In a video message posted yesterday morning, Athabasca University President Peter Scott ripped the United Conservative Party Government’s plan to force the institution to dramatically increase its presence in its namesake town 145 kilometres north of Edmonton as “1980s thinking” that will put AU on “the path to ruin.”
Dr. Scott accused Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides and the UCP of putting regional pork-barrel politics ahead of the interests of the university with the demand that AU increase its staff in the town of 2,800 by 500 within two years and require all seven senior executive employees to live there.
“I’m concerned that the minister has put AU in an unreasonable, untenable position,” he said, speaking in a calm voice near the end of his 12 minute video, a link for which was emailed to faculty and staff. The video was also posted on YouTube.com.
“I believe that the metrics and timelines are unachievable, so even if we were to agree to it, we would lose critical funding for our learners,” he said. “Not signing the agreement means losing $3.45 million in government grant funds every month, which will eventually bankrupt the university.
“But more importantly, signing this agreement may set the university back 40 years and put it on the path to ruin.”
Given the government’s promises to the community – revealed by Premier Jason Kenney at a community meeting in Athabasca back on March 24 – that would seem to put the government and the AU administration on a collision course, with the crash likely sooner than later.
Dr. Scott, who was hired away from a position in Australia only eight months ago, may not understand how arbitrary and vindictive the UCP government can be. Alternatively, the British PhD psychologist may know perfectly well and not care. But either way, both sides seem prepared for a confrontation, so they’ll likely get their mutual wish.
The “near-virtual” campus plan that Dr. Scott was hired to implement seems to have been yanked off the table last spring after a community group hired a lobbyist with UCP connections to oppose it, and Mr. Kenney and Dr. Nicolaides showed up in town and promised to make the university do the opposite.
Soon after that, Dr. Nicolaides ordered AU’s board to come up with a plan by June 30 to expand in-person operations in Athabasca and bring staff back to the campus just west of town.
On Monday, the local newspaper reported that Dr. Nicolaides had rejected the plan submitted by the university and demanded a new version satisfactory to the government on Sept. 30. The government also threatened to cut off $3.45 million per month in operating funds to the university if it didn’t comply, the Athabasca Advocate reported.
What the largely UCP-appointed AU board will do remains to be seen, but yesterday’s video message was Dr. Scott’s uncompromising response.
Accusing the government of unilaterally making changes “without any consultation with our learners, our board of governors, the executive, or our team members,” Dr. Scott dismissed the demand to increase employees working in Athabasca to 65 per cent of its workforce as unworkable.
“The disruption and cost associated with relocating 500 team members and their families is significant,” he said. “And it would have a huge impact on our learners’ experience and of course, our team members’ lives.
“It will add absolutely nothing to the university,” he went on. “The new investment management agreement provided by the minister is unprecedented as it shifts AU’s priorities away from work-integrated learning and graduate outcomes that are seen in the agreements of all other Alberta post-secondary institutions in favor of rural economic development for one town in the Athabasca region!”
“The minister is essentially taking taxpayer dollars and our learners’ tuition to fix something that’s not broken,” he said.
“AU is a successful remote-work organization. It isn’t clear to me why the minister would target an online, digital university and tamper, seek to micromanage its successful cost-effective model.”
Alberta Conservatives, micromanage institutions for political gain? Well, perhaps things are different in Australia and Britain. Most Albertans would understand the reason for this development at least.
“At a time when most organizations are looking for ways to accelerate hybrid work models to compete for talent, particularly specialized talent, it seems counterintuitive to revert back to 1984 and an outdated, and for us, irrelevant, place-based model,” Dr. Scott said.
Well, I imagine Dr. Scott will have to get used to that idea, or be prepared to move along, now that he has confronted the UCP so directly.
This is true even if moving 500 people to Athabasca in the next two years is clearly impossible – consider the fact that there are only 58 homes for sale listed in the Athabasca area now. But when push comes to shove, it seems unlikely the tame UA board will back him up.
Moreover, he’s unlikely to get much support in this fight from the university faculty, angered by a hostile labour relations climate and many never having met the man.
Given the political situation in Alberta, a better strategy for Dr. Scott might have been to rag the puck and wait to see what happened in the next provincial election.
If the UCP lost the election but held the riding, perhaps a solution more palatable to the university administration would have been possible.
Too late for that now.
Doug Schweitzer to UCP: So long, and thanks for all the fish!
Doug Schweitzer, who announced in May he didn’t plan to run in the next general election, unexpectedly resigned from cabinet yesterday as minister of jobs, economy and innovation.
He said in a terse social media post he’ll quit as MLA for Calgary-Elbow by the end of the month or thereabouts.
The message attached to his tweet can be summarized as follows: it was an honour to serve, things are swell, so long.
This is not the farewell of a happy and satisfied politician who once entertained ambitions of becoming premier himself.
Pushed aside to make way for former finance minister Travis Toews, now revealed as an epic dud, Mr. Schweitzer is obviously not prepared to ruin what’s left of his reputation by serving under Danielle Smith or Brian Jean.
His early departure creates a new problem for the government, whoever leads it, as an election must be called within six months of his resignation as an MLA. With a general election supposedly locked in for May 29, the UCP would probably prefer not to have to go through a dress rehearsal with plenty of potential for embarrassment a few weeks before the real thing.