Laurentian University crisis a story of political interference and defunding of education

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Image credit: OCADFA R.A.M.S (Rapid Art Mobilization Squad). Used with permission

The interpandemic gouging of the public sector has begun. And they've targeted an easy sector for the kill.

On Monday, April 12, Laurentian University made history in the worst way possible. Leveraging a government-manufactured fiscal crisis, university administration, led by President Robert Haché, cut 69 programs and terminated 110 faculty and 41 staff positions in cursory Zoom meetings.

Social media accounts share only a glimpse of the shock. Assembled faculty and staff were read statements by an HR rep. There was no opportunity to reply. The provisions of the negotiated collective agreement no longer mattered. There is no severance pay, despite some having worked at the university for more than three decades. Pensions are frozen. People have no recourse to the Ontario Labour Relations Act, the Employment Standards Act or the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Administrators did this by claiming insolvency, citing years of operational deficits, and securing creditor protection under federal corporate financial legislation known as the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), a powerful law that strips workers of our rights. The Laurentian University Faculty Association (LUFA) gives details about the CCAA proceedings in its FAQ.

The goal of this law is to protect the corporation at all costs, workers and community be damned. The CCAA has never been used by a university to address financial problems; it's a private-sector process. For this to happen, you have to accept that a public university is a private corporation, which they decidedly are not.

Laurentian should never have been accepted under the CCAA process. Education shouldn't be designed by Ernst & Young and curricular decision making should not take place under the protective secrecy of creditor courts. 

A combination of fiscal mismanagement by administration and the chronic underfunding of Ontario universities has produced the Laurentian University crisis. Laurentian ran multi-year deficits and projected a shortfall in 2021 of $5.6 million. The university had accumulated $322 million in debt, as shown in the public documents of insolvency and this timeline. Scholars were shocked to learn that the university used research funds to pay operating expenses.

Exact figures and budgets were never forthcoming over the years. In 2017 the faculty association demanded university administration invoke the financial exigency clause of their collective agreement. Says Fabrice Colin, president of LUFA:

"We have a very clear financial exigency process outlined in our collective agreement that allows us to sit down at the table, examine any significant financial challenges facing the university, and figure out a sustainable way forward. Instead, they took this public institution into costly court proceedings specifically designed for private companies." 

Ontario's Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano has known about Laurentian's fiscal situation for more than six months and chose to do nothing. This is not actually about governments abandoning the post-secondary sector; it's about government intervention in existing laws that protect the autonomy of universities and colleges. By doing nothing, Romano was doing something. 

Romano has stated blithely that the Conservative government will now take steps that "could include introducing legislation to ensure the province has greater oversight of university finances."

Without any consultation, the province has already introduced legislation to turn the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) into an independent, degree-granting university. NOSM is currently federated with Laurentian University and Lakehead University. Lakehead's president called the lack of consultation "astounding" and the decision concerning. 

Defunding universities has been Romano's specialty, and he follows in the path of successive Liberal and Conservative governments. Ontario universities are already the least funded in the country and since the federal Liberals cut dedicated transfer payments to the provinces in the mid-'90s, the federal government has repeatedly refused to prioritize stable funding for the sector.

Less than 50 per cent of funding for colleges and universities now comes from government. Ontario ranks last in Canada when it comes to per-student funding in the post-secondary sector.

Provincial operating grants for Ontario universities have declined 9.2 per cent over the last 10 years and the 10 per cent cut in domestic tuition imposed in 2019 by the Ford government further reduced university revenues. The subsequent two years have been followed by tuition freezes with no substantial new funding. No one has yet tallied the costs of COVID-19 on the sector. 

All the while, expenses have gone up. Public universities are not private companies and the expectation that they should turn a profit in a competitive market is dramatically opposite to how most Canadians value education. Sixty-six per cent of Ontarians believe the Ford government should provide emergency funding for Laurentian.

Laurentian University is not just a service provider. It is a community anchor for northern Ontario and an economic generator in a region that's struggled. This assault is yet another act of "regional erasure." The university's tricultural mandate is to be a scholarship and cultural hub for English, francophone and Indigenous studies, which are supported through its federated relationship with three universities -- University of Sudbury, Huntington University and Thornloe University.    

After Romano's hatchet job, what's left standing is a business plan barely disguised as an educational mandate. Many of the programs were in the humanities and a disproportionate number were francophone. The school is closing its bilingual midwifery program, the only one of its kind in Canada. Its nursing program is unlikely to survive the cuts, a deathblow for some. Health care is a vital service in short supply in the region.

Labour studies, political science and gender studies are gone. These programs prioritize community relations and hone critical thinking, creativity and self-reflexivity, skills that we urgently need in an increasingly polarized world.

A seismic loss is the ground-breaking scholarship generated in the field of Indigenous studies. The Indigenous studies department at the University of Sudbury is one of the three founding departments of Indigenous studies on Turtle Island and is now in danger of being cut.

Over 1,400 faculty, Indigenous community leaders and other members of the Indigenous education community have signed an open letter calling on decision makers in the insolvency process to ensure the continuation of the Indigenous studies program. It's estimated that over $7 million in research funds raised by Indigenous researchers is likely unrecoverable.

By allowing this to happen without emergency supports, both the federal and provincial governments are ignoring the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's Call to Action No. 16: "We call upon post-secondary institutions to create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages."

Just days before the labour and social carnage that gutted Laurentian, the university cheerfully tweeted about the launch of a new mineral resources industry leadership certificate. This restructuring doubles down on ecocidal investments in the extractivist, colonial plunder that's killing this planet.

The evisceration of Laurentian leaves an exoskeleton of the privatized future of post-secondary education we can expect to take root across Canada if we allow this to take place without pushing back. What we are seeing exposed at Laurentian is the ugly face of the corporatization of the Canadian university. When universities and colleges operate like transnational corporate franchises dependent on tuition revenue and private money with marketplace logic, we create a society of power pushers, weaned on competition and the commodification of knowledge.

There will be those who say Laurentian is an outlier and there is no need for concern. Don't listen to them: they are the frog boilers of academia. The sector is already in crisis, and the austerity normalization creep began decades ago.

The grim reality is that Laurentian isn't an isolated case. When you squeeze public funding from universities, administrators turn to revenue sources that are unstable, and threaten equitable access, academic freedom and quality.

Increasingly, universities have had to rely on tuition, the labour of underpaid contract instructors, international students and private donors to replace government funding.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has destabilized universities that were already on life-support. Multiple universities across the country are planning for or have already reported multi-year deficits, including the one where I teach

We're used to governments rushing in to save the private sector with corporate bailouts. Canada's post-secondary institutions need emergency supports but the 2021 federal budget offered nothing to address the long-term, systemic underfunding of the system.

In the logic of what Rinaldo Walcott calls "the university as a hedge fund," administrators treat students like customers and curriculum like HR training for the private sector. The very idea of education for the masses as a social good has been put aside. Maybe nice copy for glossy magazines appealing to donors shopping for tax credits, but naive in the bull market.

Public education is the social glue of health democracies. Critical minds question, explore and challenge -- these kinds of minds and spirits are exactly what we need right now. 

Instead of defunding education, all levels of government need to massively scale up, invest in our collective futures and purposefully build truly universal, high-quality, accessible education that begins with child care and continues to post-secondary. This is the moment to do it. We're living amidst two intersecting crises that are mutually constitutive: a global health crisis and a climate crisis. Investing in public education addressing these two concerns is not just an elective strategy, it's a matter of collective survival.  

Min Sook Lee is president of OCADFA and an associate professor in the Faculty of Art at Ontario College of Art & Design University. On April 20, 2021 OCADFA's executive passed a motion calling for the resignation of Ross Romano, minister of training, colleges and universities, as well as Robert Haché, president of Laurentian University, along with his senior leadership team in light of their catastrophic mishandling of the situation at LU. In calling for these resignations, OCADFA's call joined colleagues at YUFANUFAAPUO in supporting LUFA and OCUFA who initiated this demand.

Join the fight for Laurentian: Northern Solidarity

Image credit: OCADFA R.A.M.S (Rapid Art Mobilization Squad). Used with permission

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