Editor’s Note: On Feb. 1, 2023, Athabasca University’s board of governors removed president Peter Scott and replaced him with Alex Clark, the university’s dean of the faculty of health disciplines. At the time of writing, the board has not provided a reason as to why Dr. Scott was let go.
After months of disagreement over an online university’s role in stimulating rural economic growth, the Alberta government and Athabasca University (AU) have reached a funding agreement pledging to bring about 30 more jobs to the town where the school is headquartered, within three years.
The agreement, signed on Dec. 1, 2022, specifies that 44 per cent of the university’s senior administration work in the town of Athabasca by 2024-2025, which the government says is four of nine executives, and that the number of local employees should increase from 252 to 277. How the targets are achieved is up to the university to decide.
Those local employment requirements are significantly more modest than earlier targets. The university, which had just over 38,000 students last school year, was told last summer that 500 more staff needed to work in Athabasca or a portion of the annual $41.5-million government operating grant the university receives would be lost.
In Alberta, the government and the province’s 26 publicly funded postsecondary institutions sign contracts, called investment management agreements, that tie a percentage of funding to performance metrics. Now that AU’s agreement is complete, all 26 institutions have agreements in place for the 2022-2025 period.
Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said revisions to local employment targets for AU were made to help ensure an agreement could be reached. The final numbers are different than what AU publicly stated in the summer of 2022: that about 295 AU employees live and work in the area. When asked about this discrepancy, AU said two different data sets were pulled for two different purposes. The 252 figure describes employees living within the geographical area of the town and Athabasca County, while the 295 figure includes all roles based in Athabasca, regardless of where an employee lives. Some staff live outside the town or county and commute to Athabasca for work.
“I’m glad we have moved past this challenge and are able to continue moving forward together to build a stronger university there,” Dr. Nicolaides told University Affairs. Peter Scott, the university’s president since January 2022, declined to be interviewed.
Originally a school for distance education, AU relocated to Athabasca from Edmonton in 1984. At the time, the move was made by the provincial government to help create jobs and drive economic growth in the northern Alberta town. Over the years, tensions have swirled over the online school’s physical presence in Athabasca, which has a population of about 2,800.
Efforts to stem job losses out of the community coalesced in May 2021, when a local group called Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University started a grassroots campaign. The town’s council also got involved and hired a lobbyist.
In March 2022, then-premier Jason Kenney and Dr. Nicolaides announced directives for AU to strengthen its presence in Athabasca. The government went on to overhaul AU’s board of governors, replacing the chair in May, then removing four public members and adding seven new public members in October. Regulatory changes were made to reserve at least two seats on the board for residents of the town of Athabasca or Athabasca County.
A takeaway from the ongoing saga is that it’s critical to have a significant degree of local representation on the board, Dr. Nicolaides said. Appointing people from the community was instrumental in reaching a signed agreement, he added.
Meanwhile, throughout the conflict, AU president Peter Scott held firm on plans for a “near virtual” work environment. Those plans, which predate his tenure, allow most staff to work remotely on a permanent basis. AU’s 2021-22 annual report notes its cloud and near-virtual organizational design “makes it unique among Canadian post-secondary institutions.”
The signed agreement, however, directs AU to cease the implementation of the near-virtual strategy. Nevertheless, in a Dec. 1 statement, Dr. Scott said he was pleased the board endorsed an agreement that “removes the threat of forced relocation of AU team members, creates financial stability, and gives us the ability to continue to work near-virtually, which will help AU compete for talent.”
However, Rhiannon Rutherford, president of Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA), which represents more than 400 faculty and professional staff members, worries if the ongoing issue of job losses will actually be solved, as well as the precedent the agreement sets.
“One of the underlying themes of all of this is the extent to which a minister, a provincial government, can and should step in, and what level of interference or oversight – depending on how you look at it – is appropriate,” she said.
Some community leaders say intervention was necessary. In a joint statement released after the agreement was reached, Athabasca County reeve Brian Hall and town of Athabasca mayor Rob Balay noted “no other university in the province has attempted to leave from their community in the way Athabasca University has attempted to depart.”
Skepticism remains over the university’s plans to increase its presence. Just over a week after the new agreement was signed, local newspaper Town and Country Today reported that AU’s decision to hold a June convocation ceremony in Edmonton instead of Athabasca had prompted Mr. Hall to write a letter expressing his concern to AU’s board of governors.
For now, Ms. Rutherford said there’s a sense of relief that a conclusion has finally been reached. “Staff and faculty at AU are really, really hoping for some kind of period of stability, where we can just go back to focusing on the important stuff, on teaching and on learning, and not having to be caught up in this constant crisis cycle,” she said.
Hopefully the dispute between Athabasca University and the Alberta Government is over. It was unfortunate the Government placed at risk a world leading online institution, and unfortunate the university did not make more gestures to satisfy political imperatives. One gesture by the university could be a distributed convocation, broadcast from Athabasca. That could include a travelogue of the town.
A “Drop in any time for your parchment” offer could also be made to graduates to boost tourism. As an Australian graduate of Athabasca, it was not worth my travelling 14,000 km to pick up my certificate. But if I happen to be visiting Canada, a few days sightseeing, and a brief ceremony, would be attractive.