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.”

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides (Photo: Facebook/ Demetrios Nicolaides).

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. 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney promising to bring staff back to AU at a community meeting in Athabasca in March (Photo: Screenshot of Town & Country Today video).

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.

Former jobs, economy and other stuff minister Doug Schweitzer who up and quit Jason Kenney’s cabinet yesterday (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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. 

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26 Comments

  1. Now that is appears that Mr. Toes bid for the premiership is falling on deaf ear, and very soon Mr. Toes’ sword, one wonders if this was reason for Mr. Schweitzer sudden and unceremonious departure? It’s well-known that Ginger Kenney intends to lop off the heads of Kenney and his loyalists upon becoming premier, so there’s no reason to stick around and watch one’s political career die in agony. And some believe that the potential arrival of Danielle Straitjacket will not be much better. Adriana LaGrange’s sleepy tenure as UPC MLA maybe short-lived, as it appears that her nomination is being challenged by the co-founder of ‘Hold the Line’, Andrew Clews. Clews is one of these FreeDUMB Convoy leaders/lunatics who are starting to pop-up all over the UCP’s membership. Dealing with these characters will be like playing Wack-A-Mole with landmines, so it’s beginning to look like there are more than a few Kenney Loyalists who are thinking of seeking other gainful employment.

  2. Yes, the smouldering political mess that was the Athabasca University stand off between the university administration and the cabinet minister may be escalating into a raging blaze before whatever hapless unlucky UCP leadership candidate gets the chance to try clean up all the messes Kenney and crew are leaving.

    Maybe Kenney no longer cares, given his favorite candidate seems to be faltering even more. Maybe it is an just an escalation of the existing bad blood the Advanced Education Minister seems to have created with his funding threats. Dr. Scott seems to be tired of the political threats and bullying now calling the UCP government on it. I suppose he doesn’t have much to lose by going back to where he came from. He probably realized Alberta’s education system was politically dysfunctional a while after he arrived here.

    As for Mr. Schweitzer who was at one time a great hope of Conservative moderates, his abrupt departure is not a good sign for the future. It also puts potential Kenney successors in a difficult position of finding a semi credible interim finance minister and facing a likely by election in a riding which is not one of the UCP’s strongest before a general election.

    Harper didn’t leave his party in a great position when he left. Kenney seems to be leaving a lot of messes and problems for who ever unluckily gets to take over. After him the deluge, I suppose. If there was a session on good succession planing, our most prominent recent Conservative leaders seemed to have missed it.

  3. “Most Albertans would understand the reason for this development at least. ”

    Don’t know that I buy that comment David.
    This is a completely unacceptable political development. Totally ignorant and corrupt pork-barreling by an incompetent, corrupt and belligerent group of stupid people who are currently MLA’s. And Premiers.
    Why you take such a sympathetic and understanding posture with these goofs is beyond me?
    You have the knowledge and experience, and access to some of the most knowledgeable and experienced political commentators in this jurisdiction. So why not peel back this putrid onion?
    This is yet another example of stupid, feckless right-wing nut-jobs running amuck and ruining a 40 year institution. Like they did with Canadian Wheat Board (and oh christ! just too many examples to list)!

    It’s outrageous!

  4. Dr. Nicolaides’ Alma Mater, the U of C ( and the C doesn’t stand for Calgary), may be a blueprint for Alberta’s future. Remote learning, mail in assignments, degree in return post.Would you hire a candidate with such credentials? Well the UCP did.

    1. What you say about the University of Calgary may be true, but for a really interesting story you should look at Nicolaides’ other universities. The European Peace University of Austria? “In July 2013, EPU’s accreditation was withdrawn by Austria’s accreditation body.” That’s from the Wikipedia. It’s now located in Costa Rica. The University of Cyprus? Only 7,000 students about almost a quarter of them in “graduate studies”? What is this, a community college that grants PhDs?

  5. Why is it that stupid REFORMERS mandate is always to create a nightmare for doctors , nurses, teachers and students? Apparently they can’t stand the fact that these people are a lot smarter than them and their supporters are just as stupid as they are. Hurling sarcastic comments at people who aren’t as stupid as them is all they know.

  6. Petty tyrants in the UCP do what they’ve done since 2019: destroy Alberta. Kenney has one foot out the door, but cronyism demands that political debts must be paid before that door slams shut. It’s almost surprising that Tony Soprano hasn’t shown up for a cannoli.

    What a year for the faculty. First, the contract negotiations, now this. I’m sure some of them are checking their scheduled retirement dates right now. Even if Dr. Scott is an invisible man on a virtual campus, it was a breath of fresh air to see him so accurately and eloquently call out this UCP government for what it is. I suppose he was hired as a fall guy, but look how that turned out. The mouse roared.

    Let me interpret what he said in my own words:

    They’re a bunch of backwards, bullying, autocrat thugs who will destroy the university, squeeze students for cash and ultimately end up destroying one of the few good things Athabasca has going for it. They could take a reasonable, measured approach, collaborate and negotiate, but that’s not the UCP way. So they will do what they do: crush, destroy and plunder their way back 40 years into the past. Firings galore! Then they will sell AU to a private interest at pennies on the dollar (probably religious, if you ask me). That’s how they roll. The clock’s ticking for the Kingdom of Kenney, so watch out! At least Hal Danchilla got his cut.

    Whew! It’s a good thing Dr. Scott didn’t say any of that, but I’m sure a golden handshake to the tune of a Sky Palace $200,000 might ease his pain.

  7. So Doug Schweitzer leaves, Danielle Smith runs for his seat and all is well in UCP-land? DS replaces DS?

    Tell me that money didn’t change hands, preferably from UCP coffers and not the diminishing piles of cash on the floor of the treasury vault.

    Tell me that Doug Schweitzer will not return as a highly-paid government consultant, or a lobbyist with special insight into the Old Boy workings of the UCP.

    1. I don’t agree, ABS. Doug Schweitzer ‘s seat, Calgary-Elbow, is far from a safe seat. It went Liberal in the 2007 by election to replace Ralph Klein, and more recently it was Alberta Party leader Greg Clark’s seat.

      Given the swing nature of the seat, and some of the incredibly whacky things Danielle Smith has said over the years, I think she would be nuts to run in Calgary-Elbow. It would be a huge political embarrassment if she lost, and I suspect it would crush her political comeback.

      1. We’ll see. If she ran and lost in a byelection, after winning the leadership, that would be very bad for her and the UCP. If someone else ran for the UCP and lost in the byelection, that would also be bad for the UCP, but not quite as bad. Would Nathan Neudorf step aside for her?

  8. It was inevitable that four influential factions would eventually clash.
    1. The townies who desperately want to save their tax base, property values, and job opportunities at AU.
    2. The academics who want to live and enjoy all the amenities of living in major urban centers while working remotely.
    3. The AU administration and executives who mostly live in St. Albert and Edmonton and who want to remain there
    4. The UCP who want to preserve their support in Athabasca.

    It’s clear to me the Townies overplayed their hand by summoning “help” from the UCP. They went so far as to hire a lobbyist with access to Kenney himself. Without realizing it, those Townies are putting AU in jeopardy. AU is Athabasca’s major employer and if it shutters so will the town.

    Is there a lesson here? You bet. In fact there are many lessons, but one in particular stands out: Never ask for help from a corrupt fascist government like the UCP. It’s like making a wish with a monkey’ paw. In other words, there is always a catch.

    The UCP’s demands and financial threat are unreasonable. Well, duh! I’ve heard people say it’s akin to blackmail, but that is incorrect. It is in fact classic extortion. Thugs know this strategy well. The UCP didn’t invent extortion, but they know it well and use it often.

    When the UCP kills AU, maybe then the Townies will stop voting for them. Once thing is certain, this showdown has nothing to do with education, students, or the viability of AU as a post-secondary institution.

  9. Athabasca U is in the education business, one with its own vision and fiscal bottom line, and the UCP government is in the regional development business which, not surprisingly, includes a bit of the politics of getting re-elected done—or “pork-barrel,” as it’s commonly known. Whatever the partisan motivation in this case, I don’t disapprove of a sovereign authority subsidizing regional development per se—especially not one like this which has a broad footprint and web-vibe in a more ‘socio-economic’ way than, say, public subsidy of the industrial economy. But, speaking of partisan politics, the UCP has managed to arrive at another conundrum that it could have —and probably should have—avoided.

    One would assume every little policy and political detail and contingency has been given its due in the UCP’s precarious straits, but details apparently been ill thought through keep popping up in all the wrong places as the UCP bench gets thinner and its team less wieldy. And now each side of this hot-spot has played it’s hole-card early, blurted its rhetorical punchline before the joke is set up: spoiler-alerts just got moot.

    It’s at least one more smouldering smudge that threatens to flare up, one more no-man’s-land for some unlucky water-bearer to cross to snuff the spot-fire, another tower of hostages taken, ultimatums made, ransoms defined.

    The tempest is so inept-looking that one wonders if someone imagined it a useful ruse. Peanuts incoming! caramelized-onion grease-fire gas! Take cover! Otherwise, if regional subsidy is the government’s aim, why ask the wrong business to implement it? Surely there’s another way to spend $3.45 million in the community—even other ways to use physical facilities AU no longer needs as it opens its wings into the cyberwind. Or some other stopgap (the UCP should be getting the hang of it by now…) to at least keep this little smoker from spreading into the general conflagration that is the UCP leadership race and, unfortunately, Alberta’s fumbling government. It surely could have kept.

    Surely Mr Schweitzer’s seat-resignation could have kept, too, at least to avoid presenting the party with another immovable date it’d rather not take: a by-election in the heat of a general election campaign (secretly, I’d love to hear a premier Smith spin the crushing Marijuana Party by-election win just weeks before her own Big Day. ‘$300 and a bong in every pot!’. Or, hey, dude!— ever wonder how baked voters in Calgary-Elbow would have to get before electing a parachuted former Wildrose leader turned turncoat in an exciting pre-game bye-bye election?)

    Everything about Schweitzer is curious, from the his forgone opportunity to challenge the UCP leadership to his inconvenient resignation timing right now—and now revolving around the six-month limit that a riding may be without an elected parliamentary representative. The move almost seems as like could be intentionally calculated if it could have otherwise been avoided. But why and for what? Clever manipulation that favours some agenda, or vengeful punishment for something past?

    Can Schweitzer change his mind? What would it take? Or is a rationale for calling an early election (conveniently mooting an unwanted show-election just before the one for all the marbles) being laid, brick by brick? Who would be advantaged by that?

    Plodding, incremental, mercurial…sounds more like a political longview that’s assumed vantage from high atop a foothill, awaiting the fireworks and shrapnel anticipated. That’s what K-Boy did in 2015—just didn’t quite work out for him. But is someone trying to do better?

    Or maybe, through the ole Ockhamocsope, it’s simply: “Like boots or hearts, oh when they start/ They really fall apart”
    —G. Downie, G. Sinclair, J. Pay, P. Langlois, R. Baker; 1990

  10. Abs. I think you may have it right. I wonder how much Preston Manning and Stephen Harper pocketed as a reward to repeat the lie that Jason Kenney fed us ? “Alberta doesn’t have a revenue problem only a spending problem.” How stupid do they think we are? All you have to do is look at what Norway and Alaska have accumulated by managing their oil wealth and taxes properly. They aren’t in financial ruin. I still think Kenney and Poilievre have cooked up some sort of scheme to get him back into federal politics, if Poilievre is elected. It was just shortly after Poilievre was in Edmonton for the candidate’s forum that he resigned. While Kenney was singing his praises.

  11. The P3 plan ,it’s everywhere!Alberta has grown up on this BS”the pitch” of destruction for education
    As far as the other lawyer ,probably heading to the private industry of P3 s or to work with his pals to rip off Albertans

  12. I met with Minister Nicolaides on April 26th who provided further details:

    There is no interest in forced relocation of AUFA members

    Those who are in Athabasca should receive incentives of some form for the university to determine

    This approach will likely take time

    A priority in the mandate is to re-centre AU’s senior leadership in Athabasca

    From: https://aufa.ca/blog/2022/4/29/aufa-and-jobs-in-athabasca

    That was then, before the announcement of Jason Kenney’s departure. Three months is a long time in politics. If it looks like little thought and less preparation went into this decision, there you go.

  13. Can anyone confirm who are the current directors of the War Room?

    I was under the impression that Schweitzer was one of them: yet I saw a tweet yesterday that he hadn’t been one since he changed portfolios. Is that correct?

  14. At least the 1980 thing should be correct ,up to 1998 too when chop shops and education collided
    The Athabasca President at least has this correct ,already in the design of 1980s

  15. You gotta think anyone considering moving to Athabasca is reconsidering that decision after reading about this story. The municipality comes across as desperate, corrupt, or both. Who wants to buy a house in a town that publicly engages in extortion?

  16. Maybe the president should ask himself, why have a university in Athabasca.

    I mean really, if you are going to get a “remote education” why dont you get it from a reputable university.

    1. You pose a very good question Brett.

      Athabasca University is what’s called “an open” university.
      It means acceptance/approval to enroll in a program or individual courses is granted to everyone. That is, you do not need to graduate high school to enroll. Even if your chances of succeeding are zero because you cannot read or write at a grade 10 level, they will take your money. And what of those who do indeed graduate with an Athabasca University “degree”? In my opinion, with a few exceptions, they do not measure up to U of C, or U of A graduates. I personally wouldn’t hire a candidate based on his/her academic achievements from Athabasca University. I like the “idea” of a distance ed university, but unfortunately as with many things, the idea is not the same as the implementation or result.

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