Tuesday, August 31, 2021 | Category: Eduvation Insider
As August comes to a close and students start returning to campuses across the country, our thoughts are with readers and colleagues in Louisiana, where Hurricane Ida has brought devastation exactly 16 years after Katrina. While the levis and flood control systems were better prepared this time, the hospitals were already flooded with COVID19 patients – making this a convergence of two deadly waves at once.
For this morning, though, we turn our eyes northward to a whole other kind of swamp. A timely chat with the Globe & Mail’s Joe Friesen yesterday has me thinking again about Laurentian U, which has endured its own unique storm this year. It seems about time for an update…
It’s hard to believe, after devoting space to the LU story in 25 issues of the Insider across 5 months between Feb 2 (“Groundhog Day”) and Jun 25 (“Friday Fragments”), that I haven’t seen anything worthy of an update in the past 10 weeks…
A Quick Recap
Laurentian’s implosion was one of the biggest stories of the year, and I’ve been maintaining an Insider Recapthat consolidates all my coverage of it (“Laurentian in Limbo”). Much remains murky and shrouded in secrecy, supposedly due to the requirements of the CCAA process. It is clear that Laurentian’s financial situation eroded steadily over a decade or more, with substantial mortgage debt on campus improvements and declining revenues due to government cuts, tuition caps, and sputtering international recruitment. (An abortive attempt to establish a southern satellite campus in Barrie also tipped the scales.) On Feb 1 2021 (just after the deadline for most undergraduate applications), Laurentian U shocked CdnPSE and much of the global higher ed community by announcing its insolvency. (Not “bankruptcy,” they kept insisting, although the subsequent unpaid bills, stiffed vendors and employees, wiped out athletics teams, euthanized lab animals, and a much-anticipated fire sale of assets is so similar to bankruptcy proceedings as makes little difference, if you ask me.)
Many dismiss the CCAA proceedings as a “manufactured crisis” (ok, including me). Secret correspondence in late January between minister Romano and LU president Robert Haché remains sealed by court order, but it remains clear that the Board of Governors, led by Claude Lacroix, pushed to commence CCAA proceedings even though the province offered emergency funds, and Ottawa would have come to the rescue of francophone programs in particular. Instead of a government bailout, the board seems to have opted for a “debtor-in-possession” (which may have been unnecessary), who they proceeded to make the scapegoat for a series of ultimatums (ultimata?) including the unilateral termination of the Laurentian federation, forcing senate to rubber-stamp a series of rushed cuts to 25% of programs, enabling a renegotiation of collective agreements, and unprecedented firings of ~200 employees including tenured, even world-renowned, faculty. It also appears that some $36M in misappropriated research funding never made it to the labs or researchers it was intended to support. And who knows how many charitable donations have evaporated?
Appeals by the federated universities, particularly Thorneloe, fell on deaf ears in the Court of Appeals back in June. Thorneloe has shrunk overnight from 2,500 students to just 40, in theology. uSudbury president John Meehan has departed for a post at UofT, while the uS board apparently gears up for a constitutional battle. (For its part, the LU board has reappointed Claude Lacroix as chair, citing more insistence from the shadowy debtor-in-possession.) The province responded quickly to preserve Hearst U and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine by granting them independence from LU, but has been largely silent about the fate of francophone uSudbury. Heading into a new academic year, LU was showing a 30% drop in first-year enrolment, what administrators previously considered the “worst-case scenario.”
Here’s what has happened at LU in the past 10 weeks…
In late June, the LU Senate was trying to sort out the unintended consequences of LU merging 3 schools (nursing, social work, and speech-language pathology) into a new School of Nursing and Allied Health Professions. The CCAA restructuring has reduced administrative positions, but could put accreditation in jeopardy. (The Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing has reportedly expressed concerns for years about the level of staffing to support the Nursing program.) “Decisions were made without actually thinking about the implications of those decisions.” Sudbury.com
Creditors in the Lurch
At the close of June, we also heard about 500+ unsecured creditors left “in the lurch” by LU’s insolvency and owed $181M – far more than the $6M in secured debt to major lenders and construction companies. The unsecured creditors include uSudbury (owed $444,000), Thorneloe U ($243,000), Huntington U ($211,000), Science North ($116,000), and a class-action lawsuit out of Mackenzie Lake Lawyers LLP ($45M). Creditors had until Jul 30 to submit their claims. Northern Ontario Business
On Jul 28, LU was granted an extension to negotiate severance pay methodology for 116 full-time faculty (LUFA), 41 unionized staff (LUSU), and 37 non-union managers and executives – and compensation for 1,200 past and present LU employees owed salary, vacation pay, administrative leave, research allowances, pension or benefits. (Because LU didn’t establish a separate trust fund for Retiree Health and Benefit contributions, that money has also been lost in the insolvency.) The methodology is a process to calculate employee entitlements – but what they actually receive depends on LU’s ability to liquidate assets. (It also applies to anyone terminated in future as a result of the CCAA restructuring, just in case.) LU presented the framework to the courts on Aug 17, and Ernst & Young expects to send statements of compensation claims to all by email in early September. LUFA president Fabrice Colin calls the process “unfortunate and brutal.” Former faculty union secretary Jean-Charles Cachon warns that terminated LU employees will likely see 1 or 2 cents on the dollar, “peanuts, basically” – and nothing at all before 2022. CBC | Sudbury.com
“A lot of the faculty feel like they’re a soccer ball being kicked around by the university, and the courts, and the province, and the faculty association is just caught in the middle of this complex negotiation, if you will, or battle, really.” – Charles Ramcharan, retired EnviroSci prof, Laurentian U
On Jul 8, LU announced it had retained real estate advisors Cushman & Wakefield for $273,324, to advise on opportunities to “monetize redundant or potentially excess assets” and “review third-party leases.” (Naturally, the first impulse was to keep the consulting agreement sealed.)
In mid-August, LU issued yet another consulting RFP, this time for a “governance and operational review” of LU’s Board, Senate, and operations as part of its next phase in the CCAA process. Sudbury.com
CCAA Protection Extended
On Aug 20, LU asked for its CCAA creditor protection to be extended from Aug 31 until Jan 31 2022. Its debtor-in-possession will receive an additional $350,000 fee to extend bridge financing until then, when LU will find “exit financing in order to re-finance and fully repay” the DIP loans. LU needs the time to finish its real estate review and develop a creditor proposal. Unsurprisingly, the courts granted the request (as they have pretty much every other LU request throughout this process) on Aug 27. CBC | Sudbury.com | Sudbury Star
Since my last update, actual news has been fairly quiet in Sudbury, but some groups have continued their vocal protests…
Most of the public outcry in July was over the 283 hectares of undeveloped land LU owns around Lake Nepahwin, including hiking and ski trails, beaches and greenspace, and a 10km loop of the trans-Canada trail. (Although adjacent to the Lake Laurentian Conservation Area, the lands are legally part of LU’s holdings and subject to liquidation to satisfy its debtors under CCAA.) “Eco-poet” Kim Fahner wrote publicly about the “sacred quiet” she finds in the trails, and how the community has grown to appreciate the importance of protecting the beauty of nature after 40 years regreening Sudbury. Editorial, op-ed and letter writers expressed concern about the community value of the greenspace, like NYC’s Central Park, the potential rezoning of the land, the need for new road access and inevitable increases in traffic, as well as potential damage to the regional watershed. Sudburians shared stories and photos on social media to #saveLUgreenspace.
“I worry that these greenspaces will vanish because of the financial quagmire at the university. These spaces aren’t just for the enjoyment of those of us who live here now, but also for those who will come afterwards.” – Kim Fahner, former Sudbury poet laureate
Back in June, the Institut Franco-Ontarien de Sudbury severed its ties with LU and relocated to uSudbury, arguing that LU “will become, de facto, an English university.” French students and faculty were relocatingfrom LU to other bilingual and francophone campuses across Canada. And the “Coalition nord-ontarienne pour une université de langue française” was denouncing MCU’s decision to fund more francophone teacher training seats at LU instead of uSudbury. Their spokesperson criticized LU for years neglecting francophone programs in its domestic and international recruitment, and then using low student enrolment to justify cutting 28 francophone programs – and urged the transfer of francophone programs and federal funding to uSudbury instead. The group hoped for a government announcement by St Jean-Baptiste Day (Jun 24) – but of course, none came.
“Laurentian has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the francophone community. It has abandoned its claim to value university education in French. Its actions deprive the community of future leaders.” – Denis Constantineau, Coalition nord-ontarienne pour une université de langue française
“Laurentian University doesn’t think in French. It thinks in English, then translates.” – Denis Constantineau, Coalition nord-ontarienne pour une université de langue française
Obviously, more than 100 former LU faculty fired or dismissed are an outraged, eloquent bunch with newfound time on their hands, so they are responsible for plenty of public debate. Diversity advocates claim that, of the 40 francophone faculty members dismissed by LU this spring, 38% were immigrants, 45% were women, and 20% were Black. “Save Our Sudbury” is a coalition pushing MCU to fire LU’s president, remove several governors, reinstate faculty, compensate students, and support the establishment of both a francophone university and an Indigenous university in Sudbury, creating 3 universities on the LU campus. Likewise the Sudbury Workers, Education and Advocacy Centre has been urging MCU to halt the CCAA process at LU entirely, and undo its layoffs and “union-busting.” For her part, new MCU Jill Dunlop has been reiterating that LU entered CCAA as an autonomous institution, and that the government is not a party to the proceedings. Sudbury Star
Like the rest of us, uSudbury has been waiting to hear whether the provincial government will grant it independence, acknowledge its accreditation, or provide any level of funding going forward. uS says it has written to MCU – twice – but those letters have “gone unanswered.” It has also submitted a 53-page business plan. The federal minister of Economic Development and Official Languages has recently announced $121M to support minority-language PSE ($5M of it for Sudbury), and the Ontario government would only have to commit “a few hundred thousand dollars” over 3 years for uS to access it. “Whenever I speak to civil servants they are incredibly enthusiastic, but there’s a silence from the minister’s side.” Time is running out, since the deadline to apply is Oct 14. “Once we get the green light, we’re all in.” All we’ve heard from Jill Dunlop, the new Minister of Colleges and Universities, is that the province will provide up to $4,000 in one-time support to 139 displaced LU students in selected programs, to cover relocation costs, credit transfers and higher tuition fees elsewhere.
“The government continues to monitor the CCAA proceeding closely and looks forward to taking steps in the future that protect and support the long-term sustainability of PSE in Sudbury and Northern Ontario.” – Jill Dunlop, Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities
Two weeks into the federal election campaign, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh held a rally on the campus of uSudbury last Saturday, to highlight the shortcomings of federal and provincial government responses to the LU crisis. An NDP government, he said, “would have acted much more quickly to save Laurentian University. Now, where we’re at, we would immediately invest to provide that support.” (Singh also pledged to forgive up to $20,000 of student loan debt, remove interest from federal loans, and double federal student grants.) On Sunday, Conservative candidates for Sudbury and Nickel Belt dismissed Singh’s support for LU as “completely symbolic,” while promising that “Canada’s Conservatives are listening” to francophone students and organizations that want funding for uSudbury. (Ultimately there is little any federal government will be able to do for LU, if the province blocks their efforts.) Sudbury Star | Sudbury.com | CBC | Timmins Daily Press
In the aftermath of many disasters, one is struck even more by the eerie silence than the loudest cries of anguish or blame…
Doug Ford and his minister have been keeping a low profile during the federal election, probably trying not to impact potential conservative votes in Ontario by making any unpopular announcements. But that likely means bad news to come, perhaps as early as Sep 21, for uSudbury, the LU greenspace, or both…
The Ontario Ombudsman is investigating LU’s offerings under the French Language Services Act, after receiving 80+ complaints about the transparency and fairness of cuts to francophone programs. Since that investigation was announced 11 weeks ago on Jun 16, we’ve heard virtually nothing further about it…
Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk has a team investigating LU’s books from 2010 to 2020 in a “value-for-money” review, but we have heard virtually nothing since their work began 3 months ago, in May. (Robert Haché mentioned the work as one of the drains on his administration’s capacity, contributing to the need to extend CCAA protection until January.) Surely if the review was digging up any wonderful “dirt” on Liberal mismanagement under premiers Dalton McGuinty (2003-2013) or Kathleen Wynne (2013-18), we would have heard a hint by now…
CAUT was outspoken back in April, calling for the resignations of minister Romano, president Haché and board chair Lacroix. About the same time, CAUT actually censured uToronto for apparently retracting an offer of employment “following pressure from a donor.” Yet somehow the last threat of CAUT censure against LU was in 2016. We know the LU crisis didn’t escape CAUT’s notice… so why have they been so silent? Are they grappling with the overwhelming scope of events at LU? Are all the key LUFA players now out of the picture? Or has the use of CCAA silenced all the usual arguments for academic freedom and collegial self-governance?
Although I’ve been waiting 10 weeks for a significant development in the LU story, none has really come yet. Clearly there has been no rescue for uSudbury in time for the 2021-22 academic year. Neither the province nor the federal parliament has stepped in to prevent public institutions from using the CCAA process. CAUT hasn’t spoken out to censure LU. Details of the Auditor-General’s report and the Ombudsman’s review are still to come. And so far we haven’t heard any of the shocking real estate proposals that are likely to come from C&W.
The waiting continues, and as I’ve been saying since February, Laurentian U remains in limbo…
After wallowing in that quagmire, perhaps we need a small palate-cleanser…
Shape the Future
LaTrobe U (Australia) is proudly in the top 1% of the THE World University Rankings, and this upbeat, 1-min commercial describes how “we shape the future” in partnership with employers and industry partners. We get glimpses of the latest technology, shiny facilities, and students tackling “urgent social and environmental issues.” YouTube
As always, thanks for reading!
Please do drop me a line if you spot something interesting, thought-provoking or cool happening on your campus, or elsewhere in the world.
See you in September!
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