Athabasca U’s future seems brighter as Saskatchewan prof named to conduct sustainability review

Posted on January 19, 2017, 9:03 pm
7 mins

PHOTOS: The participants in this morning’s Athabasca University news conference in Edmonton. From left to right: Saskatchewan Professor Ken Coates, Athabasca University Board Chair Margaret Mrazek, Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt and AU President Neil Fassina. Below: A closer look at Mr. Schmidt’s new beard; newly appointed Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson; and cabinet troubleshooter Danielle Larivee.

Two things are abundantly clear after this morning’s news conference in Athabasca University’s Edmonton offices:

  1. Alberta’s NDP government is determined the perennially financially troubled distance education university will survive as a viable post-secondary institution
  2. Athabasca University’s headquarters and the bulk of its operations will remain in the town of Athabasca, about 130 kilometres north of Alberta’s capital city

Just how all this is to be done remains to be seen. Likewise, while it appears quite clear AU’s mandate as a distance-education and open learning institution will remain similar to what it is today, that too will have to wait for the outcome of the sustainability review that was the official reason for this morning’s announcement.

So, to get to the lead of this story, Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt, interim AU Board Chair Margaret Mrazek and recently installed AU President Neil Fassina got together on the same stage in downtown Edmonton’s Peace Hills Trust Building to announce the appointment of Dr. Ken Coates as the independent third-party reviewer who will try to figure out how the perpetually broke AU can be made sustainable.

Dr. Coates is the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

His mandate, which clearly comes directly from the government, is to review all AU’s financial and academic sustainability options after consulting with all sections of the university’s community – and that includes faculty, staff, unions, students and townspeople. Dr. Coates was categorical that he takes the consultation part of his mandate seriously.

For those of you have not followed the Athabasca saga until today, neither the location nor the survival of AU has been all that certain up to now, and could become murky again if the province’s government were to change.

Two years ago, a sustainability “task force” struck a year earlier by now departed AU president Peter MacKinnon issued a report that grimly stated, “based on our most reliable assumptions, we project the likelihood of insolvency in 2016-2017.”

That highly controversial report blamed collective agreements with AU’s unions for the severity of the institution’s financial problems, recommended admitting students only from Alberta and called for pulling all AU operations out of the Town of Athabasca.

The NDP government later told Mr. MacKinnon’s administration not to submit a proposed budget it had drafted that would have included staff and faculty layoffs. Six months ago, the university administration came up with a second draft budget that included a $3.3-million deficit and again forecast financial insolvency, this time by 2017-2018.

At this morning’s newser, Minister Schmidt – sporting a new reddish beard – was clear about the government’s mandate to the board, headed for the time being by Ms. Mrazek, and to the administration, led by Dr. Fassina, a former senior Northern Alberta Institute of Technology administrator.

“We have stressed to the board and administration that Athabasca University has to maintain a strong presence in the community,” he said. “I’ve made it very clear that our government wants to make sure that Athabasca University maintains a strong presence.”

Suggesting the government may have reached the conclusion the gloomy predictions in the previous task force report and budgets were overstated, Mr. Schmidt said the NDP is also committed to ensure adequate funds are in place to run the institution throughout Dr. Coates’s sustainability review. “We’ve made sure the money is there to keep the lights on, people working and students learning.”

Today’s developments will likely come as a relief to students currently enrolled in AU programs, many of whom have been understandably rattled by the stream of gloomy reports over the past couple of years.

Four months ago, the Alberta Government appointed five new members to the AU Board of Governors. However, the search continues for a permanent board chair to replace Ms. Mrazek, who was appointed by the Conservative government.

Danielle Larivee appears to have become Rachel Notley’s cabinet troubleshooter

Premier Rachel Notley carried out a small but significant cabinet shuffle yesterday, moving Danielle Larivee, a capable Registered Nurse who represents Lesser Slave Lake, from the ministry of municipal affairs to a new ministry of children’s services.

As municipal affairs minister, Ms. Larivee oversaw the government’s response to last spring’s devastating fire and evacuation of Fort McMurray, and as such is a logical choice to try to sort out serious problems in child services in Alberta that long predate the election of the NDP.

Irfan Sabir, widely perceived as having fumbled the government’s response to the death of a child in custody, remains minister of community and social services, part of his former responsibility in the too-large human services portfolio inherited by the NDP. He is MLA for Calgary-McCall.

Shaye Anderson, MLA for Leduc-Beaumont and possessor of what is probably the largest beard in Canadian politics, leastways at the senior government level, becomes minister of municipal affairs.

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12 Comments to: Athabasca U’s future seems brighter as Saskatchewan prof named to conduct sustainability review

  1. Athabascan

    January 20th, 2017

    In my opinion Dr. Coates’s sustainability review of Athabasca University is a sham from the get go.

    A man with little to no prior experience with the unique nature of AU’s distance education model is supposed to pinpoint the source of the problem and then recommend solutions in a mere 3 months? Good luck. That’s a task that has eluded many clever people over the last 5 years.

    Lack of experience and a tight time frame aside, there is also the obvious impediment posed by Coate’s own ideology about the role of universities which is totally incompatible with AU’s mission statement.

    I’d like to say it will be interesting to peruse Coate’s report when it is available, but I’m afraid it will simply be more ineffectual and boring tripe we’ve seen in the past.

    By the way, does anyone know how much Coate’s review is costing us? David, maybe you could find out?

  2. Sassy

    January 20th, 2017

    Danielle Larivee is going to be great as the new minister in child services. I think she’ll make the necessary changes and do it quickly. I wonder if some of the opposition parties are going to be sorry they clamored for an all-party review of child protection services. The Klein-initiated chronic overwork, lack of backup, burnout, etc. of the social work profession is going to be exposed and one solution will have to be more hiring. The opposition will have trouble complaining about some of these fixes which will require increased budgets. As well, the review committee meetings (or at least the first one) is open to the public so sabotaging the meetings for political gain won’t be an option.

  3. Trefusis

    January 20th, 2017

    I wonder when the leadership of Edmonton and Calgary will grow tired of the Notley government’s use of Municipal Affairs as the “good time, not a long time” post. Lord knows she is only following the Prentice and Redford governments. 7 cabinet ministers in 3 years does not scream high interest level.

  4. Michael Mauws

    January 25th, 2017

    While it’s true that MacKinnon’s Sustainability Report did draw lay some of the blame for AU’s troubles at the feet of its collective agreements, it is not true that it called for a withdrawal of AU’s operations from the Town of Athabasca. In fact, the only comment the report makes related to that has to do with difficulty recruiting IT professionals in Athabasca.

    • Michael Mauws

      January 26th, 2017

      I can’t comment on the report referred to in that link, Athabascan, other than to note that, if it does exist, it would appear that it only pertains to IT staff, not all of AU as is suggested in the article above. In any case, my comment pertained only to the Sustainability Report which, as I noted, made no mention of re-locating any of AU’s operations. And to be clear, I wasn’t staking out any sort of position with my comment. Instead, I was simply noting a factual error in the article above.

      • Athabascan

        January 27th, 2017

        Michael, It’s obvious to everyone, except you apparently, that you have indeed staked out a position.

        The fact remains that AU did make plans to relocate a large part of it’s operation from Athabasca to St Albert and do it secretly. They proceeded this way because they intended to relocate jobs.

        No one reading David’s current article, nor his previous articles is persuaded by your weak attempt to defend of the indefensible even when disguised as a so-called correction.

        • Michael Mauws

          January 27th, 2017

          I’m only interested in ensuring this discussion is based on facts, Athabascan. The article above states that the “report … called for pulling all AU operations out of the Town of Athabasca.” Until you or someone else directs me to the page on which this suggestion is made, I will continue to assert that there is a factual error in the article that ought to be corrected.

          • David Climenhaga

            January 28th, 2017

            I stand corrected by Mr. Mauws’s assertion that the Task Force report – found at – does not explicitly, specifically, unequivocally call for AU’s operations to be moved out of the Town of Athabasca. I would suggest, however, that this is picking a nit. The inference is unavoidably clear from the discussion of the problems with AU’s location on page 7 of the report that such a move was the recommendation and the wish of the Task Force authors. This is reinforced by the discussion of federating with another institution on page 17, plus the wealth of anecdotal and inferential evidence from other sources – including my scoop about the secret negotiations to create a St. Albert presence for AU. I was about to say a St. Alberta Campus, but perhaps that goes a step too far. Mr. Mauws, as a member of the board, would know better than me if that was indeed the plan. Perhaps next time I revisit this topic, instead of saying the Task Force “called for pulling the university out of town” I will say its report “laid the groundwork for pulling the university out of town.” One hopes that wording will be acceptable to Mr. Mauws. DJC

  5. Athabascan

    January 28th, 2017

    And there you have it folks!

    It’s come down to who do you believe? One is a highly respected and ethical journalist, and the other is… well, let’s be kind and just call him by name Michael Mauws.

    Insiders at Athabasca University and many in the town of Athabasca know all they need to know about this person, and his position(s).

  6. Bob

    April 14th, 2017

    Any update on the review?


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