Athabasca University’s mostly empty faculty office building in the town of Athabasca (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides indicated yesterday he hasn’t changed his mind about requiring Athabasca University’s nine top executives to move to the town of Athabasca. 

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

He told a virtual meeting of the Athabasca University Board of Governors yesterday afternoon that one of the “performance metrics” in the draft investment management agreement he insists the board sign by next Wednesday is that 100 per cent of the AU’s executive positions are based in Athabasca by 2025. 

None of the university’s executive employees are thought to live in Athabasca at present. Given the current executive job market, it’s likely most could find employment elsewhere if they’re determined not to relocate to the community of 2,800 souls 145 kilometres north of Edmonton. 

In a public session before the start of the in camera meeting, Dr. Nicolaides also indicated he still wants a substantial portion of the distance-education institution’s staff to live and work in Athabasca. If board members don’t deliver in a timely fashion on a plan to make that happen, he warned, they still risk seeing some of the government operating funds of $3.4 million a month withheld – a move AU President Peter Scott has said could bankrupt the institution.

While the minister strove to adopt a moderate tone and express his willingness for compromise during the public session at the beginning of the afternoon meeting, not much appears to have really changed since he dropped his demand in mid-August that fully 65 per cent of the university’s staff be working at the Athabasca campus by April 2025.

In his introductory remarks, Dr. Nicolaides said he believes it’s possible for AU to expand its “near-virtual campus” and still keep a substantial if unspecified number of employees in the town. 

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

Insisting at one point that “this isn’t a matter of my way or the highway, I’m very happy to look at alternative timelines,” he nevertheless indicated he is “quite reticent” to provide the board with any more time to sign the IMA. His remarks suggested the United Conservative Party Government has concluded the university administration has been stalling for the past five months.

“It’s important that we work together to reach an agreement by the 31st,” he told the board in response to a member’s question about what would happen if they don’t. “The IMA must be signed and should one not be signed, a degree of funding may not be provided.” 

As far as staff members go, Dr. Nicolaides pledged that “I don’t believe that any individual should be forced to relocate to Athabasca.” But while he didn’t state publicly what percentage of employees he now expects to work out of the university’s campus, that promise could be difficult to keep given his demand that the workforce in Athabasca grow.

It is not clear where the new residents and their families would live, since there are few real estate listings in or near the town at present, or how the town would manage and finance the development of new residences by 2025. 

The public session, which was scheduled to run for only 15 minutes, continued for the better part of an hour. 

AU President Peter Scott (Photo: Athabasca University).

Needless to say, this situation puts the AU board in a tough spot. Members will have to come up with a with a compromise between a government and a university administration that have been prepared to play chicken over the future of the institution.

The board could refuse to sign the IMA, and end up seeing funds cut off, or it could fire a president hired less than a year ago for getting into a fight with the government with little strategy to win. Either way, the board is likely to end up with egg on its face and is bound to be blamed for costs and any damage to the institution. 

There’s no official word on what the board decided to do after Dr. Nicolaides signed off just before 3 p.m., but the AU employee rumour mill suggests board members were unable to make a decision yesterday as the clock ticks down to Aug. 31.

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18 Comments

  1. Could the Board vote to change the name of AU to something like Cypress University? To distinguish it from the Minister’s alma mater, it could be legally called Cypress University Canada but that does lead to an awkward acronym. Life in Gas City might be more attractive.

  2. Just wondering… Maybe the board will resign en masse like many corporate boards to so as not to incur any liability going forward. This, of course, would probably be the end of AU. Amalgamation with the UofA might be the result. Ideology all the way!!!!

  3. The minister’s action had caused damages to Athabasca University. Why not the minister act by example by sending his ministry staff to live and work in Athabasca? Or create a Alberta North division of his ministry to serve higher education institutions in the north? This would be hundreds of new comers to the town of Athabasca. After the university’s near-virtual model has been in place for a few years, the minister now takes action against what his ministry had approved of or at least acquiesced to. He is at the least guilt of negligence and should own up his dereliction of his duty. The minister needs to resign first before had caused so much damages to the excellent university.

  4. Like everything else they touch, the UCP, is hell bent on destroying Athabasca University. Perhaps they can convert the site to a live-in drug injection site in 2025? Wait till the students, half way through their degrees find out there is no university, no professors and no refund. Who pays for those inevitable law suits?

    I guess Nicolaides wants “willful destruction of the worlds largest on-line university” on his political resume? Surely there is more to this story than we are aware of.

  5. Athabasca is a beautiful place, the people are friendly. UCP has transformed it into an academic Gulag. If one resident votes UCP, that person should have a full psychiatric work over, if a majority vote for UCP, UA should be properly turned into a mental health facility with basic Social Studies courses and such.

    1. Problem is most Athabasca residents do indeed vote UCP. That is why their MLA is a UCP member. It’s also why the UCP is pandering to them by pretending to support this nonsensical idea. They want to appease their base and protect their riding. It’s all just political theater. In truth, I doubt Kenney and his gang give a hoot about AU, or the people who work there. It’s all about votes.

  6. There have been stories circulating for years about a former mla who has substantial land holdings adjacent to the university. Maybe the land would be sold to developers….

  7. The writing is on the wall: work with the minister or else! The board will do what the minister demands. Dr. Scott will be dismissed with a costly severance package. Other management and faculty will seek greener pastures.

    Thus begins the demise of Athabasca University, which will be sold off to a private Christian college, or redeveloped into condos for a future failed Elliot Lake, Ontario-style retirement community, or how about a private care home to warehouse the elderly far from the prying eyes of anyone they know?

    Call it Kenney’s revenge on all those little people who work for a better life by getting an education that he can only dream about. How dare anyone work harder, be smarter and sacrifice to get ahead! Know your role and shut your hole, as they say.

    Investors, property developers and contributors to the UCP coffers will get what they want. Isn’t that all that matters in this province of fools where greed rules?

  8. The Minister seems like someone who keeps picking at a sore. Despite having a number of opportunities to stop it, he just can’t seem to help himself.

    His heavy handed approach will probably not work with the Athabasca University staff who will continue to resist and one gets the feeling even the board appointed by the government is not very enthusiastic about it.

    So it could become a big game of chicken, but if the government does cut funding then it will have to deal with a lot of angry students and the whole education system could be disrupted as they deal with the crisis of trying to quickly find them spots elsewhere. I’m not sure other institutions who likely have few additional spots open at this point will be able or willing to help the Minister out of his self created mess.

    This will likely be blowing up just in time for a new UCP leader to take over and so could overwhelm or upset whatever agenda they are implement. Its hard to imagine a politician could be this incompetent and stupid. So maybe the Minister and his boss are doing this as a secret plan to undermine whoever is Kenney’s successor.

  9. When the Athabasca University was moved to its name sake years ago, it was for the benefit of the university and the town. The community contribution has been ignored. Yes, they benefited as well. It was a collaboration. The original plan was a solid one,and there are unique and wonderful aspects to the community that city slickers liked to ignore. I fully support the Minister holding them to the agreement. If you’re going to be on a board and collect accolades and receive money etc, then spend time there. AU’s upper crust simply wants to get paid big bucks and not show commitment to the job or community. This goes back over 30 years and is not just a recent UCP issue.
    I’m glad my hometown is fighting back and the government is trying to keep the AU executive in line!

    1. “[…] it was for the benefit of the university and the town.”

      Can you please provide some examples of how this has benefitted the university?

  10. I provided a course design for Athabasca University (Green ICT Strategies), but would not have been able to had I been required to live near the campus. If the staff of Alberta’s universities are required to live near campus, the universities will have more difficulty recruiting the talent they need. The Government of Alberta’s actions are a gift for universities in other parts of Canada, and around the world, who will be able to recruit the staff, and students, being driven away by this action.

  11. So this is absolutely hilarious. The mayor of Athabasca (seemingly) claims the town was trying to avoid losing existing positions, NOT gain new ones. From https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2022/08/15/Kenny-Government-University-Debacle/

    “We want to protect the jobs that are here to make sure that the university remains an anchor employer in our community,” Balay told The Tyee. “We don’t want, and we didn’t want, 500 employees here.”

    Can the UCP do anything at all competently? I get that some people will defend their ideology, it is flabbergasting to me that anyone would defend their competence.

    The comments section also mentions this blog’s coverage as well.

    1. Neil: I’ve been paying attention to the Athabasca story for a few years now and I think I’ve got a sense of what’s what. I think what the mayor says is true. Certainly the town now understands that it can’t cope with an influx of 500 people all at once. The town would have to put up money up front to plan the development that would be required. There would be serious infrastructure problems that would impact everyone. It’s a problem the town is not equipped to handle. People in Athabasca would certainly like to keep the positions AU has now, but would like to see them back to work on the campus before it gets sold off or closed. But I also think there was pressure for the growth before anyone in Athabasca sat down and really started thinking about the implications. I also think the government is listening to the people who want to develop the property adjacent to the campus, not necessarily the town’s residents or its government. Indeed, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that land owners and developers have ties to the UCP. What I have no handle on is how much Dr. Nicolaides knows, if he’s sincerely pushing this idea, or if he’s responding to other people in the government who have their own agendas. DJC

      1. Thanks for taking the time to post this. I’ve really been looking askance at the citizenry of Athabasca, as though they are trying to finagle themselves a handout, and that may not have been very reasonable of me.

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