Bound for B.C.: Athabasca University President Neil Fassina (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Neil Fassina is about to leave his job as president of Athabasca University to lead a small public college in Kelowna, B.C.

Two weeks ago, Okanagan College announced in a press release that Dr. Fassina would be taking over as president of the 8,500-student institution on April 1, 2021.

The front entrance of Athabasca U in the town of Athabasca (Photo: Stephen Addison, Wikimedia).

“As a family who appreciates the outdoors, wake surfing, wine country, fishing, and running, my entire family is looking forward to settling in,” Dr. Fassina was quoted saying in the news release. Perhaps that will make up for the dramatic cut in pay Dr. Fassina will likely be taking after he gives up his $489,685 salary at AU. In 2018, at any rate, OC paid its retiring president $229,198.

Dr. Fassina, previously provost, academic vice-president and business school dean of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton, took over as president of the 50-year-old distance education university nominally based in the town of Athabasca, 150 kilometres north of Edmonton, in October 2016.

But while faculty and staff at Athabasca U were told of Dr. Fassina’s plans, amid all the recent political and medical news the announcement of his departure for the Okanagan Valley was barely noticed in Alberta.

Dr. Margaret Edwards, outgoing dean of Athabasca University’s Faculty of Health Discipline (Photo: Canadian Nurses Association).

Less than six months ago, Dr. Fassina appeared to be the poster boy for Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides’ 10-year plan to transform Alberta’s post-secondary education system. This came after years of financial insecurity at Athabasca U and deep angst about a distance-education mission that seemed to have been made redundant by the Internet.

In 2018, Dr. Fassina had been appointed to chair the Council of Post-Secondary Presidents of Alberta, representing the province’s 26 post-secondary presidents in their dealings with the provincial government.

While he was in the middle of a major restructuring at AU and the institution’s relationship with the Athabasca University Faculty Association was fraught, the distance university seemed ideally placed after years of financial challenges to take advantage of the global coronavirus pandemic that is hitting conventional post-secondary institutions hard.

But a plan to exclude approximately two thirds of the AUFA’s current members from the association, leaving only professors with research duties, resulted in strong push-back by the association. The AUFA received boycott pledges from other faculty associations, which had the potential to reduce the numbers of visiting students and even end recognition of transfer credits from AU.

AU Academic VP Dr. Matthew Prineas (Photo: Athabasca University).

Whatever caused him to make the decision to leave for B.C., Dr. Fassina told faculty recently that while he had several reasons for his departure, they didn’t include faculty discontent, upcoming government decisions about post-secondary education, or any pressure for him to leave.

Meanwhile, Dr. Margaret Edwards appears to have been reassigned from her job as dean of AU’s Faculty of Health Disciplines by Academic Vice-President Matthew Prineas.

In a memorandum to staff, Dr. Prineas said, “After lengthy deliberations, I have decided to make a change in the Dean for the Faculty of Health Discipline position. Effective immediately, Dr. Margaret Edwards will not be serving as Dean of the Faculty of Health Discipline.

“Dr. Edwards holds her academic appointment and will be returning to her tenured Professor, Nursing and Health Studies role, in due time,” the memo continued. “I want to emphasize that this is in no way a reflection on the abilities of Dr. Edwards. I thank Dr. Edwards for her ongoing dedicated service and support to me, and her strong leadership, commitment, and service to the Faculty and the University at large.”

Dr. Prineas said in the memo an interim dean would be appointed and a search for a new dean would commence immediately. “Thank you for your patience and support through these transitions.”

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    1. Good question. I don’t think many of the administrators do, if any, and not many of the faculty either. Staff is another story, and the institution thereby makes a significant contribution to the town economy. DJC

      1. The institution does indeed contribute to the town’s economy. But then, that’s one of the reason it was moved from Edmonton to Athabasca in 1984 under the guise of decentralization by they provincial government. More likely it was moved as a vote buying scheme.

        Nonetheless, the town has benefited ever since. Let’s call it collateral benefit.

  1. Isn’t the most dangerous kind of autocracy the one that looks like a democracy on the outside?

    Instead of rounding up academics, just kick the feet out from under them by destroying the foundation on which they stand. Remove the funding. Erode the structure of institutions. Voilà, done. Those who spread knowledge are the greatest danger to those who spread lies, chaos and confusion. The brain drain from Alberta is well under way.

    1. I’ve passed through and visited friends in the Comox Valley (East Coast Big Island of Vancouver) for over 45 years, and lived here for almost 35 years. I can tell you that since Westjet started a regular flight from Comox to Calgary, many Albertans have come to visit, and many have retired here.

      It was easy to spot the good old bright yellow licence plates, too. Started in Duncan, on the southern Island, back in the 70s when magic mushrooms were temporarily legal (a poorly written law was struck down: psilocybin mushrooms don’t actually contain psilocybin which is a human metabolite of psilocyn, the mycotoxin which produces psilocybin by human metabolism)—hundreds of bright yellow licence plates lined the famous mushroom fields, ticketed for double parking and peeving the local hippies. But then they discovered the other Island mushroom picking spot in the farm fields around the Comox Valley. The law was eventually rewritten to once again make possession of psilocybin mushrooms illegal and apparently law-abiding Albertans stopped coming in such numbers. I suspect the immigration of the early 90s was more of actual retirees who enjoyed our warm winters, cheap (at the time) real estate and fancy gated communities like East Courtenay’s CrownIsle (mansions interspersed with private golf courses).

      Then for a while, I noticed these retirees from east of the Continental Divide were appearing here younger and younger which an occasional Alberta resident like me presumed a sign of prosperity from the “oil patch”.

      More recently I’ve notice immigrant Albertans far too young to be ‘retiring’ here on earned savings. Indeed, many are availing the boom on eastern Van Isle as they join a far larger contingent of BC Lower Mainlanders profitably cashing out of the super-exorbitant Vancouver real estate market: plenty of professional, trades and service jobs here—‘transitional retirees”, if you will. It must be alright for them because, even though many bring conservative politics with them, they’re now living in a decidedly socialist society. I guess they get used to it.

      But when I hear of university students and faculty debouching west of the Rockies, often to less remunerative jobs than they had—or used to have—back in Alberta, I wonder how long it’ll be before students start emigrating to BC as soon’s they graduate from high school.

      I figure the real transition is social: one might get paid a bit less in BC than Alberta jobs used to pay, but we have an excellent, professionally run healthcare system—so it’s not so bad, a kind of trade off, just like provincial sales tax is compensated for by beautiful scenery and interesting social diversity (people come here from all over the world).

      If Alberta keeps going the way it’s going I wouldn’t be surprised if new immigrants consider making the well-trod road to BC as soon as pregnancy tests come back positive.

  2. I am still waiting to hear the justification for the destabilizing decision to remove the Dean of an applied health facility (Faculty of Health Disciplines) without cause, during a pandemic, while placing her on immediate admin leave making adequate orientation and transfer duties impossible, leaving faculty, students, and the patients they serve (currently there are hundreds of FHD student practitioners in program-related work placements) without the appropriate leadership.

  3. AU is emphatically NOT a university. It is a high school at best, handing out “degrees” which are not merely of low quality, but which are not recognized by a slew of first tier institutions. There are a plethora of distance education courses at real universities.

    AU was created for political reasons only. Reasons which are no longer current. Let AU die a well deserved death.

    1. I agree with you Private that AU is NOT a true university.

      However, they do not just “hand out degrees.” Very few of their students graduate with degrees stamped AU. Instead, most take credit courses in order to supplement the degrees they earn at other universities.

      They don’t so much “hand out degrees” as they sell university level credits that other unknowing universities accept.

      If real universities knew how poor the standards are at AU, they wouldn’t accept transfer credits from there. Personally, I wouldn’t hire someone who took courses or had a degree from AU.

      In point of fact, I doubt many so-called professor who do work at AU would encourage their own children to pursue a degree from AU. It’s too embarrassing.

      As for cheating, well it’s exactly what you’d expect from an online educational institution with poor standards. When assignments and papers are uploaded for grading, there is no way of knowing who did the work. Remember too that it’s an Open University meaning there are no entrance requirements such as effective writing tests, or completion of high school, but you do need money.

      AU is an interesting concept, but in practice…

  4. Not sure of the reasons for Mr. Fassina’s departure, but I am guessing one part of it is it just isn’t any fun running post secondary educational institution in Alberta anymore, with all the funding reductions and cut backs. I suspect Mr. Fassina realized that despite his generous pay, it was unlikely to get better and could get worse in the future. I don’t think it will just be doctors leaving Alberta, but many other well paid professionals in a variety of government funded positions. There could be quite the brain drain from Alberta over the next few years as the UCP hacks away at anything that is publicly funded.

    In addition to Mr. Fassina going, it seems like there is a bit more turmoil at Athabasca University. I think it was a good idea to have an educational institution with more of a focus more outside of the major cities, but I wonder if it will ultimately survive. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is forced to merge with another post secondary institution by the UCP to cut costs sometime in the next few years. Perhaps Mr. Fassina had a better sense of what may be coming than anyone else and as they say, voted with his feet, while he still could.

    I suspect if the UCP does get rid of Athabasca University, it will lose some support in some rural areas, just as they already have from their ongoing fight with doctors. However, unlike with the doctors, they probably figure this loss will mostly be localized to a just few constituencies, so they may conclude it might not be that significant to stop getting rid of this university.

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