Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides seems to have dropped his threat to cut off some or all of Athabasca University’s $41.2 million annual operating funds if the distance-learning institution fails to come up with a plan by the end of September to move 500 employees to the town of Athabasca, its nominal home base.
Dr. Nicolaides now says his demand that 65 per cent of AU’s staff must be working in the town 145 kilometres north of Edmonton within two years was only “a suggestion,” and that he’s willing to sit down and “chat about that” with the university’s administration, according to a report yesterday in the Globe and Mail.
Apparently Dr. Nicolaides made his unexpected announcement only to the Toronto newspaper.
There is no news release on the Government of Alberta website about the minister’s sudden change of heart and no news reports about it yesterday in any of the Alberta news media that have been covering the story.
As for Dr. Nicolaides’ claim in the Globe story he was merely making a suggestion, his letter to the Athabasca University Board of Governors at the start of August clearly was intended as an order.
The letter, quoted at the time by the Canadian Press, instructed the board to lean on AU President Peter Scott to drop the university’s plan to transition to a “near-virtual” campus and instead deliver a new plan “that expands and reinforces the university’s presence in the Town of Athabasca.”
Failure to deliver, Dr. Nicolaides warned in the letter, “would allow the Ministry of Advanced Education to withhold the $3.43-million monthly instalment for Athabasca University’s base operating grant.”
This followed a similar promise made by Premier Jason Kenney at a public meeting in the town on March 24. At the time, Dr. Scott warned cutting off the funds would quickly bankrupt the university, which has about 40,000 students throughout Canada and around the world.
On Aug. 7, the CP reported that Dr. Nicolaides had offered to provide financial assistance to help with employees moving costs – although he provided few details.
It is not known whether Dr. Nicolaides is coming up with this stuff himself or if he is receiving advice from government staff or his fellow United Conservative Party MLAs and cabinet members.
Dr. Nicolaides’ acknowledgement reported yesterday that the move of at least 1,000 people into a community of 2,800 with only a limited number of real estate listings is almost certainly impossible is certain to be seen as a victory by Dr. Scott, on the job only since January, who has resisted the move fiercely.
Nevertheless, Dr. Nicolaides told the Globe, “I would indeed like to see, at a bare minimum, senior executives and administrative staff be based in the town, as they have been for the past several decades.”
That, judging from the reaction yesterday of Athabasca residents and municipal politicians at a meeting with UCP leadership candidate Rebecca Schulz, would be popular in the town, as is the call for AU employees still living in the town to be able to return to work on the spookily empty campus.
In response to a question from a resident, Ms. Schulz indicated she’s finding out about Dr. Nicolaides’ surprise announcements the same way the rest of us are, from media reports.
Describing what’s happening at AU as “an ever changing situation based on what I’ve been following over the last couple of days,” Ms. Schulz promised “I could commit to you that I want to hear the concerns from community members, leadership of the university, municipal leadership, so that I can better understand that issue.”
However, the former children’s services minister added, “I’m not typically an I-have-all-the-answers kind of person … but I do want to listen and I do understand the very real need to grow the community.”
This may be wise, given the appearance that Dr. Nicolaides’ flip-flop is yet another debacle caused by ministers not doing their homework, as was the case with Health Minister Jason Copping’s recent forced reversal on the government’s plan to drop health care coverage for insulin pumps.
Meanwhile, Dr. Nicolaides took more flak yesterday from Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid, who quoted the former chair of the AU Board, fired by the minister on May 25, saying students are losing confidence in the university as a result of the minister’s demands.
As for Dr. Nicolaides’ insistence that the university’s senior executives live in the town, Nancy Laird told Mr. Braid, “it’s no insult to Athabasca or its people to say they won’t go. The market for talent is so tight that it’s very hard for a small town, in Alberta or anywhere else, to attract such people.”
As for the column’s claim AU is “by far the best education deal in Alberta for both taxpayers and students” because it costs much less to run than a major research institution like the University of Alberta in Edmonton suggests Mr. Braid is yet another commentator who like much of the Kenney Cabinet understands the price of everything and the value of nothing.*
*Oscar Wilde’s line, not Yours Truly’s. I’m confident Oscar would forgive me, though.