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Athabasca University documents suggest institution's leadership remains out of sync with Alberta's NDP government

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Athabasca University

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Two recently completed reviews springing from Athabasca University's grim 2015 Task Force report on the institution's clouded future suggest AU's senior administration and board remain out of sync with the direction they have been given by the provincial government.

The Task Force, appointed in 2014 by AU Interim President Peter MacKinnon suggested the university could be insolvent by the current fiscal year. With a Progressive Conservative government still in power, it was expected AU would solve its controversial funding shortfall by slashing jobs.

The Business and Student Services Practices Process Review, dated June 10, 2016, and the Educational Review, dated April 2016, copies of which have been obtained by AlbertaPolitics.ca, are in theory designed to help the distance-education university in the northern Alberta Town of Athabasca move toward sustainability in a new era of NDP government.

They propose mainly incremental changes, some in conflict with directives given by Alberta's new government.

Meanwhile, a motion of the Board of Governors at its meeting last Friday suggests Tory-appointed board members and the university's senior administrators are not happy with the direction they have been given by the government.

A June 2 email to faculty and staff, moreover, indicates that the board, in which the government pretty clearly lacks confidence, has come up with a shortlist of three candidates for president.

Finally, there's still no word on when the NDP government will appoint a new board chair -- although a search officially commenced on March 25.

In other words, the troubled university continues to drift, with members of the AU community growing frustrated -- some of them frustrated enough to quit -- and wondering when the government is going to take measures necessary to ensure AU gets its house in order.

The Educational Review document contains relatively little of substance. The more significant Business Practices Review, which is said to have cost $300,000 to produce, projects savings of $3.4 million a year at the end of seven years (with an up-front cost of $1.6 million).

But such a saving may just be a consultant's dream. Even if it is realized, it's not really that big in the context of an institution with an annual budget of $130 million.

One recommendation calls for a move to "zero-based budgeting," the sort of thing popular in conservative ideological circles but unlikely to yield the promised savings of just under $2 million a year since the institution must make long-term commitments to known numbers of students based on known costs.

The second largest promised saving, $1.2 million a year, comes from alternate service delivery for Information Technology. To those who have been following this story, this will sound familiar -- because it would require contracting out the university's IT staff. This is precisely what the government has told AU not to do.

It seems odd, to say the least, that AU would put forward such a plan when it is unlikely the government would allow it to act on it. Clearly, the parties are still not singing from the same hymnbook, notwithstanding the clear directions of the choirmaster, who now would be Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt.

Then again, as is illustrated by last Friday's board motion, No. 211-05 on the linked document, board members appear to be at odds with the government's instructions that they not use layoffs of staff and faculty to find savings, which the government has determined would have an economically devastating impact to the town of Athabasca, 145 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Early in the year, Schmidt instructed the university not to release its planned budget, which was then rumoured to include layoffs. Now that board has rolled out a report that, if implemented, would result in layoffs.

The Board motion also confirms earlier reports that the government wants a third-party to review the university's operations -- yet another strong indicator it lacks confidence in the university's administration and board.

So where does this leave us? It seems we have a demoralized post-secondary institution with a murky future, led by officials who do not share the province's vision, and a government reluctant to act decisively to resolve the institution's problems -- as they showed they could do just two days ago in albeit rather different circumstances in the case of the Agricultural Financial Services Corporation.

This is not a formula for success. Schmidt, the minister responsible, needs to cut the Gordian Knot!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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