes wonderful courses from Athabasca U. What a shame if this great institution comes apart.

  3. Another proof, in any more were needed, that regardless of the policy direction of the new NDP gov’t, unless and until the majority of the PC deadwood and garbage is cleared away, nothing but the same foolish Klien nonsense will prevail.

  4. Please note that, contrary to your assertion above, leaving Athabasca is not among the four options identified in the Sustainability Report. The source of this error may be attributable to articles in Athabasca’s local newspaper which, despite being notified of its mistake, has not publicly acknowledged it.

    1. AU isn’t planning of moving out of Athabasca? Yeah right.

      I guess that’s why nearly 900 people from the Athabasca area signed a petition in November pleading with Sigurdson to prevent AU from moving out of Athabasca.

  5. “Provide details of how AU will increase efficiency and effectiveness, and explain how the university will be made sustainable”

    Ms. Sigurdson’s request to increase ‘efficiency and effectiveness’ could be met, at least partially, by converting AU’s infrastructure to use Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). The internet itself was built using mostly FOSS, so it makes sense that a distance learning university be based on the same type of infrastructure. Converting to FOSS would mean that proprietary licensing and support costs could be eliminated, possibly saving loads of dough, in addition to improving the stability and security of AU’s infrastructure amongst many other benefits.

    Most universities use FOSS to some degree – including the UoA and the UoC, which would provide AU with many ‘natural’ collaboration points.

    Just some thoughts. AU is a great idea with lots of potential. It would be a shame to see it destroyed by ideological political squabbling.

  6. Athabasca University has been in a state of crisis for a number of years now. Each year gets worse, and each year the obvious solution is either ignored or overlooked. I don’t even want to speculate on why nothing has been done to date.

    The first problem is rooted in the fact the Board of Governors is populated by Conservative cronies. They need to be replaced with members who are motivated by more than anti-worker animus, and who value post-secondary education.

    The second problem are the executives who run the university. We are still in need of a permanent President, and not an interim placeholder. The search for a new president has been slow, and perhaps even stalled. Again, for what reason I do not know.

    The government needs to get involved and clean up the mess ASAP, before this gang run the place into the ground. Don’t wait until after the fact. Being proactive will save money and a lot a grief.

  7. AU is efficient and effective. It provides education to students at a cost far below what a big box university can provide. The problem is, the funding formula that the Tory’s used doesn’t take into account the reality that many AU students are from out of province. As I understand it, AU doesn’t get government funding for students that do not live in Alberta. This puts it at a decide disadvantage despite its progressive and efficient model. A single change in the funding formula that the government uses would solve AU’s financial problems overnight.

    Also, there is a need for an independent investigation. There is a suspicion of executive and board jiggery pokery over the last decade–bad decisions, wasted money, and maybe a deliberate attempt to kill off AU. Maybe the board wants to scuttle the university. Certainly that would reduce the possibility that their actions would ever be subject to independent investigation.

    1. Accreditation should be rescinded when the programs of an institution are insufficiently rigorous or the faculty are insufficiently qualified. I can assure you that that is not the case with Athabasca University. Students get excellent service from faculty, tutors, and staff. The university’s programs are highly regarded. That might be regarded as a self-serving claim from a faculty member but I am retired and not dependent on Athabasca University for a penny of income (my pension comes from the Alberta faculties’ pension plan and would continue even if AU were to collapse). As my other comment on this page suggest, the university wastes a great deal of money on a nonsensical management system that tries to ape bigger institutions. That needs to be fixed but the university’s grant per student is far below that of other universities. Also note that as a distance university AU spends almost nothing on building edifices or maintaining them. Strangely, the province separates capital spending from operational spending rather than combining the two which would demonstrate what an economical option AU is for the government.

  8. I taught at AU for 36 years and served on its Governing Council (what the Board of Governors was called at the time) for six years in the 1980s and 1990s. I retired in 2014. The Tory hacks appointed by the province were always a problem and ignored what they heard from staff. Fortunately, the Auditor-General released a report in 1994 that largely vindicated staff concerns about a management structure that mimicked larger universities. The Board did respond appropriately: the president was removed and the new president, Dominique Abrioux, streamlined our operations beautifully. Gradually however, with support of the Board and Abrioux’s successors, the university went back to its old “fancy management titles” envy of bigger institutions and also began contracting out lots of its IT work that could have been handled inside the institution. Lori Sigurdson’s suggestions for improvement of this sinking ship were excellent and it is depressing that the egos of the management and the hostility of the Tory-appointed Board to the new government are combining to kaibosh all change. Like David Climenhaga, I would urge the government to take the extreme measures available to it in order to remove the authority of the current president and Board. They appear to be incorrigible. I don’t know how the university can survive if it continues to ignore the views of most of its staff to the extent that has now become routine. But I do agree with Anonymoose that the funding model which Mr. Klein imposed on the university–not very nice of him given that we let him get away with plagiarism–discriminates against our students (including the NWT student mentioned by a poster, for whom the university would not get one red cent from the government) and needs to be revisited.

    1. The move at AU to a bicameral governance system a few years back was due to the needs of the PSLA. I remember sitting at those discussions. Yes I agree AU is a different style of university that may need a very different governance structure. However, currently our system does differentiate the authority between academic issues and temporal issues. The latter is quite an extensive authority. I remember talking to the former Provost of UBC who opined that he was a amazed at the extensive authority of a BOG. Maybe therein lies the problem is too much power is centralized? The oversight of that authority is the purview of the Minister.

  9. I can only speak for myself, but I believe front line staff and faculty are chomping at the bit to move forward and leave the negative garbage behind. We have made sacrifices in the past, I think many of us are prepared to make further sacrifices for AU if that’s what it takes. Wouldn’t it be great to feel like a team going into 2016?

    Every single day I feel like AU provides something valuable to students. AU leaders, be part of the solution. Please.

  10. This is just an micro-example of what’s happening in universities across Canada. Too much administration and right-wing pro-business nonsense that costs a lot and brings only very dubious benefits. Students get higher tuition and receive less for more (in what other area would this be acceptable?). Salaries for front line staff, faculty and TA/RAs are stagnant.

  11. Leaders require the consent (and, ideally, support) of those they lead. AU’s leaders have spectacularly failed to gain this.

    For example, the 2015 Presidential Taskforce on Sustainability was handpicked, met in secret, largely ignored the many suggestions of staff, and issued a widely reviled report that blamed the staff for the institution’s problems.

    That built upon the 2012 leadership triumph of the Board saying everything is financially fine (in the face of clear evidence the ship was sinking) and then, a year, later getting rid of (roughly) 1 in 7 full-time staff (via layoffs, buyouts and unfilled vacancies).

    Not surprisingly, the last (late 2014) staff climate survey showed only 24% of staff have confidence in senior leadership. It is a shame that an institution that does such good work is so poorly led.

    The solution for AU starts with sacking the Board (who have had more than 5 years to turn the institution around and have failed) and cleaning house among the executive (basically everyone above the level of dean and director should go).

    AU needs more than that to move forward—a clear mandate and plausible level of funding would help—but there is just no way forward with a Board and admin that the staff don’t trust (for very good reasons).

    1. Thanks for reminding us of this, Bob.. here is a quote from Barry Walker, Chair of the BOG at the time: Board chair Barry Walker, an Edmonton accountant, said the board is fully behind Pannekoek. He denies the university is in any financial distress. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “We are in a very sound financial position.” The people receiving the highest levels of compensation (we will call them ‘leaders’) are part of the problem. Look at the senior management we’ve either lost to the machinations of a toxic executive team, or the ones who will quietly leave of their own accord rather than spend additional years beating their heads against a wall. Yes we have a retention problem, and it stems from the so-called top of the organization. And how is that presidential search going? What a wretched bunch, surely this is not simply incompetence. Saboteurs?

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