Tuesday, February 2, 2021 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Good morning, and happy COVID19 Groundhog Day!
For most of us, the past year in pandemic limbo has felt a lot like the unending day portrayed in Bill Murray’s 1993 classic film, “Groundhog Day.” (If you’re looking for a 2020 update, you could do worse than Andy Samberg’s “Palm Springs” – and if you’re a fan of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” you should have seen it by now!)
The unending monotony of life under lockdown, with most of life’s milestones reduced to mere shadows of themselves, and our sense of time disrupted almost entirely, certainly leaves us with the sense that life has come to a standstill.
And yet, it could be worse: things could in fact be accelerating relentlessly downhill…
The financial impacts of the COVID19 pandemic have overwhelmed small US colleges, resulting in the announced closures, acquisitions or mergers of dozens that were close to the brink already. But while many northern, rural or remote CdnPSEs have been struggling with their enrolments and deficit budgets, no public universities in Canada have declared a state of financial exigency, until now…
Laurentian in Creditor Protection
On Feb 1, Laurentian U took the “unprecedented” and “drastic” step of launching a formal debt restructuring under the CCAA, filing for creditor protection and court monitoring (via Ernst & Young). After a decade of “recurring deficits, declining demographics in Northern Ontario, the closure of our Barrie campus in 2019 and the domestic tuition reduction and freeze that was implemented in 2019,” the “various costs and revenue impacts due to the global pandemic” were the last straw. “Despite our best efforts over the last year, Laurentian is insolvent.”
The FAQs emphasize that this is not a bankruptcy, and the word “exigency” does not appear, but Laurentian’s microsite explains that the primary purpose of a CCAA filing is “consensual restructuring” with key stakeholders including “employee unions or federated universities.” The FAQs further explain that issues to be addressed include academic program offerings, the federated universities model, unsustainable salary expenses, new opportunities for revenue, and “all options to address current and long-term indebtedness.” (Those debts, it continues, include employee benefit and pension liabilities.) Laurentian’s prior collective agreement with its faculty association expired, and a new one “has not been negotiated to date.” The union will have until Apr 30 to reach a “compromise” so that Laurentian can emerge as “a fully restructured and financially viable institution.”
The province has appointed Alan Harrison (former provost at Carleton, uCalgary and Queen’s U) as a special advisor to the Minister of Colleges and Universities, Ross Romano, “on options to support Laurentian’s path to return to financial sustainability.” Romano emphasized that students “continue their studies without interruption” and warned ominously that the government might legislate “greater oversight of university finances” since other institutions might be facing financial challenges in future.
“Despite our best efforts over the last year, Laurentian is insolvent.” – Robert Haché, President, Laurentian U
Without a doubt, this will be a tough year at Laurentian, but to all my readers there: rest assured that there will be better days ahead, post-restructuring. Our thoughts are with you all right now.
If you think like me, you’re wondering what early warning signs there were at Laurentian over the course of 2020. Let me save you some trouble, and reproduce 4 stories from the Eduvation Insider over the past year…
May 1 2020:
Laurentian U has been on the leading edge of the COVID19 pandemic in Canada, since it reported its first case on campus on March 11. Its deficit has grown significantly, to a projected $6 million in the current fiscal year, and it estimates a shortfall of $15 million in 2020-21. President Robert Haché says, “if we don’t take action, the combination of a potential enrolment drop, our pre-existing financial challenges and new impacts of COVID-19, could be the tipping point that threatens the financial viability of the University.” All new hiring has been suspended, vacant positions eliminated, part-time and contract jobs reduced, and all non-essential operating expenses cut. Laurentian
Aug 17 2020:
Laurentian U has suspended admission to 17 programs this fall because of low enrolment, including Archaeology, Anthropology, Geography, Modern Languages, and Music. The “shocked” faculty association says Senate was not consulted. The university argues that the programs have not been suspended, only admissionsto them. LUFA and CAUT are seeking a judicial review. CBC
Oct 14 2020:
Laurentian U has hired Ernst & Young to review its financial outcomes and budgets, and propose potential solutions and opportunities. CBC
Jan 25 2021:
Laurentian U reports overall enrolment rose +4% in Sept, mostly thanks to online programs, and grad enrolments rose +12%. However, new first-year undergraduate enrolment dropped -15%, and some are starting to worry about a “lost generation” due to the pandemic. Laurentian is projecting a $10M deficit, due to pandemic costs, lost ancillary revenues, and residences operating at just 30% capacity. CBC | Toronto Star
As someone who makes a living scanning the horizon for clues about future trends, I feel some sympathy for the lowly groundhog…
Blame the Pennsylvania Dutch for the superstition of Groundhog Day, although they were merely reinventing a European tradition involving badgers (and before that, hibernating bears). Here in Ontario, we wait to see whether Wiarton Willie spots his shadow. Punxsutawney Phil has been forecasting spring weather since 1887, but this year will be the first time he does so wearing a facemask. You’ve got to admire the persistence of a furry prognosticator willing to keep on making annual predictions when his record is worse than random chance – and 86% of the time he finds against an early Spring by seeing his shadow. Wikipedia
(Yes, I know, that’s Bill Murray in Caddyshack, not in Groundhog Day.)
After a year of pandemic lockdowns and remote work, “the monotony of quarantine seems to have perpetually set the clocks to half-past-who-cares.” Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day has “renewed resonance as an allegory for the time-warping ennui of life under lockdown.” Not only do the days blend together, but without seasonal rituals or special occasions in our calendars, our sense of time evaporates. Ryerson sociologist Paul Moore suggests that the pandemic has made it harder to ignore “the iron cage of modernity” in which we have supposed freedom and yet no control over circumstances. Concordia film studies prof Matthew Hays observes “the abject absurdity of living through a global crisis you’re powerless to change other than by doing as little as possible.” CP24
“[Groundhog Day’s] tightrope-walking tone may recall the abject absurdity of living through a global crisis you’re powerless to change other than by doing as little as possible.” – Adina Bresge, Canadian Press
For the year ahead, we’re going to need plenty of patience and long-term optimism to stay positive…
Manage your Expectations
Many people want to write off 2020 as “the worst year ever” – but 2021 will continue to be fraught with uncertainty, frustration and anxieties. Those hoping for a miraculous improvement are likely setting themselves up for massive disappointment. Mental health experts advise us to manage expectations, celebrate “small wins,” practice self-care, and keep our focus on the longer term. This year can be a mental reset for those things within our control, and we simply need to practice acceptance for the things beyond it, and take the year one day at a time. Short breaks to meditate or be present in the moment can help us “feel more anchored and grounded,” and hobbies or volunteerism can provide purpose. “This is a really important time to create meaning in order to ward off depression.” It will also be a year that demands immense patience from all of us – including patience with ourselves when that proves difficult. Huffington Post
Everyone who postponed weddings, parties, or travel in 2020 is eager to remake their plans, to regain a sense of control over their future and feel the pleasure of anticipation. Making plans, says one psychologist, also allows us to quiet the “distracting mental chatter” of unfulfilled goals that interferes with our focus. “A calendar devoid of celebrations and social events doesn’t just make life dull — the monotony can feel heavy and unending.” (Sure sounds like Groundhog Day to me!) Washington Post
Several CdnPSEs have been reopening campus to some degree…
Cape Breton U faculty and staff have begun “trickling” back onto campus, after a year of working remotely. In-person classes are expected to resume in early May. Instructors can continue teaching from home if they prefer, but staff are encouraged to work on campus for at least part of their day. CBC
uManitoba has approved “a small increase in the number of employees attending our campuses” effective Feb 1. Deans may plan for up to 30% of staff accessing campus, but “all work that may be done remotely must continue to be done remotely.” UM
Memorial U staff returned to campus yesterday, and although some report “trepidation,” most seem to feel fairly safe. “It’s a step in terms of moving university back to normal operations.” A decision has not yet been made about academic delivery for the Spring term, but “it’s very unlikely” all students will return to campus. CBC
Others have made announcements about Spring/Summer delivery, and signaled their expectations for Fall…
uAlberta announced on Thursday that the current “combination of remote and in-person learning” will continue through the Spring and Summer 2021 terms. uAlberta
Dalhousie U announced on Friday that Spring/Summer 2021 course delivery will continue “much like the fall and winter,” largely online with in-person instruction focused on accreditation needs and experiential learning. Dal is “optimistic” that it will offer “an expansion of on-campus learning this fall, followed by a winter term that looks more like our normal academic experience.” Roughly 2,500 students have some in-person learning this term. Dal
Mount St Vincent U announced yesterday that primarily online course delivery will continue for Summer 2021 sessions I and II. A small number of F2F labs will run, but space may be limited by physical distancing protocols. MSVU
uToronto is expected to deliver courses primarily online this summer, as it has for the Fall and Winter terms, based on PHO guidelines in Toronto. The Faculty of Arts & Science has taken down a preliminary timetable that had planned many in-person options or even requirements for courses. UofT reportedly remains “hopeful” that more F2F activities can be held in the Fall. The Varsity
uWindsor announced Friday that courses in Spring/Intersession 2021 will be offered primarily remotely and online. As in the Winter semester, some F2F courses may be available “where current health guidelines allow and learning outcomes require it.” With the prospect of vaccination programs, “we are planning a safe and measured return” to F2F programming in Fall, “with a mix of face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses.” uWindsor
While Alberta doesn’t have a seal hunt, the government slaughtered hundreds of penguins – ironically, just bringing more attention to a student protest…
Don’t Freeze Our Future!
A dozen uAlberta and MacEwan U students spent 2 hours last Thursday building an “army” of 800 snow penguins on the grounds of the Alberta legislature, using 30cm tall moulds. The penguins carried picket signs with the hashtag, #DontFreezeOurFuture, and were to provide a striking backdrop – while respecting social distancing requirements – for a media event on Friday to protest provincial PSE funding cuts and 22% increases in tuition over 3 years. Sadly, before the event was held, Alberta’s Ministry of Infrastructure destroyed 600 of the penguins because they were “obstructions” that could pose a tripping hazard. Global
As always, thanks for reading! And rest assured, I haven’t forgotten Black History Month – I’m just still working on assembling examples for tomorrow!
Stay warm and well,
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