PHOTOS: University of Saskatchewan Professor Ken Coates, author of the independent review of Athabasca University released last week. Below: Athabasca U President Neil Fassina, AU Board Chair Vivian Manasc, and Alberta Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt.

Recent news reports about the continuing woes of Athabasca University and in particular coverage last week of Professor Ken Coates’s independent third-party review of the troubled distance-learning institution could leave a reader feeling dizzy.

The University of Saskatchewan public policy professor’s anxiously awaited “independent third-party review,” commissioned by Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt five months ago, reminds one of Charles Dickens’ famous depiction of Paris in throes of the French Revolution … It’s as if for AU, like Paris in the Terror, it’s the best of times and the worst of times!

Dr. Coates, Alberta’s NDP Government, the university’s new president, and its even newer board chair, by the sound of it, all want the public and potential students to think this is AU’s the spring of hope.

“The president exudes confidence in the university’s workforce when he talks about the changes to come,” said the university’s press release last Thursday, when the report was released in the Town of Athabasca, 140 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Dr. Neil Fassina, appointed to the job late last year, “says planning to implement the report’s recommendations will start ‘immediately,’” the release burbled. At the news conference, Dr. Fassina described the review as “unbelievably optimistic.”

“The university administration and president will have the board’s full support as they implement the recommendations in the report,” the release quoted Board Chair Vivian Manasc cheerfully pitching in.

Barely two weeks ago, Dr. Fassina was touting the university’s emergence from deficit to a budgetary surplus.

Meanwhile, media reporters who glanced through Dr. Coates’s 72-page review or even just skimmed the press release, glommed onto the bit about the winter of despair.

Postmedia’s Edmonton Sun-Journal emphasized Dr. Coates’s apocalyptic prediction that “a dangerous and potentially unstoppable spiral awaits if major steps are not taken this fiscal year.”

Global News chose the same quote from the conclusion of Dr. Coates report, editing it to remove the professor’s qualification the apocalypse is merely a potential one.

For anyone who has been following the recent travails of Athabasca U, the theme of Apocalypse Now, or at least very soon, is familiar. It’s been a key part of the university’s “death spiral” messaging to internal audiences for at least five years as administrators try to persuade faculty, unionized employees and concerned citizens of the Town of Athabasca to accept the changes it wants to make.

These changes include layoffs, rollbacks, programs closing and the movement of substantial numbers of administrative and technical jobs from Athabasca to the Edmonton area, as in last year’s leaked plan to move some operations to suburban St. Albert.

In reality, there is precious little evidence the university is in a death spiral – unless, at least, the Alberta government decides it is, now or in the future.

Meanwhile, in messaging to potential students and academic partners, the university administration has been anxious to convey stability, optimism and business as usual.

With the developments of the past few months – and now with publication of Dr. Coates’s report – it would seem the contradictory messaging streams have crossed and created a weirdly Dickensian mash-up in which AU is at once going direct to Heaven and going direct the other way.

Dr. Coates’s report recommends an extremely aggressive, ambitious and rapid reorientation of AU’s focus to providing post-secondary education to rural, northern and Indigenous students.

Something like this may indeed be necessary for the long-term survival of the university – once a leader in distance education that has been overtaken by technological change (to wit, the Internet) bringing many other traditionally structured universities into the former specialty field.

But if as seems likely this involves dropping courses and eliminating programs, especially if AU has to come up with a plan within a single year as Dr. Coates is proposing, the word is bound to leak out quickly, reinforcing the death-spiral narrative in public.

Since Dr. Coates has included in his plan the removal of substantial university assets including most of the best professional and academic jobs from the Town of Athabasca, where the economy depends heavily on AU, this is bound to present both the NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley and the conservative Opposition with a political time bomb.

Remember, the university is now located in a rural NDP riding the government wants desperately to hang onto. That makes keeping AU alive and in Athabasca a likely political necessity for the government.

If the province sticks to the plan in its preliminary redistribution of electoral districts to shift the town into Opposition Leader Brian Jean’s Fort McMurray area riding, the conservative Opposition will find itself in exactly the same position.

Athabasca townspeople, of course, are not fools, and will soon figure out what is being proposed on page 38 of the report when Dr. Coates blithely calls for the office of the president and other senior administrators to relocate to the Edmonton region. Expect serious political blowback.

Likewise, AU’s unions are not going to roll over and agree to Dr. Coates’s suggestion they immediately negotiate new contracts to replace agreements that, he opines,  “can limit institutional flexibility responsiveness.”

Just a guess here, but I very much doubt AU’s unions will agree with Dr. Coates’s assessment on pages 35 and 36 of his report that their hard-won collective agreements “reflect institutional priorities and values from the past and are not necessarily well-suited to present and future needs.”

Indeed, I think readers can count on it that they will argue their collective agreements are not the problem at all, but that under-funding and chronic bad management over several years are at the root of AU’s problems.

This presents more of a political problem to the NDP than the anti-union Wildrose and PC parties, I grant you, but it’s the NDP that’s the government in 2017.

On page 40 of his report, Dr. Coates calls for the Government of Alberta to commit to an additional two years of financing so AU can implement a new strategy, and then, “if a plan acceptable to the government is not forthcoming, to wind down operations.”

Sorry, but with an election looming in 2019, winding down the university is not in the cards.

The story of Athabasca University has been a political story from Day 1 in 1970. It’s very hard to imagine that Dr. Coates’s report represents anything like the last chapter in that saga.

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  1. My daughter-in-law has been taking wonderful courses from AU for several years now. Because we live in a remote town in the NWT it is her only chance of getting a degree. It is a wonderful institution and needs some pr I think to sell it as the great distance learning institution it is.

    1. Great for your daughter Anne. However, you should know that AU is not her “…only chance of getting a degree.”

      There are many fine reputable universities throughout Canada where she could study at a distance to pursue her degree.

      My hope is that AU will be around long enough for your daughter to finish her degree. Hopefully, she can transfer her AU credits to another university, if that happens. Make sure you do your research since not all universities will accept some AU course credits.

      1. Of course AU is going to be around and many of it’s courses are transferable. It’s an accredited institution.
        Also, an Athabascan.

        1. Most universities in Canada are “accredited” in one way or another. That does not mean all of their credits are transferable between universities. This is especially the case with AU. Remember, there are no laws that compels another university to accept AU credits.

  2. This whole report was a setup to give the Minister and excuse to fund the University. Moving some stuff the Edmonton and maybe closing Calgary are do-able actions. The rest is too nebulous to be put into concrete action. Neil and the Minster will have a to do a good selling job, and get buy-in. Yet hiding this report for the past month giving them time to control the messaging may have tarnished the good will built up by the President.

    I would suggest to the executive that when pointing a finger at the Unions there are four fingers pointing back at you.

    1. Sorry Liam, but you are wrong!

      The report is a setup to justify the incompetence of AU’s senior executives. The government doesn’t need an excuse to fund universities. They fund universities regardless. It’s not like the NDP is showering AU with one time massive gifts (sorry, grants).

      1. Wrong implies we are both looking at factual issues – your commentary is opinion – I am not wrong. The statement about it being an excuse comes from a direct statement said by someone at AU therefore a factual piece.

  3. Bottom Line?

    Because of political considerations (2019 election), the government will tread water with respect to Athabasca University. The same incompetent senior executives will keep their jobs and continue to stumble in the darkness. AU’s seemingly endless parade of third-party consultant “reports” will continue. It’s only a matter of time before another dim bulb masquerading as a sage suggests that, “… what we need is a study leading to a report from some guy I know…”

    Meanwhile, the brain trust at AU will continue to cry wolf by claiming financial ruin, or impending financial ruin, blaming it all on greedy unions, all the while posting surpluses. The latest one 2016/17 is $2.3 million. That wouldn’t be so bad, except that a year of so ago they projected a deficit of about the same amount. Financial forecasting at AU seems to have more to do with politics than actual accounting.

    I guess we’ll see what happens in 2019. In the meantime, other better universities, are hiring better senior executives, and are kept busy stealing AU’s lunch. Expect the financial wizards at AU to sound the alarm about insolvency a few more times between now and the next election.

  4. Look, the problem at AU as with every other university in Canada to a greater or lesser extent is way way way too much upper level bureaucracy making poor financial decisions while getting paid way too much to do it.

    1. Agreed.

      And, in comparison to other universities in Canada, AU’s ratio of senior bureaucrats to staff members is at the extreme of that spectrum for an institution of its size.

  5. Note that the Full Load Equivalent student number at Athabasca University has been increased from 5919 in 2006/07 to 8469 in 2015/16 while the total number of employees had been decreased from 1226 to 1163 for the same time period studied in the third party report. Examined further, academic staff members (full time and part time academic members and tutors) changed from 642 in 2006/07 to 573 in 2015/16. It’s case of 11% reduction in front line staff versus 43% increase in students served. Compared with University of Lethbridge, Athabasca serves more students while only receives about 45% of the operation grant does Lethbridge. Athabasca University has been ill treated and continues to be. The province and the public have to make a decision if Athabasca University should be properly funded to serve the group of students who are less privileged than their peers at other institutions in Alberta.

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