What’s up with Athabasca University, where Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides has threatened to cut off much of the 52-year-old Alberta institution’s funding if it won’t drop plans to move most of its operations into cyberspace from the rural town that serves as its nominal home base? 

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

Peter Scott, a British academic and university executive known for his work in online educational technology, was persuaded last January to leave a position in Australia and move to Alberta to implement a plan to put AU on the map by taking it off the map.

He was chosen to carry out the “near-virtual” strategy developed under a previous president that would theoretically end AU’s direct connection to any geographic location and recruit faculty anywhere and everywhere to lead online classes.

That’s not all that different from what happens at AU now. But it would have let the university save money by closing its physical campus and shifting infrastructure costs to academic workers, who would maintain their own offices wherever they live. It might have had the added benefit, from the administration’s perspective, of making it harder for a widely dispersed workforce to resist rollbacks and cuts.

Moreover, for several years previous administrations have let university operations and senior personnel move away from AU’s namesake town of fewer than 3,000 people 145 kilometres north of Edmonton. 

Last spring, Dr. Scott told media he had spoken with Dr. Nicolaides about implementing the plan soon after his arrival in January and heard no objections from the minister.

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

Regardless, AU’s board, mostly appointed by the United Conservative Party Government, wouldn’t have hired Dr. Scott, a PhD psychologist, had they not bought into the “near-virtual” vision and thought he could deliver it. 

Understandably, considering importance to the local economy and the fact the university was originally located there to provide an economic boost to the region, the Town of Athabasca has fought any move to further decentralize the institution’s operations.

Two years ago, town residents formed a lobby group called Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University and hired Hal Danchilla, a well-known lobbyist with strong UCP connections. For a time, the town paid the former co-chair of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s election campaign $7,750 a month for his efforts, which were obviously effective. 

In March, at any rate, Mr. Kenney and Dr. Nicolaides turned up at a community meeting in Athabasca and promised that, never mind pulling out, they’d make AU increase its presence in town. 

But a few days later in April, Dr. Scott sent an email to faculty and staff saying that, nope, “our operations, mission, and mandate remain unchanged.” The university, he said, would continue to hire “the best and brightest talent” regardless of where it wanted to live.

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

“AU’s ongoing work with our near-virtual workforce will continue to support our online virtual campus in Alberta, across the country, and around the world,” insisted the new president, who lives in Alberta, but not in Athabasca. “It is the board that runs university strategies, not the government,” he also said. 

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 nearly empty campus in the town.

AU submitted a plan on time, although some board members now say they never saw it.

But it didn’t come as a complete surprise when the Athabasca Advocate reported on Monday that Dr. Nicolaides had rejected the university’s plan and directed AU to come up with a new version more satisfactory to the government by Sept. 30. 

If they don’t, the Advocate reported, the government threatened to cut off $3.45 million per month in operating funds to the university – arguably a peculiar way to ensure AU’s survival in Athabasca or anywhere else.

Lobbyist Hal Danchilla (Photo: Canadian Strategy Group).

On Wednesday, in a terse and not-particularly-informative memo to faculty and staff, Dr. Scott complained that AU never received any feedback from the government for the plan it submitted on June 30, “despite AU’s request for a follow up meeting with the Ministry.”

That complaint was viewed as ironic among AU’s far-flung faculty, who noted the same strategy was adopted by the university in bargaining with their association.

For his part, Dr. Nicolaides disputed Dr. Scott’s complaint, telling the Canadian Press he spoke directly with the current board chair, Byron Nelson, before and after the AU submission was turned in on June 30. (Mr. Nelson, a Calgary lawyer, ran against Mr. Kenney for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party back in 2017.)

Well, whatever’s going on, it sounds as if some messages are not getting through to their intended recipients!

In Wednesday’s memo, Dr. Scott promised another update when the administration has had a chance to review the letter from the ministry. “We are committed to continuing to work with the Ministry of Advanced Education to find innovative ways to work with our community in the Athabasca region while prioritizing the needs of our learners and our team members,” he concluded. 

Of course, the needs of the community are not necessarily distinct from the needs of staff, some of whom still live there. Students, who are found all over Canada and the world, don’t really have any skin in that game. 

So, at this point, there are more questions than answers.

Why did the government feel it had to threaten monetary sanctions to get its own tame board to tell AU administrators to do what it wants? 

If the board won’t cooperate, after all, the Post-Secondary Learning Act gives Dr. Nicolaides the power to fire its members and appoint new ones. Indeed, he sent the previous board chair packing in May. 

The board, in turn, has the power to fire Dr. Scott for endangering AU’s financial viability if he continues to refuse to follow the government instructions it passes on, although there would likely be legal and financial repercussions for the university. 

Nor is it clear why the administration would resist leaving a few more staffers in Athabasca if that’s what it takes to keep the operating funds flowing. If board members keep their wits about them, they may not have to deal with Dr. Nicolaides much longer anyway.

By the sound of it, if Dr. Nicolaides gets his way, it’s possible AU’s entire senior administration team – no member of which now lives in Athabasca – will leave as soon as their current contracts expire.

Stay tuned. There are bound to be developments, possibly soon.

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10 Comments

  1. The UCP are quite good at contradicting themselves. Also, remember when taking schooling from home had to be done, because of Covid-19, and the UCP eliminated Alberta Distance Learning, which was a good thing to have for that very purpose? It appears that the UCP are out of their league. Whatever they do, it makes things worse. The UCP likes to bully anyone that doesn’t agree with them. Hopefully, Albertans come to their senses, and toss out the UCP, in 2023.

  2. Oh, the Athabasca University political game of chicken continues.

    The administration knows that there will be changes in the UCP leadership soon. So maybe the minister may not be around soon. He could be replaced by someone with a less confrontational approach, or not. In any event, Kenney’s successor will likely inherit another big self created political mess to try clean up.

    The essential problem is the current administration and past board clearly seems to have been hired with a mandate to create a virtual institution. For some reason, likely political, the government and the ministers position changed after this. Its not a good thing when someone is hired to do one thing and finds out later that was all bs.

    So, the university administration seems to strongly believe the original mandate is still best for the institution. The UCP government seems to be trying to use all sorts of coercion and pressure to change this indirectly, but really is going about this the wrong way. If they don’t like the administration’s approach, have the guts to replace them, take responsibility for this and all the related legal and severance costs for those they previously misled.

  3. This is silly. AU — from which I obtained my Master’s degree back in 2017 — is a fully virtual university. It makes complete sense, then, that it should be able to hire qualified faculty from any part of the world, with no mandate to move to rural northeastern Alberta as a condition of employment. I think there is an argument to be made that, perhaps, senior management — including the President — should have to be located in the town, but professors, associate & assistant profs, lecturers and teaching assistants need not be.

  4. Super improper for someone who co-chaired Kenney’s election campaign to get paid lobbying the Kenney gov’t. Very cynical of Athabasca to engage in such questionable tactics. Instructive that these tactics are effective and have, so far, prompted no public outrage.

    Universities exist to educate citizens, not to redistribute wealth from one place to another. Education is a community resource – everyone benefits when an individual gets educated. Everyone is harmed when individuals have artificial barriers placed between them and higher education. For instance, I’ve never spent a day in medical school, but have directly benefited from the education of many doctors and nurses. Suppose those people had not been able to go to medical school due to something like outrageous government overreach, corruption and incompetence? Woulda sucked for me.

    If giving money to Athabasca is important, just do it. Involving a university in the process gives the appearance that the government believes the primary role of the university is to provide economic stimulus to Athabasca. It also gives the appearance that Athabasca believes this as well. Not a great look for either entity.

    Finally, if a town is not economically viable unless they can coerce a publicly funded institution of higher learning into wasting a bunch of taxpayers’ money stimulating their economy, maybe that town ought to fail on its own merits. Right now, it appears that Athabasca believes they are not viable unless the taxpayer foots the bill for their choice to live in an unviable town. Not how I would choose to spend tax dollars, JMO.

  5. Does it come down to Jason Kenney not being happy about paying monthly allowances to faculty for work-at-home expenses?

    https://www.townandcountrytoday.com/local-news/late-night-last-ditch-bargaining-leads-to-tentative-agreement-5251312

    Is this threat because of his personal issue with uppity professors who dare to stand up against the Great Kennificence in contract negotiations? He should have gotten a degree, any degree, if people with education bother him so much.

    How did the tiny town of Athabasca find $7,750 a month to hire Hal Danchilla? His firm has connections to Conservative governments beyond Alberta.

    How is it that a UCP-friendly board seems to be bucking up against the education minister and premier, in his waning days? Wouldn’t it be smarter for the premier to tone things down leading up to the 2023 election? Picking fights this late in the game only makes things harder for the UCP at election time.

    Also, isn’t it foolish to jeopardize the education and training of nurses at a time of staff shortages in the health system? Privatization of AU (because the UCP loves privatization) would lead to jacked-up tuition for students. Any sensible government would want to encourage people to enter the field, not make it harder.

    Is Dr. Scott the next Verna Yiu? Will faculty sue for constructive dismissal if the UCP fire anyone who refuses to move to Athabasca? Whatever is going on, we know Jason Kenney has no problem spending large sums of public money to get rid of people that stand in his way. Get ready for more of the same.

    It’s especially ironic that Kenney wants to force faculty to move to a place that he once claimed was a hotbed of Covid after an alleged birthday party with a “100 percent attack rate”. Does he owe the 2800 people of the town something for that drive-by smear? Why would anyone want to move to Athabasca after the premier told his folksy tale of disease and despair in the town? Look, the health care system there seems to be collapsing, too. Call 911? Good luck with that!

    https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/news/releases/2022/Page16488.aspx

    https://globalnews.ca/news/7765435/athabasca-mayor-alberta-premier-superspreader-birthday-covid-19/

    The sun is setting on the Kenney Empire, but not before it goes supernova. Scientists have been predicting one in 2022, but they’ll be shocked, I tell you, when it happens in Alberta.

  6. I should add that land speculators, real estate agents, home builders and business owners in the Town of Athabasca must be salivating like Scrooge McDuck, dollar signs in their eyes, over the rental properties, housing resales and new home builds to accommodate staff. Businesses surely will profit tidily from these cash cows — I mean faculty, administration and their families — spending money on everything from groceries to prescriptions at the pharmacy, assuming the newly relocated staff can find a doctor to prescribe medications, that is.

    The world may have gone virtual since 1984 and the Lougheed days, and even before the pandemic, but think of the property taxes this will generate! Thanks to those “private citizens” who coughed up cash to pay Hal Danchilla, the $7750 per month will be duly multiplied, like a magic penny.

    Good luck in turning back time, Athabasca: 1984 forever!

  7. Here’s the link to the latest message from AU’s president. I would like to see more twop-sided reporting please. The government is not just asking for a few more staff to be in Athabasca – they are asking for 500. A HUGE financial undertaking by AU to relocate key employees which, on its own, threatens the financial stability of the university. It seems that the push back from AU angered the minister so he is throwing a tantrum or, abusing his power. I am an AU Alumni and am VERY concerned that these imposed changes will undoubtedly impact the 40,000 students that will likely see tuition increases to cover any deficit. Shame on the government. Butt out. The economic needs of 2800 residents do not trump the needs of the 40000 students and countless staff. There was a better way to do this and it would obviously include compromise, but to impose stipulations of this nature is unprecedented.

    Here’s the link https://news.athabascau.ca/announcements/statement-from-au-president-peter-scott/

  8. What a great idea let’s just keep kicking our doctors, nurses, teachers and students around while we destroy the peoples health care and education systems and try to force them into a lot more privatization. It is hard to believe how stupid they really are. You would never have seen Peter Lougheed being this stupid. Yet they still have seniors believing every lie they feed them. It will certainly help Rachael Notley get re elected. She doesn’t come across as a lunatic like these fools do. They certainly make their supporters look like idiots don’t they?

  9. This maybe just another step toward the greater integration of post-secondary institutions in Alberta. There was talk about implementing something along the lines of the California state university/colleges model sometime ago. The claim was for greater efficiencies and cost-savings, but as the risk of ruining the unique mandates of certain institutions. AU is an undeveloped university with could serve a special role in rural Alberta. But the temptation for greater integration for this and all other institutions into the U of A’s monolithic structure is what is driving all this.

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