More than six months after the provincial government announced directives for Athabasca University (AU) to strengthen its faculty and staff presence in the northern Alberta town of Athabasca, the dispute over the institution’s future is dragging on, leaving staff and students frustrated.
“It’s causing stress, and it’s causing uncertainty, and it’s also causing students to look at if there are other options,” said Karen Fletcher, president of the Athabasca University Students’ Union (AUSU), an organization representing about 38,000 undergraduate students across the country.
The situation has also created a lot of stress for AU employees, said Rhiannon Rutherford, president of Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA). The association represents more than 400 faculty and professional staff members at the primarily online university.
“It does seem like there’s a whole lot of big players kind of throwing their weight around, while the rest of us who are directly affected by whatever happens in the fallout are just left out, are just collateral,” Ms. Rutherford said.
AU was relocated to the town of Athabasca from Edmonton in 1984 by a previous provincial government, and while it never had a traditional campus in town, it does have administrative offices, a library, lab spaces and an Indigenous centre. According to the university, 295 employees – 24 per cent of AU’s workforce – currently live and work in the Athabasca area. By contrast, there were 415 positions located in Athabasca in 2016, according to the AUFA. (The university countered that not all of these employees lived in Athabasca County, many of those staff members commuted regularly, sometimes from distances as far away as Edmonton. They suggest the number of employees living in the area was closer to 336.)
Efforts over the years to address job losses coalesced in May 2021 when a community group called Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University started a grassroots campaign to keep university jobs in their town of about 2,800 residents. The local council also got involved, raising awareness about the issue and hiring a lobbyist.
Since joining AU earlier this year, president Peter Scott has held firm on plans that predate his tenure, for a “near virtual” work environment that would see most staff work remotely on a permanent basis. While the university considers such a virtual workforce a way to recruit talent, townspeople feel the strategy would be disastrous for the region.
Tensions ramped up in late March, when then-premier Jason Kenney and advanced education minister Demetrios Nicolaides travelled to Athabasca, announcing directives for AU to strengthen its presence in Athabasca. Their requests included asking the institution to develop a plan by June 30 to maintain and grow the number of people it employs in the town.
In a lengthy video statement published in early August, Dr. Scott said the university did submit a plan to the minister by the required deadline. But the fight escalated again in late July, after the government gave the board an “investment management agreement” that, according to him, directed the university to increase the number of staff working in Athabasca to 65 per cent (about 500 jobs) or lose a portion of the $41-million government operating grant it receives annually.
“The disruption and cost associated with relocating 500 team members and their families is significant, and it would have a huge impact on our learners’ experience and of course, our team members’ lives. It will add absolutely nothing to the university,” Dr. Scott said in his video statement. The faculty union also opposed forced relocation.
Dr. Nicolaides later softened on the government’s residency target, telling the Globe and Mail that the 65 per cent goal is flexible.
Government overhauls board
The dispute took another turn on Oct. 5, when the government overhauled AU’s board of governors, removing four public members and adding seven new public members.
“Many of the new members have a previous connection to the university and region and are in the best position to advise the executive on building a strategy that will grow local employment,” Dr. Nicolaides said in a statement to University Affairs.
It was the second time the government had intervened in the board since late May, when it removed then-chair Nancy Laird, replacing her with Byron Nelson.
Dr. Scott declined to be interviewed by University Affairs, but in a statement, Kristine Williamson, vice-president of university relations, said, “AU continues to work with its board of governors, the government of Alberta, the Athabasca region and other key stakeholders to find a path forward.”
Ideas from staff and students
For Ms. Rutherford, with the faculty association, and Ms. Fletcher, with the students’ union, that ongoing work lacks key voices. Both said students, faculty and staff have been left out of conversations about decisions that directly affect them. Faculty, whose union opposes a forced relocation, also remain worried that they may have to move.
“We’re very much in the dark, and 70 per cent of AU’s funding comes from student tuition, so students are a really important part of this conversation,” Ms. Fletcher said. “I think ignoring the student voice in this conversation, excluding it, really is detrimental to both the university and the town and the ministry.”
Ms. Fletcher said she’s heard some students are worried about whether their degrees will still be valid (they will be, she added), with others wondering about the future of the university. “Students are like, should I stay? Should I go? What should I do?” she said.
AU’s open and flexible learning model is a draw for many students, including Ms. Fletcher, a fourth-year student in applied math who lives in Ottawa and has three children. Online learning through AU made postsecondary education accessible, she said, as she could balance raising young children and her studies. It’s a similar story for many AU students, who face life circumstances that make accessing traditional education challenging.
As the government and university continue discussions – under new premier Danielle Smith, taking over from Mr. Kenney as United Conservative Party leader in early October — staff and students are coming up with their own ideas about how the university could have a stronger presence in the Athabasca region without forcing hundreds of staff to relocate. Ms. Fletcher envisions AU as a destination for academic writing retreats, while Ms. Rutherford said the AUFA outlined numerous “constructive ideas” in an open letter sent to AU’s board of governors and the ministry of advanced education, following consultation with its members.
“The sad part,” said Ms. Fletcher, “is this laser focus on where certain numbers of AU staff live takes the focus away from all of the really innovative things we could be doing instead.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on October 28, 2022.