A photo of the entrance to Athabasca University’s now mostly empty administration building just west of the Town of Athabasca
The entrance to Athabasca University’s now mostly empty administration building just west of the Town of Athabasca. Credit: Heather Stocking

What’s up with Athabasca University? Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides has threatened to cut off much of the 52-year-old Alberta institution’s funding if it won’t drop plans to move most of its operations into cyberspace from the rural town that serves as its nominal home base. 

Peter Scott, a British academic and university executive known for his work in online educational technology, was persuaded last January to leave a position in Australia and move to Alberta to implement a plan to put AU on the map by taking it off the map.

He was chosen to carry out the “near-virtual” strategy developed under a previous president that would theoretically end AU’s direct connection to any geographic location and recruit faculty anywhere and everywhere to lead online classes.

That’s not all that different from what happens at AU now, but it would have let the university save money by closing its physical campus and shifting infrastructure costs to academic workers, who would maintain their own offices wherever they live. It might have had the added benefit, from the administration’s perspective, of making it harder for a widely dispersed workforce to resist rollbacks and cuts.

Moreover, for several years previous administrations have let university operations and senior personnel move away from AU’s namesake town of fewer than 3,000 people 145 kilometres north of Edmonton. 

Last spring, Scott told media he had spoken with Nicolaides about implementing the plan soon after his arrival in January and heard no objections from the minister.

Regardless, AU’s board, mostly appointed by the United Conservative Party (UCP) government, wouldn’t have hired Scott, a PhD psychologist, had they not bought into the “near-virtual” vision and thought he could deliver it. 

Understandably, considering importance to the local economy and the fact the university was originally located there to provide an economic boost to the region, the Town of Athabasca has fought any move to further decentralize the institution’s operations.

Two years ago, town residents formed a lobby group called Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University and hired Hal Danchilla, a well-known lobbyist with strong UCP connections. For a time, the town paid the former co-chair of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s election campaign $7,750 a month for his efforts, which were obviously effective. 

In March, at any rate, Kenney and Nicolaides turned up at a community meeting in Athabasca and promised that, never mind pulling out, they’d make AU increase its presence in town. 

But a few days later in April, Scott sent an email to faculty and staff saying that, nope, “our operations, mission, and mandate remain unchanged.” The university, he said, would continue to hire “the best and brightest talent” regardless of where it wanted to live.

“AU’s ongoing work with our near-virtual workforce will continue to support our online virtual campus in Alberta, across the country, and around the world,” insisted the new president, who lives in Alberta, but not in Athabasca. “It is the board that runs university strategies, not the government,” he also said. 

Soon after that, Nicolaides ordered AU’s board to come up with a plan by June 30 to expand in-person operations in Athabasca and bring staff back to the nearly empty campus in the town.

AU submitted a plan on time, although some board members now say they never saw it.

But it didn’t come as a complete surprise when the Athabasca Advocate reported on Monday that Nicolaides had rejected the university’s plan and directed AU to come up with a new version more satisfactory to the government by Sept. 30

If they don’t, the Advocate reported, the government threatened to cut off $3.45 million per month in operating funds to the university – arguably a peculiar way to ensure AU’s survival in Athabasca or anywhere else.

On Wednesday, in a terse and not-particularly-informative memo to faculty and staff, Scott complained that AU never received any feedback from the government for the plan it submitted on June 30, “despite AU’s request for a follow up meeting with the Ministry.”

That complaint was viewed as ironic among AU’s far-flung faculty, who noted the same strategy was adopted by the university in bargaining with their association.

For his part, Nicolaides disputed Scott’s complaint, telling the Canadian Press he spoke directly with the current board chair, Byron Nelson, before and after the AU submission was turned in on June 30. (Nelson, a Calgary lawyer, ran against Kenney for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party back in 2017.)

Well, whatever is going on, it sounds as if some messages are not getting through to their intended recipients!

In Wednesday’s memo, Scott promised another update when the administration has had a chance to review the letter from the ministry.

“We are committed to continuing to work with the Ministry of Advanced Education to find innovative ways to work with our community in the Athabasca region while prioritizing the needs of our learners and our team members,” he concluded. 

Of course, the needs of the community are not necessarily distinct from the needs of staff, some of whom still live there. Students, who are found all over Canada and the world, don’t really have any skin in that game. 

So, at this point, there are more questions than answers.

Why did the government feel it had to threaten monetary sanctions to get its own tame board to tell AU administrators to do what it wants? 

If the board won’t cooperate, after all, the Post-Secondary Learning Act gives Nicolaides the power to fire its members and appoint new ones. Indeed, he sent the previous board chair packing in May

The board, in turn, has the power to fire Scott for endangering AU’s financial viability if he continues to refuse to follow the government instructions it passes on, although there would likely be legal and financial repercussions for the university. 

Nor is it clear why the administration would resist leaving a few more staffers in Athabasca if that’s what it takes to keep the operating funds flowing. If board members keep their wits about them, they may not have to deal with Nicolaides much longer anyway.

By the sound of it, if Nicolaides gets his way, it’s possible AU’s entire senior administration team – no member of which now lives in Athabasca – will leave as soon as their current contracts expire.

Stay tuned. There are bound to be developments, possibly soon.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...