The Athabasca University campus, 145 kilometres north of Edmonton (Photo: ParsonsPhotographyNL, Creative Commons).

Is the Kenney Government committed to keeping Athabasca University in the Town of Athabasca as it says? 

Athabasca University President Peter Scott (Photo: Athabasca University).

Are the university’s board and administration ignoring the government’s orders to stay put? 

Signals citizens of the community of 3,000 people 145 kilometres north of Edmonton are getting are confusing, to say the least. 

Late last month, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his minister of advanced education journeyed north to assure Athabasca residents that all is well and AU will remain a going concern in their community.

In the wake of pandemic work-at-home orders that made it easy for university work to be done far from the Athabasca campus and the well-known wish of some university administrators to be located somewhere else, residents of the town have grown extremely worried

AU jobs have continued to disappear from town. When a new president was recruited from Australia last year, the university refused to say where Peter Scott would live. Locals took that to mean: Not in Athabasca

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: Alberta Newsroom/Flikr).

So more than 300 of town residents showed up at the regional multiplex facility on March 24 to quiz the premier, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides, Forestry Minister Nate Horner, and Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken about what the heck is going on. 

Despite financial troubles and efforts over several years to shift university jobs out of town, including covert negotiations with the Edmonton-area city of St. Albert in 2015, the message the United Conservative Party politicians brought was reassuring. 

The public distance-education university founded by the Alberta government in 1970 and mostly moved to the town in 1984, would be staying put, the 300 people who packed a local sports facility were told.

“We have … reaffirmed the commitment to supporting local community in fulfilling the recommendations of the Coates Report, which suggested the university work towards expanding the size of its operation in the Town of Athabasca and in northern Alberta generally,” Mr. Kenney said according to a transcript of his remarks made by someone at the meeting. 

“We have directed the Board of Governors to strengthen its physical presence in the Town of Athabasca by consolidating executive and senior administration offices in Athabasca at the earliest possible opportunity,” he said, according to the transcript. 

Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides (Photo: Alberta Newsroom/Flikr).

“We have also directed the board to develop and implement a comprehensive talent development, attraction and retention strategy by June 30th of this year, to maintain and grow a broad range of employees in Athabasca, and to develop and implement a reopening strategy for the Athabasca campus to resume most employees working on site.” 

The premier also promised the crowd the government would be appointing more local residents to the university’s board – a commitment he kept on April 5 when Jacqueline Hobal and Roger Morrill were named to the board until April 5, 2025.

The crowd in the Athabasca Regional Multiplex burst into applause, the local newspaper reported

It looked as if the effort of the local advocacy committee struck to keep the institution in Athabasca had paid  off – including the fees paid to an Edmonton lobby firm. 

But on April 7, Athabasca employees and faculty members were surprised by an email from Dr. Scott saying that “the comments and opinions expressed by government officials during the town meeting were not indicative of the reciprocal and consultative relationship that AU has had for many years with the Government of Alberta and the Ministry of Advanced Education.”

“I would like to underline that our operations, mission, and mandate remain unchanged,” Dr. Scott’s email stated. 

Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken (Photo: United Conservative Party Caucus).

“The university has been clear in every meeting with the Government of Alberta, the town and county councils of Athabasca, and local community members that AU has no plans to leave the community, that we are reaffirming our primary physical location is in Athabasca by ending office leases in Calgary and Edmonton, and that we will continue to give preference to suitably qualified candidates for both place-based and virtual roles who live in, or are interested in moving to, the Athabasca region,” Dr. Scott wrote. 

“However,” he continued, “to ensure AU’s future success, long-term sustainability, and the success of our learners, the university will continue to prioritize the needs of our more than 43,000 learners worldwide by ensuring we continue to hire and retain the best and the brightest talent.” (Emphasis added.)

Those best and brightest people, it was obvious if unstated, will not be required to live in Athabasca, or even visit there. 

This doesn’t sound quite like a drop-dead letter to Mr. Kenney and Dr. Nicolaides, but it sails pretty close to the wind. 

Moreover, while it may not be possible to cart the campus away (although it could be sold off, say, to another institution for a rural nursing program, as one rumour goes), the jobs AU had in the community are still disappearing because no one is required to work on campus. Indeed, staff who live locally have been told they can’t work on campus, 

So was Premier Kenney just telling the good people of Athabasca what they wanted to hear on March 24 to shore up his support in the UCP leadership review voting now under way? 

Do the AU Board and president have a different understanding of the government’s requirements than the people of Athabasca do? 

Or are the AU Board and Dr. Scott going rogue and defying the government?

Albertans, especially those who live in Athabasca, deserve clear answers.

CORRECTION: Jacqueline Hobal and Roger Morrill were named to the AU board until April 5, 2025. Two other board appointees were identified as the local representatives in an earlier version of this post.

 

Join the Conversation

15 Comments

  1. David is likely right that the announcement was likely presented to help Jason’s leadership review chances. That said, given how everything is political with Jason, if he survives the leadership review, Athabasca University could be a handy political football in the lead-up to next year’s election.

    Glenn van Dijken in Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock won the 2019 election with nearly 70% of the vote, while his closest competitor was unable to muster even 20% of the vote. This was in a riding geographically large enough that a lot of its residents (eg Barrhead) have no real interest in what happens in the Town of Athabasca. It is pretty hard to imagine a riding like that going NDP next year because of the departure of a bunch of elites.

    Compare that to the 2019 results in the riding of St. Albert. Marie Renaud won the riding with 46% of the vote, followed closely by the UCP candidate with 40% of the vote. Clearly St. Albert is a riding up for grabs, and the relocation of a university would certainly help the party that moved it there.

  2. Considering that Jason Nixon is a UA alumni, one would have thought that he would have their back, considering the amazing allegations that of what happened during his tenure as their Student Director. (And they say student government doesn’t pay.)

    As for playing a shell game with the town of Athabasca, sure, why not? It’s not like the rural people who vote UCP are that concerned about book learn’in. I mean, that’s only for weird people who wear glasses, right?

    1. Hey, Just Me,

      Let’s get real about Jason Nixon. The only reason he is an AU alumni is because he couldn’t cut it at the U of C, or the University of Alberta. Moreover, he has no loyalty to anyone except himself.

      1. He did attend SAIT and went on with whatever from there.

        I think the UA link to Nixon was more about he needed something with moderate commitment while is sought a riding nomination. Apparently, he seems to have lucked into that well-paying gig in student government at UA, which gave him a modicum of credibility once he got his nomination.

        Insofar as a deeper dive into Nixon’s profile is concerned, yeah he’s just a great big ape.

  3. This Reform Party seems to think they have to get even with Albertans for daring to want them out and Notley reinstated. Let’s screw up as much up as we can in the meantime. They wouldn’t let us destroy their mountains and let our friends pollute their water , so let’s allow a feedlot destroy their popular Pigeon Lake and really piss them off.

  4. After working for AU over 25 years and living in Athabasca for a period, I have as informed an opinion as anyone about both AU and the town of Athabasca. What I’ve learned over the years could fill a book – where to begin?

    Bottom line: If residents of Athabasca and surroundings, as well as employees of AU, want improvements or changes that benefit them, then they shouldn’t be voting UCP, or any other right-wing populist party.

  5. I don’t think AU executive really get what a gem they have in Athabasca, I don’t think they care about the community or the staff that struggle to work from rural, isolated locations. I think they are running the risk of lost culture, lost passion and the loss of AU presence in Alberta. I doubt the UCP can make AU do anything really, and if they do it will be reversed with a new government that does not value rural Alberta economic development and ability to thrive and grow. AU gives that to Northern Alberta which its board/executive are destroying

  6. For those who might be interested in more scandals google this from the Red Deer Advocate.

    “Fixer says former Alberta justice minister hired him to get Reporters phone log”. Something else for the RCMP to investigate, costing taxpayers more money.

    I can still hear my late father calling the Klein group Sleazy Bastards. Lawyers told me dad was right that’s what they are.

  7. One would think that Kenney’s assurances to the people of Athabasca would count for something given the government supposedly oversees the university and can impose its will on it.

    Of course, that assumes Kenney’s assurances are sincere and worth something. Two things can happen in May, first Kenney can get enough support to remain the UCP leader and he may forget about some of the things he said to remain in power. Second, he might not succeed, so whoever takes over may not feel any need to follow through on what Kenney said.

    Perhaps this party explains Mr. Scotts divergence from the party line. It could be he doesn’t really believe what Kenney said, perhaps doesn’t believe Kenney will be around long or maybe a bit of both.

    So perhaps the people of Athabasca should not be celebrating just yet.

  8. Many of us still wonder if Athabasca University was ordered to find Ralph Klein not guilty of plagiarism in 2004. Could it be they were told they would loose their funding and their jobs if they did. Wouldn’t you like to know?

  9. Some universities have presidents who are rumored to live out of town. Some are rumored to live so far out of town they might as well be in another province. The locals do not like this lack of commitment to their community or the institution. They say such leaders are out of touch with the people they are supposed to serve. But you know how rumors are.

  10. I certainly do. Especially when lawyers and former MLAs were telling me that you can always trust what universities tell you. I didn’t in the Klein case .They don’t dare lie because they could easily lose their funding and therefore their jobs was what I was taught.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.