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Athabasca U's future seems brighter as Saskatchewan prof named to conduct sustainability review

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Ken Coates

Two things are abundantly clear after this morning's news conference in Athabasca University's Edmonton offices:

1. Alberta's NDP government is determined the perennially financially troubled distance education university will survive as a viable post-secondary institution
2. Athabasca University’s headquarters and the bulk of its operations will remain in the Town of Athabasca, about 130 kilometres north of Alberta’s capital city

Just how all this is to be done remains to be seen. Likewise, while it appears quite clear AU's mandate as a distance-education and open-learning institution will remain similar to what it is today, that too will have to wait for the outcome of the sustainability review that was the official reason for this morning's announcement.

So, to get to the lead of this story, Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt, interim AU Board Chair Margaret Mrazek and recently installed AU President Neil Fassina got together on the same stage in downtown Edmonton's Peace Hills Trust Building to announce the appointment of Dr. Ken Coates as the independent third-party reviewer who will try to figure out how the perpetually broke AU can be made sustainable.

Coates is the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

His mandate, which clearly comes directly from the government, is to review all AU’s financial and academic sustainability options after consulting with all sections of the university’s community – and that includes faculty, staff, unions, students and townspeople. Coates was categorical that he takes the consultation part of his mandate seriously.

For those of you have not followed the Athabasca saga until today, neither the location nor the survival of AU has been all that certain up to now, and could become murky again if the province’s government were to change.

Two years ago, a sustainability "task force" struck a year earlier by now departed AU president Peter MacKinnon issued a report that grimly stated, "based on our most reliable assumptions, we project the likelihood of insolvency in 2016-2017."

That highly controversial report blamed collective agreements with AU's unions for the severity of the institution's financial problems, recommended admitting students only from Alberta and called for pulling all AU operations out of the Town of Athabasca.

The NDP government later told MacKinnon’s administration not to submit a proposed budget it had drafted that would have included staff and faculty layoffs. Six months ago, the university administration came up with a second draft budget that included a $3.3-million deficit and again forecast financial insolvency, this time by 2017-2018.

At this morning's newser, Minister Schmidt -- sporting a new reddish beard -- was clear about the government's mandate to the board, headed for the time being by Mrazek, and to the administration, led by Fassina, a former senior Northern Alberta Institute of Technology administrator.

"We have stressed to the board and administration that Athabasca University has to maintain a strong presence in the community," he said. "I've made it very clear that our government wants to make sure that Athabasca University maintains a strong presence."

Suggesting the government may have reached the conclusion the gloomy predictions in the previous task force report and budgets were overstated, Schmidt said the NDP is also committed to ensuring adequate funds are in place to run the institution throughout Coates's sustainability review. "We've made sure the money is there to keep the lights on, people working and students learning."

Today's developments will likely come as a relief to students currently enrolled in AU programs, many of whom have been understandably rattled by the stream of gloomy reports over the past couple of years.

Four months ago, the Alberta Government appointed five new members to the AU Board of Governors. However, the search continues for a permanent board chair to replace Mrazek, who was appointed by the Conservative government.

Danielle Larivee appears to have become Rachel Notley's cabinet troubleshooter

Premier Rachel Notley carried out a small but significant cabinet shuffle yesterday, moving Danielle Larivee, a capable Registered Nurse who represents Lesser Slave Lake, from the ministry of municipal affairs to a new ministry of children’s services.

As municipal affairs minister, Larivee oversaw the government's response to last spring's devastating fire and evacuation of Fort McMurray, and as such is a logical choice to try to sort out serious problems in child services in Alberta that long predate the election of the NDP.

Irfan Sabir, widely perceived as having fumbled the government's response to the death of a child in custody, remains minister of community and social services, part of his former responsibility in the too-large human services portfolio inherited by the NDP. He is MLA for Calgary-McCall.

Shaye Anderson, MLA for Leduc-Beaumont and possessor of what is probably the largest beard in Canadian politics, leastways at the senior government level, becomes minister of municipal affairs.

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

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