Athabasca University’s spookily empty main building just west of the town of Athabasca (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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.

The Town of Athabasca, seen from the north side of the Athabasca River (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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.”

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

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.

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

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.”

United Conservative Party leadership candidate Rebecca Schulz (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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.

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16 Comments

  1. The UCP thinks they can bully people who don’t give into their outrageous demands. Taken straight from Ralph Klein’s playbook. Both Ralph Klein and the UCP also made it harder for rural communities to thrive, because of their devastating cutbacks, which were avoidable, had they not done any very pricey shenanigans, and also collected the proper oil royalty rates, and the proper corporate tax rates, like Peter Lougheed had been doing.

  2. This only stops everyone talking about AU for the time being. But there will be a option presented that will be claimed that will assure the survival of the institution: a shotgun marriage with the U of A.

    At the very least, the students will be heartened that there will be continuity.

    And it seems that David Staples, the long-serving and suffering Edmonton Journal columnist, has been mentioned by Danielle Straitjacket as an authority on education. Well, Staples has claimed himself to be an expert on many things — science, society, hockey…actually more likely hockey. He’s also a slavish defender of the UCP, Kenney, Smith, CPC, Harper, and anything else that serves his masters. Clearly, the guy has no spine because it was ripped out of him in exchange for gainful and continuous employment.I recall, decades ago, Staples was an ardent defender of the Keillor Road as a freeway campaign. Drivers have a right to use any city road they want, which it fine though that road was slowly falling into the river bank. (Like everything else resting on a river bank.) I’m not certain of the timeline, but the defense of Keillor Road became very muted once some rather huge homes on the river bank (near the road) fell into the river. I guess when the rich start suffering losses from their collective stupidity, safety first becomes important. Oh, well.

    I’m wondering if Staples, now that the Edmonton Journal is in its death throes, is bucking for a position in a Smith government? Now, that should be funny.

  3. So, the Minister seems to be backtracking somewhat now as the threat turns into a suggestion. Perhaps the university administration suggested to the Minister what he could do with his “suggestion” and someone in the Ministry or the party explained to him how this could blow up badly for him.

    First of all, maybe Kenney tolerated incompetent ministers for reasons such as personal loyalty, but his successor even if kookier, probably does not want to inherit a big mess to clean up right away.

    Second, Mr. Braid has a good point, financially Athabasca University is not a bad deal financially for the government. The fall out of the threat to cut funding and the University’s potential failure (and maybe revival after as a privately run institution) would likely require the government to spend a lot more money. While the UCP is not adverse to wasting a lot of money on questionable pet causes (the War Room, buying a cancelled pipeline, etc …), it might be a good idea to restrain this bad impulse closer to an election.

    So while there is not much adult supervision left, as Kenney goes on auto pilot for his last days, there are at least a few in the administration or the party to explain to the Minister the implications and folly of his actions.

    It also would obviously not be good PR for the UCP for students who paid a lot of tuition in good faith to find themselves out of pocket with no where to study in a month or two due to a government induced failure.

    So the Minister is retreating to a more defensible position – more staff in Athabasca, but not an arbitrary unachievable number and more flexibility as to who it is. We’ll see if the university administration survives, as they seem to have bet the Minister may not be around too much longer. They may turn out to be right. Of course it remains to be seen if whomever a new leader appoints will be much smarter.

    Lastly, whomever is now advising the Minister did get one thing right from a PR perspective – best to put this embarrassing shift out only to out of province media. Ironically, this is not the first time you can be much better informed by out of province media. Perhaps this is also a vestige of how being a one party state for a long time eventually negatively affected the quality of local media coverage of Alberta politics.

  4. The plot twists! Is Demetrios Nicolaides throwing things at a wall to see what sticks? Is he being directed to say things that he doesn’t mean by a small man behind a curtain? “Come hither,” said the crocodile with a grin.

    Can anyone believe anything this man says? If he wants to clean up the mess he created, the Lord High Executioner should stop issuing commandments in Ontario’s media, and approach the people in Alberta who run AU, in person. For someone with all that education, he doesn’t seem to understand the most basic things.

  5. So now it’s only a suggestion and not a threat like we saw. You have to love the stupidity these fools provide. If it didn’t make Albertans look like total idiots for electing them it would be hilarious. Showing my B.C. Relatives how stupid we are is making us the laughing stock. They are living in the best run province in Canada and with all our wealth we are in financial ruin and we certainly know why.

  6. Completely unsurprised to hear students are losing faith in the AU. They were already selling an online degree, that’s an uphill battle to establish and maintain credibility at the best of times. Believing that a bunch of my tuition was being diverted to pave the streets of Griftville, AB would really steam my cheese, while also making me question what value of the piece of paper I’m currently striving towards will have in the real world.

    I actually considered enrolling in AU a few years ago, myself. Bullet dodged!

  7. Figuring out exactly what policies the UCP is spending Alberta’s money on is like counting the beans in a church picnic bowl of three-bean salad—and coming up with, ‘I dunno,’ or, ‘Not-for-me-to-say,’ or even, ‘Three.’

    The dullard’s lamp of lunacy blinds the dismal periscopes of departmental heads as they systematically take over wards of the asylum, so they await further instructional hallucinations.

    Leadership-hopefuls’ go-to is to look pensive instead of expensive or worse: defensive. “Athabathka-what? Never heard of it—except that it’s thertainly a Liberal thyber-plot…”

    Gall dern it, Baby Hewy and Dewy! Who’s in charge of this gov’mint, anyhow? Perhaps it’s easier to answer: What is the anatomic-astrology of an autonomy automaton?

    Inside, it’s all top hat and cane; outside, K-Pod-1 affects making repairs on the thin, outer skin of the UCP campaign’s Orbiter, “silent running,” as ‘t were.

    “How’s about we suspend all government until I become leader—,” says the top-hatted candidate squinting into the abyss of space as the stars twinkle back.

    “Maybe it’d be a good idea to save that one until October for the sake of Conservative Unitedness, like, October 2023—”

    “—so I can use my autonomy to suspend all government!”

    Not like anyone would notice: just athk Athabathka Yew.

    Or Hal.

  8. Looks to me like nobody is setting any direction in the Un Coordinated Party. Policy is being set by somebody writing on a napkin, whilst being chauffeured to the office in the morning.

    It’s also pretty clear nobody can analyze worth a hoot, likely because the UCP caucus cannot read most, a result of a lack of, even, high school grads in the caucus. That’s why those essays were prize winners. To a dullard, a simpleton appears brilliant. A really thin talent front bench. I did message Don Braid once that Kenney’s political reputation was not deserved. And it is most assuredly not. A job at Phil’s Pancake House awaits

  9. How much more proof do Albertans need before they figure out the UCP is incompetent and corrupt? What level of proof will it take?

    Oh, hum, this is just another boring example of their ineptitude. Nicolaide, Chandro, Copping, Madu, Kenney, etc., truly have no idea what they are doing. Worse still, none of them care.

  10. Hi I just wanted to voice my thoughts in my opinion about this. I worked at the Athabasca University for 18 years in one of the faculties, in the administrative department. I loved working there because I loved what the university stood for and I love the fact that people were getting educated without becoming bankrupt. Going online is wonderful but the new president needs to remember that not everyone in this world has a computer and not everyone is online.
    I fought that for years, feeling then as I do now l, virtual is the way of the future but you still have to keep things open for people that aren’t there yet . The University prides itself on saying that they are accessible to everyone, well they will not be if they go 100% virtual. As for the buildings in town people should be allowed to go back to work in the buildings if that’s what they want. In fact I think it should be a hybrid of working in the office certain days of the week and working from home other days. When I was there, the University was crowded with a shortage of offices, it seemed like always. Also how can you monitor what staff are doing when they’re at home? You can’t.
    As for the education minister, “wow!” That’s all I can say!
    I read somewhere the other day someone gave some suggestions and they were good ideas: have a bus going to the university twice a month with professors going up there the ones that lived in Alberta anyways .it does help to see the professors in the university and the tutors.

    I worked as of course assistant for 10 years
    working directly with professors and tutors and students and there were people I had never met before that I worked with!
    You can not build relationships virtually. That needs to be done in person and yes the President should be at the University at the very least on a hybrid schedule,because there is a house there for that purpose. And lastly, but most importantly, is involved the staff in the decisions! They are the ones that are running the front lines, they are the ones running that University! They need to be involved in what happens to the Future of Athabasca University! Sandra Davidson, resident of Athabasca and former employee of Athabasca University.

  11. I was a student at AU in the early 90s and Student President. Klein screwed with AU by cutting the budget by 33% in one fell swoop.sadly PCs and UPCs don’t value education and don’t understand ethics only moralism. AU is a special Institution I’m personally tired of small minded political hacks deciding the future of an amazing learning model the assisted me in becoming a functional member of society with the ability to give back to the Province and the world. Michialides get your grubby paws off AU and increase University funding to all our Institutions in Alberta. Get your Robber Baron buddies in Oil and Gas to put up and pay their fair share as they have in Norway (40%} they can afford it and put the taxes back where they should be!

  12. Observation from this article, and in the tyee…what do Demetri Nicolaidas and Skippy have in common….DN hosting Skippy at the Calgary stampede “” so nice to have the next PM of Canada “”….which I find both arrogant and obnoxious, no pun intended, but what are those two good ‘ol boys up to…and just a sidebar, why the university of Cyprus .
    .hmmmm, too many questions, not enough answers..

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