Thursday, November 4, 2021 | Category: Eduvation Insider
On Tuesday I summed up the substantial number of CdnPSE strike actions and governance concerns this year (“Liminal Moment for Labour Relations”), but deliberately saved Laurentian U for a separate issue. Considering the number of news reports invoking “lost souls” (students, faculty, and the institution itself), perhaps I should have scheduled this for All Souls Day…
“Has Laurentian lost the soul of what a great, modern university is all about? The answer is yes.” – Charles Pascal, Professor, OISE, uToronto
Since the crisis exploded at Laurentian U on Groundhog Day, I’ve returned to write about the “fresh crater in Sudbury” at least 27 times (using almost 28,000 words). Last time (“Laurentian Quagmire” on Aug 31), I observed the “eerie silence” that had descended in the aftermath of the institutional self-immolation. The “scorched earth” decimation of staff, faculty and programs predictably impacted Fall enrolment, the courts continued to side with LU administration over the objections of federated colleges and local communities alike, and the provincial government continued to refuse comment on a case that was “before the courts.”
You can review all my coverage in the Insider Recap, “Laurentian in Limbo,” but today let me sum up what’s happened in the past 2 months…
In early September (as is its wont), the media wrote sombre stories about the “difficult transition” LU students faced as they returned to a decimated campus and “destroyed” programs. The return to campus was “bittersweet” because as one student put it, “there’s empty offices everywhere, there are books in the hallways that people left.” OUAC confirmation stats showed a -33% drop in first-year students at LU as of Sep 8. Overall, first-day headcount was down -10% in French programs, and -14% in English ones, which president Robert Haché called “encouraging.” (It helps to have low expectations.) Sudbury’s loss was apparently Sault Ste Marie’s gain: Algoma U saw a +26% increase in first-year high school direct enrolments.
Unsurprisingly, LU came in “dead last for reputation” in the annual Maclean’s rankings, on 3 measures, and dropped from 12th to 15th overall out of 20 primarily undergraduate institutions (leaving it just 1 spot above nearby Nipissing U). In his report to Senate, president Haché emphasized that the ranking reflected “Laurentian’s ingrained and historic challenges,” and was not entirely due to its insolvency (or his management). “We have our work cut out for us,” he admitted, but he expressed confidence that a renewed LU will rise in the rankings in the years to come. (Ironically, LU retained its #1 ranking among primarily undergraduate universities for one thing: total research dollars…)
Federal research agencies CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC filed creditor claims of $7M against LU in bankruptcy court, while LU researchers complained that they had to justify access to their own funds. Even though tri-council funds disbursed since Dec 1 were flowing through a segregated account, it was unclear how much of the money was actually reaching the researchers for whom it was intended. LU claimed it was “carefully” funding “critical research,” while “non-critical research continues to be deferred.” Research funds from private fundraising and foundations may be entirely lost.
Anxious about Assets
Cushman Wakefield has been undertaking a real estate review to consider potential for monetization, and their report (which may never be made public) could be complete before year-end. All summer, the Sudbury community has been up in arms at the prospect that LU might sell off lakefront beach or forested hiking trails for private condo development. At least, LU redevelopment officer Lou Pagnutti is reassuring Senate that he’d (personally) be “surprised if there was a dramatic change in the greenspace.” (Of course, we’ve all had plenty of surprises throughout the CCAA process.) The director of the Vale Living with Lakes Centre, on the other hand, appears concerned that the purpose-built research facility could be sold off. “Even our infrastructure is now at risk for demolition and sale.”
“Unmaking” a University
Critics have been vocal about the way programs were “hatcheted” at LU, turning it into “little more than a technical school,” or “another technical college with little or no research capacity in arts and social sciences.” Many stakeholders were “aghast” when globally-acclaimed environmental science and Nobel-winning physics programs were abruptly eliminated. Those employees who still had jobs struggled with “survivor’s guilt,” while terminated faculty and orphaned students “felt like a lost soul again.” PSE experts theorize that LU may eventually need to recreate core programs like philosophy, math and physics, in order to continue offering a quality liberal education. OCUFA (quite rightly) insists that public institutions should never be subject to CCAA restructuring at all, and called on federal parties in the election to take a stance. The NDP accused premier Ford of “walking away from the crisis here” and “hiding” behind the CCAA process.
“Academically, what is left is a technical college serving industry and business instead of a comprehensive university serving the community.” – Dieter Buse, History prof emeritus, Laurentian U
It’s disturbing to see more of the same legal extravagance and evasion we’re been seeing since February…
Haché Gets Defensive
In early September, in the face of relentless negative press, president Haché tried to sound optimistic in a string of media interviews. The decision to file for CCAA creditor protection was “literally the only decision possible,” he reiterated, and cutting a third of programs allowed LU to focus more resources “in programs that students actually want.” “The new school year comes with renewed enthusiasm,” he said, and “our flagship programs in particular are seeing strong student demand.”
Suing for Mismanagement
The LU Faculty Association announced in mid-September that it had filed a “Directors & Officers” claim under the CCAA proceedings, alleging the university’s past and present leadership had mismanaged its finances, and seeking compensation through LU’s D&O insurance policy for misappropriated retiree health benefits, research funds, professional allowances and sabbaticals. (The D&O claims process is distinct from the rest of the insolvency proceedings.) The court monitor, Ernst & Young, has admitted that many LU funds were “co-mingled” and then lost. Sudbury.com | CBC
The courts have extended LU’s creditor protection until Jan 31 2022, but by late September president Haché was already warning Senate that “the exact date” LU will exit CCAA “cannot be unequivocally stated,” since it hinges on completion of the real estate review, liquidation of some assets, and negotiating settlements with creditors. (The LU Staff Union president, Tom Fenske, says Senate was told restructuring might take until the end of 2022.) In mid-October, we learned that LU’s RFP process, to hire consultants to conduct a governance and operational review, had failed because bidders either weren’t “qualified” or had potential conflicts of interest. Instead, LU then reached out and hired Australian firm Nous Group (which notably was also involved in the contentious restructuring of uAlberta last year, although LU isn’t reminding us of that). So far, LU hasspent more than $9.8M on its insolvency restructuring, paying for services from Ernst & Young, insolvency lawyers, a chief development officer, and bridge financing from Firm Capital Corp. E&Y projects the process will cost another $10M by February.
AG Takes LU to Court
You may recall that the Ontario Auditor-General has been conducting a forensic audit of LU’s finances since May, but last month we learned that LU’s administration “has consistently denied” her office access to supposedly “privileged” information and records, including minutes from closed-door meetings and 2.4 million emails (some of which “might” contain privileged information). AG Bonnie Lysyk says the Auditor-General Act requires LU to comply, while president Haché counters that “no Ontario court has ever ruled on whether the AG can compel audit subjects to provide privileged information between lawyers and their clients.” The AG’s court application cites an email from Haché that says he believes the Act “allows, but does not require” such disclosure. The court hearing is expected to occur in early December. CBC | Sudbury.com | CTV
As has been blindingly obvious throughout the Laurentian fiasco, the board and administration seem to have PLENTY to hide…
“If Laurentian’s administration has nothing to hide, why is it refusing to let the Auditor General do her job?” – Monique Beaudoin, Tricultural Committee for University Education at Sudbury
Although it remains unclear how the Ford government will respond, numerous grassroots Francophone organizations are pushing for an independent French university in Sudbury…
Vive La uSudbury!
In mid-September, former LU federated college uSudbury announced it was severing its Jesuit ties after 108 years, formalizing its secular status, and making French its working language. “This decisive decision… meets all the criteria required by the province to establish public funding.” (For its part, MCU says it will not consider funding uSudbury until LU’s CCAA proceedings are complete. Of course.) Then in early October, uSudbury announced it was transferring certain online Indigenous Studies courses to Kenjgewin Teg, an Indigenous institute on Manitoulin Island, which would open a campus at uSudbury and further develop programming. “This is a historic gesture of reconciliation and empowerment, which respects the autonomy of Indigenous peoples.” Later in October, uSudbury announced the appointment of a new chancellor, alumnus Donald Obonsawin, a leading figure in the Francophone community and a member of the Abenaki First Nation. Earlier this week, the Northern Ontario Coalition for a French Language University continued its calls for “three universities (English, French and Indigenous)… side by side” in Sudbury.
“The past speaks clearly to the fact that when Francophones control and manage their own institutions, said institutions are more reflective of who they are and of their needs.” – Denis Constantineau, Northern Ontario Coalition for a French Language University
The Tricultural Committee for University Education at Sudbury, formed in response to the “devastating local impact” of LU’s CCAA filing, is publicly “demanding” that the province shut down the CCAA process, remove the LU board of governors, launch a public inquiry, change LU’s mandate to focus on Anglophone education, and “facilitate the establishment of independent Indigenous and Franco Ontarian universities, including the transfer of Indigenous and Francophone programs to the new universities.” Sudbury.com
It’s still tough to tell from the outside whether uSudbury and its Francophone supporters will get traction for any of those “demands,” but…
Haché seems Worried?
Throughout this slow-motion train wreck, it’s been impossible to divine everything occurring behind so manyclosed doors. But I think it’s telling that LU president Robert Haché felt compelled to write an op-ed last week, almost pleading to retain the institution’s French-language programs: “We are currently at a crossroads, and one thing is clear: Laurentian University must not lose its French-language programs.” Haché reiterates that “the future of Laurentian is at stake,” arguing that a transfer of francophone programs “would cause an outflow of 20% of our student body.”
“There is no doubt that we have all had to mourn the loss of an institution that defined an era, but did not possess all of the tools required to ensure its future sustainability.” – Robert Haché, President, Laurentian U
Rest assured, I’ll continue to keep an eye on developments at Laurentian in the months ahead. In the context of the governance stresses I highlighted on Tuesday, the legal and financial maneuvers we’re seeing at LU may only be the most extreme examples for CdnPSE of some disturbing trends. I’m a little worried that my own sense of outrage has been gradually fading to a low boil as this outrageous charade drags on.
On a lighter note! Since this issue has more Francophone content than most, it’s probably as good a day as any to highlight a new campaign from UQAM, which (just coincidentally) highlights French programs in health, environment, and social justice…
Au Centre de Tout!
U Québec à Montréal says (loosely translated), “at UQAM, we don’t just dream of a better world. We create it.” In a series of :30-sec commercials (yes, en français), UQAM describes how health, environment, and social justice have long been central areas of expertise at the institution, and how UQAM itself is “at the centre of everything.” Even if you don’t understand a word of French, the use of bold animated circles and semicircles, which rotate and orbit each other, are a striking visual approach that stands out in CdnPSE marketing this year. Social Justice | Environment | Health
As always, thanks for reading! Stay safe and be well,
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