Athabasca University documents suggest institution’s leadership remains out of sync with Alberta’s NDP government

Posted on June 16, 2016, 1:49 am
6 mins

PHOTOS: Athabasca University’s headquarters in the Town of Athabasca, 145 kilometres north of Edmonton. Below: Alberta Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt and AU Interim President Peter MacKinnon.

Two recently completed reviews springing from Athabasca University’s grim 2015 Task Force report on the institution’s clouded future suggest AU’s senior administration and board remain out of sync with the direction they have been given by the provincial government.

The Task Force, appointed in 2014 by AU Interim President Peter MacKinnon suggested the university could be insolvent by the current fiscal year. With a Progressive Conservative government still in power, it was expected AU would solve its controversial funding shortfall by slashing jobs.

marlinThe Business and Student Services Practices Process Review, dated June 10, 2016, and the Educational Review, dated April 2016, copies of which have been obtained by, are in theory designed to help the distance-education university in the northern Alberta Town of Athabasca move toward sustainability in a new era of NDP government.

They propose mainly incremental changes, some in conflict with directives given by Alberta’s new government.

Meanwhile, a motion of the Board of Governors at its meeting last Friday suggests Tory-appointed board members and the university’s senior administrators are not happy with the direction they have been given by the government.

A June 2 email to faculty and staff, moreover, indicates that the board, in which the government pretty clearly lacks confidence, has come up with a shortlist of three candidates for president.

Finally, there’s still no word on when the NDP government will appoint a new board chair – although a search officially commenced on March 25.

In other words, the troubled university continues to drift, with members of the AU community growing frustrated – some of them frustrated enough to quit – and wondering when the government is going to take measures necessary to ensure AU gets its house in order.

2407-PM-webThe Educational Review document contains relatively little of substance. The more significant Business Practices Review, which is said to have cost $300,000 to produce, projects savings of $3.4 million a year at the end of seven years (with an up-front cost of $1.6 million).

But such a saving may just be a consultant’s dream. Even if it is realized, it’s not really that big in the context of an institution with an annual budget of $130 million.

One recommendation calls for a move to “zero-based budgeting,” the sort of thing popular in conservative ideological circles but unlikely to yield the promised savings of just under $2 million a year since the institution must make long-term commitments to known numbers of students based on known costs.

The second largest promised saving, $1.2 million a year, comes from alternate service delivery for Information Technology. To those who have been following this story, this will sound familiar – because it would require contracting out the university’s IT staff. This is precisely what the government has told AU not to do.

It seems odd, to say the least, that AU would put forward such a plan when it is unlikely the government would allow it to act on it. Clearly, the parties are still not singing from the same hymnbook, notwithstanding the clear directions of the choirmaster, who now would be Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt.

Then again, as is illustrated by last Friday’s board motion, No. 211-05 on the linked document, board members appear to be at odds with the government’s instructions that they not use layoffs of staff and faculty to find savings, which the government has determined would have an economically devastating impact to the town of Athabasca, 145 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Early in the year, Mr. Schmidt instructed the university not to release its planned budget, which was then rumoured to include layoffs. Now that board has rolled out a report that, if implemented, would result in layoffs.

The Board motion also confirms earlier reports that the government wants a third-party to review the university’s operations – yet another strong indicator it lacks confidence in the university’s administration and board.

So where does this leave us? It seems we have a demoralized post-secondary institution with a murky future, led by officials who do not share the province’s vision, and a government reluctant to act decisively to resolve the institution’s problems – as they showed they could do just two days ago in albeit rather different circumstances in the case of the Agricultural Financial Services Corporation.

This is not a formula for success. Mr. Schmidt, the minister responsible, needs to cut the Gordian Knot!

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20 Comments to: Athabasca University documents suggest institution’s leadership remains out of sync with Alberta’s NDP government

  1. TENET

    June 16th, 2016

    The Lost University is surrounded by Boreal Forest, Oil and Gas exploration, potentially toxic effluent, solvents, fresh water depletion/dangers, -the Northern ecology, Wouldn’t it make sense to transition it so it focuses on the environment it is situated in?

    The U of A is bursting at its seems, so spin off a faculty, or two or three. Academia does not have to be buried in the deeps of the urban jungle. U of A&A?

  2. Athabascan

    June 16th, 2016

    All of the above is true. AU is a mess and continues to be so. Nothing will change until the board is dismissed and the top 4-6 administrators are dismissed.

    Costly and unnecessary projects continue to be funded and are protected by internal political maneuvering as if they were sacred cows. Any suggestion of shelving or cancelling them is met with hostility. Even at a time of dire financial exigency spending on vanity projects continue full speed ahead as they are championed by selfish individuals hell bent on self-glorification.
    You would think people at AU would band together to save the institution, but that is clearly not the case.
    Until a new direction is set with a new attitude and vision there is little hope AU can survive. It’s a very sad situation.

  3. anon

    June 16th, 2016

    The NDP has failed to recognize that under the PCs Alberta was not a democracy. Leaving the illegitimate appointees on the appointed boards and commissions in place just makes the NDP look as dirty and incompetent as the last bunch.

  4. Jane Arscott

    June 17th, 2016

    Your views about Athabasca University are wrong from beginning to end.

    Speaking at Convocation Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt said the government is committed to the university and its future.

    I invite you, David, to join AU graduates at the Multiplex on the university campus June 8, 9, and 10, 2017. Convocation is open to the public. ‘

    Jane Arscott, faculty, Athabasca University

    • David Climenhaga

      June 17th, 2016

      Dr. Arscott:

      I am always prepared to admit publicly that I was wrong if someone can show me that I am. But while you state that my views on AU are wrong from beginning to end, you refute only a statement that I have never made. Never, not once, have I said in anything I have written about AU that Marlin Schmidt is not committed to the university and its future. Moreover, I have reported that another government official, Athabasca MLA Colin Piquette, has similarly stated that he is committed to the future of the university.

      What I have said, and stand by on the basis of sound documentation and good sources, is:

      – That the President’s task force, formed in 2014 and reporting last year, projected the likelihood of insolvency by the current academic year.
      – That the university’s senior administration and board on one side and the government on the other have divergent views of the way the university should be run in the future.
      – That Mr.Schmidt has instructed the administration and board not to release its planned budget for the time being.
      – That the university’s financial difficulties are not simply the result of too-generous collective agreements with faculty and staff, as has been argued.
      – That the board of governors on some occasions has ignored directives from the government.
      – That many faculty and staff are are extremely unhappy with the direction of the university and deeply distrust the current administration.
      – That faculty members are particularly critical of the call-centre model of assisting AU students.
      – That the government is searching for a new board chair and possibly other board members, and that the view is widely held that the old board, appointed by a previous government and apparently not in sync with the current government, ought not to be choosing a new permanent president for the university.
      – That AU has considered moving staff to the Edmonton area, against opposition from faculty and staff.
      – That Athabasca U and the City of St. Albert engaged in secret negotiations about the location of some AU offices in that city.

      In every case where I have cited a university or city document, I have provided a link to a copy of the document in the blog. No one has ever suggested those documents are not the real McCoy. In the case of the St. Albert document, I was telephoned by the City Manager who confirmed voluntarily that it was genuine, which I already knew, and tried unsuccessfully to find out who had provided it to me. Naturally, there is room for disagreement about my interpretations of what a document means, but I am always careful to make the distinction between my opinions and the documentation on which they are based.

      Reporting this story has been difficult because the distrust of the board and administration among a large percentage of faculty and staff is so deep that they fear for their jobs if they speak publicly. I will not betray their confidences. But I remain absolutely confident that the facts I report are accurate and my interpretations of what they mean are reasonable and sound. If I have made a factual error, I will be happy to retract and correct it.


      • Jane Arscott

        June 21st, 2016

        Thank you for the clarification of the positions expressed in your blog, David.
        My responses follow.
        • In the absence of government involvement in discussions leading to modernization of the funding model for Athabasca University its financial position will erode further resulting in one or more deficit budgets. In the absence of such a renewal, insolvency would follow sooner or later.

        • Government-university relations evolve over time. This ebb and flow is natural and expected. My view is that the interim Administration has done a very good job of shifting discussions toward future sustainability, and a growing sense of shared purpose.

        • The university continues to work with government to produce a budget that will be satisfactory to both parties.

        • The Task Force Report emphasized the university’s lack of financial sustainability: current funding has yet to invest in IT as capital infrastructure, and to take into account the much smaller operating grant the university receives compared to other public postsecondary institutions. These components combined with a tuition freeze leave the university without the means to increase revenue, except through cost reductions, where and as possible.

        • The board of governors takes its fiduciary responsibilities very seriously, cooperating with government in its pursuit of the best interests of Athabasca University.

        • Individual members of the university community are entitled to their own personal views about the university. My view is that the current direction is in the best interests of the university. I am confident in the current administration, especially its commitment to transparency and accountability under the interim administration, are the hallmarks of open governance and open communication, that merit public support.

        • The model to be used in providing academic and administrative services to students has been devolved to the Faculties. Individuals are entitled to their own personal views about the merits and drawbacks of matters that pertain to its activities and personnel. My assessment of the situation is strongly positive, a view strengthened by the recent release of the Educational Review and Business and Administrative Processes Review.

        • The current processes of Board renewal follows procedures for the appointment and reappointment of Board members, the Board Chair, and the President. My preference is to see legislation and regulations guide decision-making and to see internal university policies, processes and procedures followed.

        • Athabasca University has four sites and a distributed work environment. The Minister of Advanced Education and the local MLA have been clear that Athabasca University will remain in the Athabasca.

        • Two office leases in the greater Edmonton area come due in 2020. This matter, including the possibility of relocating to St. Albert, has been outlined in the public part of the board of governors meetings, which I attend as an interested member of the public.

        I leave it to readers to decide whose account of events is the more credible.

    • Athabascan

      June 17th, 2016

      Shoddy argument based on emotional appeal. Not exactly what is expected from an academic. But then again, considering the institution you work at, and its low standards of academic rigour, that should surprise no one.

      You are emblematic of everything that is fundamentally flawed about AU. The wrong people in the wrong positions running a dysfunctional institution.

      • Alvin Finkel

        June 17th, 2016

        Athabascan, I strongly doubt that Dr. Arscott speaks for more than a tiny minority of faculty and staff at Athabasca University. On the whole the university faculty have the same standards of academic rigour as faculty in any other university. In any case, her comments avoid the issues raised by Dave’s research. No one doubts that Marlin Schmidt and the NDP government remain committed to Athabasca University’s future. The question is what that future will look like. In 1995, Dr. Dominique Abrioux, an internal candidate, was named president of the university. He fired a large chunk of the senior administration and did not replace them: as is often the case in organizations, the higher up you went the fewer the real duties that were performed but the higher the salaries and expenses that were incurred. Over the years what Dr. Abrioux undid returned. The university had no “risk management” department, but the Board insisted on creating one. Dr. Abrioux got rid of the university PR vice-presidency and largely left university promotion to word of mouth; enrolments grew like topsy. Now there is a huge PR department but enrolments do not grow. I think that the management and board of AU have demonstrated that they are incompetent and indeed are holdovers from the Tory period when cuts of staff who actually do the work while management expanded were the rage throughout government. Minister Schmidt would be quite justified in firing the Board and senior management and imposing a trusteeship with the power to properly investigate how the university should best be run and with what financial resources in order to fulfill its obligations to students. That would not be messing with academic freedom, at least no more than the current situation where the university is run by people who, in my view, have a corporatist view of universities rather than a view of universities as academic institutions run by all teaching and research staff with input from the rest of the staff as well as important input from students. There will always be a need for Athabasca University because, for many students who have to work or to raise kids or both, attending conventional universities and fitting one’s schedule into that of the professors, is not possible, at least not for a full degree. Without AU many Albertans and Canadians more generally who would not have been able to complete a degree have been able to do so. What’s needed is to save this university from the folks who have slid into power there and have made the place dysfunctional.

        • political ranger

          June 17th, 2016

          If one where to substitute the phrase “Athabasca University” with “Government of Alberta ministries” (or departments as they like to call them in these here parts) and the word “university” with “government” you would not find a better explanation of current problems in GOA and very useful advice for resolving them.

        • Jane Arscott

          June 17th, 2016

          Greetings Alvin,

          It’s nice to exchange views with a person whose name accompanies his views.

          I agree with you that Athabasca University makes a unique contribution to postsecondary education in Alberta, Canada, and beyond through its commitment to its mission of access to postsecondary education and the removal of barriers to quality education for all.

          As a professional historian you certainly have kept track of developments over the last twenty years. I’d be interested to hear from you your sense of what a university like Athabasca might achieve in the next twenty years, assuming, of course, that the leadership is committed to a clear and realistic vision of its future. By 2036 will open and online education be more or less important than it is now? What is the role of government in planning a postsecondary system that will thrive?

          Jane Arscott, faculty, Athabasca University

          • Athabascan

            June 17th, 2016

            Good one Jane! How about before we prognosticate 20 or 50 years into the future we concentrate on the next year or two first?

            There are people, including David, who are critical of AU, because they actually care.

            Fantasizing about unicorns twenty years from now won’t get anyone anywhere.

            Here’s a thought! Why don’t you go back and explain to all of David’s readers why he is so wrong about AU? This time make it factual.

  5. Jane Arscott

    June 20th, 2016

    Dear Athabascan,

    Those of us who attend Convocations know these celebrations are attended by children of the graduates. A remarkable number of children are born during their parents’ studies!

    A twenty-year timeframe invites us to see those children as the parents and peers or our future students.

    Twenty and fifty years from now Athabasca could be an internationally recognized lynchpin in a pan-Canadian postsecondary system. In such a future the reach of AU’s programs and credentials will extend well beyond provincial borders, amplifying Alberta’s commitment to world-class education. Quality, effectiveness, efficiency and innovations along with determination, perseverance and know-how contribute to the realization of that potential.

    Still located in Athabasca? Yes. Pre-eminent? Yes, but how?

    Imagine. Commit. Plan. Execute. Improve.

    Our own future students count on us to be there for them, now and in the future.

    • Athabascan

      June 22nd, 2016

      You can’t get to 20 years if you don’t address what is happening now. The next 1-2 years will be critical if you want to AU to be there in 20 years.

      Kudos for making another emotional appeal though. I was wondering how long it would take for someone to remind us about dear children.

      Projecting that far into the future (50 years? Good grief) takes away from the energy and intellect required to tackle the immediate problems.

  6. Peter

    June 22nd, 2016

    Can AU faculty, staff and community form an interest group to take the Alberta government (and perhaps other provincial governments whose citizens had benefited from AU’s provision of education and had contributed nothing to AU’s budget) and the federal government, perhaps to court for their failure to recognize AU’s contributions? The current funding model is fundamentally flawed, and it is the root cause for AU’s financial distress. Frankly, I see no gut or leadership in the current minister, nor those prior to him. They are all politicians.

  7. Athabascan

    June 23rd, 2016

    The root causes of AU’s financial distress are the last 2 presidents (incl. Peter thin-skinned McKinnon), and the Board of Governors (neocon cronies).

    Our current so-called leadership at AU seems more motivated by making war with staff members, and the NDP, who have made it very clear what needs to be done.

    I thank God the current minister is paying close attention to the goings on at AU. It’s been a long time coming.

    • Peter

      June 23rd, 2016

      No matter who is at the helm of AU and whoever is the minister, if the funding model remains unchanged, AU will be in a financial disadvantageous position in comparison with other PSEs in Alberta and for this AU’s potential cannot be fully realized. Paying attention to what is going on at AU is one thing, doing something proper is another. Doing something on the funding model (including classifying investment in ICT in education as capital one) is a litmus test on if the NDP government really cares about the future of AU and the roles AU has been playing in Albera’s PSE sector.

      By the way, the directives issued by the minister so far are not to the root cause yet— the underfunding of AU.

  8. Peter

    June 23rd, 2016

    let me propose an incremental Alberta government’s funding formula to Athabasca University:

    Total funding = A + B + C
    A = number of AU Alberta students on full time equivalent basis X one unit funding per Albertan students (undergraduate, graduate, etc.)
    B = number of AU non-Alberta student on full time equivalent basis X one unit funding per Albertan students X tuition & fees per non-Alberta student on full time equivalent basis/(divided by) an Albertan full time student annual individual consumption
    C = capital investment and specific funding initiatives.

    Part B can be from the Social Transfer from federal government. AU’s services to other provincial and territorial jurisdictions’ can be used as a lever by the Alberta government in its negotiation on transfer payment. Part B is missing now. Adding B to the funding decision making helps to recognize the contribution of non-Albertan students’ contributions to Alberta.

    One thing I heard is that Alberta’s Advanced Education does not use a formulaic approach in its distribution of funding to PSE institutions. In my opinion, the Advanced Education really needs to be advanced in its method of funding allocation.

    • Athabascan

      June 24th, 2016

      Ok, then, let me propose that we take another approach rather than inventing formulae and Power Point presentations with inane motivational slogans.

      Without top notch administrators, (including a proper university president), and a competent Board of Governors, any formulae will not help, because it won’t be executed properly, if at all.

      We need a president who humbles himself when the Minister for Post Secondary orders him to do a certain thing. What a thing to be proud for. Come to AU, our president doesn’t bow down to a democratically elected government.

      Peter, you are suggesting the equivalent of a paint job on a car to improve it. I’m suggesting we replace the driver first, because he and his minions are driving us toward a cliff. It’s a metaphor – can you guess who the driver is?

      Send more money is the answer? It’s more nuanced than that. As is, AU is doing a marvellous job of wasting cash at the behest of whom..? More money won’t change those nasty habits of making poor decisions. Nah, it’d be better to replace whomever is responsible for making poor choices.

      Let the new administration and board look at our situation with a fresh perspective and good motives.

      • Peter

        June 25th, 2016

        Athabascan, I agree with you that the leader of AU should be humble and taking a collegiate approach in the discharge of her/his duties. But that’s just the administration side. The flaw in the funding model does not resemble anything of painting a vehicle or a house. The funding model is the engine to a car. I was not asking for more money, I was asking for fair funding of a public funded educational institution.

        No matter what a fresh perspective a university administration may take, the flaw in the funding model has to be fixed for the sake of AU’s sustainability. You cannot ask a climber to summit the Everest with only half of the required amount of oxygen supply.

        • Athabascan

          June 26th, 2016

          Even if the funding issue was the root cause of AUs problems, you cannot increase funding to AU as long as this bunch of incompetents are in charge.

          They will simply waste it. As I have stated many times before, AU’s administration is pissing away money right now as we speak.

          Rather than money, the root cause is fundamentally those who are managing the money. You have a bad bunch at the helm, they must be replace first, before anything will improve.

          Once a competent and more honourable leadership is put in place, and they have shown they can be trusted, by all means take a look at the funding issue.


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