Government asks Athabasca University to hold off on financial details; new minister to meet president

Posted on March 03, 2016, 1:39 am
7 mins

PHOTOS: A scene from Athabasca University’s 2015 Convocation ceremony, where the honorary degrees are handed out. Below: Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt, former AU Board chair and award recipient Barry Walker, AU President Peter MacKinnon, Wildrose Finance Critic and Tweeter Derek Fildebrandt, and Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark.

What’s shakin’ at Athabasca University? Something is, for sure.

Yesterday at lunch hour, Athabasca U interim President Peter MacKinnon emailed all staff members of the troubled distance-education university to tell them that earlier in the day he had received an “urgent request for a teleconference” from the assistant deputy minister of advanced education.

MarlinWhen he spoke with Peter Leclaire, Mr. MacKinnon said in the email, the senior civil servant requested, “and I have agreed, that AU hold off on sharing any budget details or communications until after a meeting I will be having with Minister Schmidt on March 10.”

In normal circumstances, it would hardly be unusual for newly appointed Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt to request a meeting with a public university’s president.

But these are not normal times for AU, which is facing financial difficulties so severe a task force appointed in 2014 by President MacKinnon suggested the university could become insolvent in the current fiscal year.

Nor is that the only controversy afflicting the university, what with plans to move some staff from the Town of Athabasca to the Edmonton area, secret negotiations with the City of St. Albert for office space, and the seeming defiance by the university’s board and administration of the NDP Government’s wishes.

barrywalkerLast month, another disagreement surfaced over whether to award the “Order of Athabasca University” to former Board Chair Barry Walker, a Tory appointee who led the board during the some of the years AU’s current difficulties were beginning. He was also chair at the time the University Secretary authorized illegal donations to the campaign of the local Progressive Conservative MLA.

When the AU Faculty Association on Feb. 18 passed a motion by 83 per cent opposing the award and asking the university’s awards committee to reverse the decision, it was brushed off by President MacKinnon in a sharply worded email. Accusing the faculty association of incivility, churlishness, and “innuendo and half truths,” Mr. MacKinnon reminded the association president that Mr. Walker is “one of the university’s largest individual donors.”

“I am disappointed that AUFA has decided, once again, to attempt to damage the reputation of AU (and to embarrass Mr. Walker) by making this issue public. I hope you will refrain from doing so in the future,” he concluded.

AthabascaMacKinnon-LAs this exchange makes clear, relationships between AU’s administration and faculty are now reaching a point that can be properly described as dysfunctional.

Even so, the government’s request to the president to hold off on budget details until after a meeting with a minister seems unusual.

This has naturally led to speculations that, out of patience and concerned about the economic future of the town 150 kilometres north of Edmonton where AU’s main facilities are still located, the government may be about to act. Options could include removing the board and replacing it with an appointed administrator.

Both the town and county of Athabasca have sent letters to the government expressing their grave concern about the future of the university.

Mr. MacKinnon has promised to inform employees and faculty of the outcome of his March 10 meeting with Mr. Schmidt.

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Wildrose finance critic don’t care about no stinkin’ social issues

DerekIt’s official! Wildrose Party Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt don’t care about no stinkin’ social issues! They’re just too boring.

Mr. Fildebrandt stirred up the Internet yesterday with his impatient retort to a mocking Tweet with the message he’s concentrating on important issues, and those don’t include social issues. “In all honesty, social issues didnt rank in the top 100 reasons I ran,” Mr. Fildebrandt snapped. “I find these debates stale.”

“Important issues” in the Wildrose lexicon, presumably means “lower taxes for corporations.”

I wonder what Wildrose Leader Brian Jean makes of his Shadow Minister of Finance channeling Donald Trump on the part of the party’s brand voters are least comfortable with?

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Now’s your chance to meet Alberta Party Leader … for only $20!

GregAnd what are we to make of Alberta Party Leader and sole MLA Greg Clark’s note offering constituents in his Calgary-Elbow Riding a chance to meet him and chat in a friendly Irish pub … if they’ll only buy a $20 ticket!

In fairness, Mr. Clark may have intended this communication to go to party supporters, not constituents. But find its way to constituents it did, and now they’re remarking on how they’ve never been asked to buy a ticket to meet their MLA before.

As one Calgary-Elbow resident told me: “I was going to go and hear what Clark had to say until I saw that it would cost me $20 for a ticket!”

Hey! Who said Alberta politicians never have any new ideas? And, what are theses constituents complaining about?  It’s not as if they weren’t offered two drink tickets!

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10 Comments to: Government asks Athabasca University to hold off on financial details; new minister to meet president

  1. Sam Gunsch

    March 3rd, 2016

    re: Derek Fildebrandt ‘Shadow Minister of Finance channeling Donald Trump ‘

    …there’s got to be someone to photoshop the Donald’s hair on Derek…gotta’ be.

  2. Athabascan

    March 3rd, 2016

    Dear Minister Schmidt,

    AU needs your help to prevent MacKinnon from laying off hard working AUFA academics and staff members. Please appoint a trustee to clean up the mess created by the executives and the Conservative appointed cronies on the Board of Governors.

    Alberta does not need more unemployment.

  3. March 3rd, 2016

    Not talking about social issues is taking a position on those issues (i.e., they are unimportant and the status quo shall prevail). Whether that is winning strategy is a rapidly urbanizing and diversifying province is an interesting question. A list of the 100 issues he considers more important would be interesting… .

  4. March 4th, 2016

    I’ve never understood why we need so many universities in Alberta. I think just having one in Edmonton would be enough. With the shortfall in cash it seems only reasonable to prune the number of universities in Alberta and concentrate on financing places like NAIT. While I feel sorry for the staff at Athabasca University my feeling is that the time has come to be realistic and reduce costs; if this means closing a few universities, so be it.

    What sort of return do we get from all these universities (value for our money)? I would say only the University of Alberta offers some value. Even at the University of Alberta there needs to be cuts and streamlining of services. There are far too many folks at the top who get high salaries for very little deliverables.

    Universities are making up for the shortfall in revenues by recruiting abroad. This seems rather opportunistic–milking other countries for their best and brightest for the most tuition bucks.

    The emphasis on foreign student recruitment is detrimental to domestic student education as well. I know that the universities do this recruitment to finance their staff— but it’s not a good way to finance universities.

    Why would we have universities in Alberta– educating foreign students at top dollar amounts? Many of these students could train at their own universities while we develop a smaller campus at the University of Alberta that provides quality education for our own students. The bigger is better business and the more universities we can get movement is not productive, costs the taxpayer way too much and what for?

    NAIT provides much better value for the taxpayer buck.

    University is not always superior to NAIT and SAIT. There should be a sorting of students into the streams that suit them best. Many university students acquire an educational mortgage for not much benefit or financial returns. It’s a cachet thing rather than a productive educational decision.

    • Athabascan

      March 5th, 2016


      You don’t think the University of Calgary is useful? Spoken like a true redneck. I guess according to you Alberta only needs tradespeople trained at NAIT? What of SAIT?

      Universities are not factories, the return on investment are nearly impossible to quantify. One thing is certain universities serve the public interest. To deal with them as if they were wiener factories Is a simplistic and short-sighted error.

  5. Alvin Finkel

    March 5th, 2016

    I agree with “Athabascan.” In 1995, the new president of the university, Dominique Abrioux, trimmed the size of the management at the university and reduced the administrative costs from a whopping 24 percent to 13 percent. It allowed the university to recreate positions lost in the Klein cuts and to have a quite positive atmosphere for a decade. Abrioux accepted that AU is a lot smaller than other universities and that having every V-P, Associate V-P, Assistant to the Associate VP, Dean, Associate Dean, etc. position that big universities have (and even they have too many of these rug-ranking positions) was harmful to AU’s development. But since then the university presidents seem to have returned to the position that your status as a president is related to how many senior administrators you can put around a table. And the university has built up bureaucracies in risk management (an area that didn’t exist before about 2005 and is a silly copying of the private sector in a small public institution), and fund-raising while also wasting money to give contracts to outside companies in the IT area when the expertise to do the work exists inside the institution. Very sad because there are lots of dedicated academics, professionals, and support staff at AU and the institution is very much needed by students who have to be in the work force, or who are raising kids, who live in the boonies and can’t afford to attend a conventional university, or whose learning style makes classroom education, which works for many people, somewhat useless.

  6. Athabascan

    March 5th, 2016

    Thank you Alvin,

    I just hope Schmidt doesn’t get conned by MacKinnon’s BS. What we need is someone like yourself to advise the government on the state of AU.

    While the Minister’s meeting with MacKinnon is unfortunately necessary, I doubt the truth will emerge as a result for the simple reason that MacKinnon himself is the problem.

    The best option is to appoint a government trustee immediately, replace the Board of Governors, and get rid of the president ASAP. Then, the government appointee can take his time to figure out WTF is going on at AU, before making much needed changes to preserve jobs and the institution itself.

  7. Chris

    March 6th, 2016

    Only $20 to meet Greg Clark? What a bargain! I takes anywhere from $250 to $10,000 to meet with Rachel Notley.

  8. March 7th, 2016

    David C should get all the “correct” facts before writing his articles…seems his inside AU source is lopsided.

    • Athbascan

      March 8th, 2016

      Instead of engaging in ad hominem attacks, which the president of AU (MacKinnon) is so famous for, why don’t you join the grown-ups and support your claim with an example of where David’s facts are incorrect?

      Otherwise, go sit at the children’s table and pay attention.


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