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Athabasca U’s ‘near virtual’ plan worries town residents

The Alberta government is supporting the community’s fight to keep university jobs local.

BY CAILYNN KLINGBEIL | JUN 07 2022

Over the past five decades, Athabasca University (AU) has grown into an online institution with about 43,000 students, headquartered in the northern Alberta town of Athabasca. But tensions are growing between university executives, townspeople and the provincial government over how rooted in Athabasca the online school should be, and who should decide that.

AU’s new president, Peter Scott, has advanced plans predating his tenure for a “near virtual” work environment that would see most staff work remotely on a permanent basis, with such a virtual workforce considered a way to recruit top talent. Meanwhile, residents in the town of about 2,800 have mobilized to keep university jobs in their community, arguing the near virtual strategy would be disastrous for the region.

In late March, more than 300 people crowded into the lounge at the Athabasca Regional Multiplex to hear Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and two of his ministers share their government’s plans for the university. They announced directives for AU to strengthen its presence in Athabasca — the boldest step yet in the ongoing saga over the institution’s future.

Bolstering a rural economy

Rob Balay, Athabasca’s mayor and a former member of AU’s board of governors, led the proceedings at the multiplex on March 24. He remembers the jam-packed room erupting when Mr. Kenney announced that AU was staying put. “There was the largest roar in that crowd you could ever imagine,” Mr. Balay said. Mr. Kenney first reminded the crowd of AU’s origins: how it was relocated 145 km from Edmonton to Athabasca in 1984 because the premier of the day believed “we can do big and important things in rural Alberta.” Mr. Kenney said his government wanted to ensure that such rural economic development continued. “A postsecondary institution is a community and it needs a heart,” he said in a video of the event. “It needs to be able to have a culture, and you can’t replicate that virtually online.”

Mr. Kenney and Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said they were amending legislation to ensure permanent representation of Athabasca residents on the school’s board. They announced they were asking the institution to develop a strategy by June 30 to maintain and grow the number of people it employs in Athabasca, along with a reopening strategy so that local employees could resume working onsite and the public could access registries, student support and specialized services.

Peter Scott, the university’s president since January 2022, was not in the room. While he declined to be interviewed by University Affairs, he previously told The Tyee he views the government’s instructions as a request, not a directive, and one he will not abide by. “We will have a virtual campus,” he told the Vancouver-based online news magazine. “And our strategy to deliver the virtual workforce, to make the virtual campus work, has also been agreed to in a long standing way.”

Dr. Nicolaides said bringing jobs and economic opportunity to Athabasca was part of the school’s founding mission, and his government wants to ensure that is not lost. “I have no concerns with the academic priorities of the institution,” he told University Affairs. “I believe they can and should continue to excel as an online delivery institution and reach learners where they’re at. But the main concern is that the near virtual strategy appears to also be decreasing the number of individuals that could potentially live and work in the community.”

Requiring people to live in Athabasca hampers the school’s ability to lure prospective employees, Dr. Scott told the Globe and Mail.

The issue of local job losses dates back to 2015 when the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) identified positions that were gradually leaving the area. The AUFA and the union representing support staff at the university campaigned to keep jobs in the town, but the issue didn’t gain broader traction until a community group called Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University took up the cause a few years ago.

Mr. Balay was involved with the community group, which has been raising awareness about the issue through a letter-writing campaign, among other measures. The town council and Athabasca County council also contributed $22,500 each to help hire a lobbyist from Canadian Strategy Group, Mr. Balay said, while additional funds were raised by the community group.

David Powell is president of the AUFA, which represents more than 400 faculty and professional staff members at the university. Some of those members live in Athabasca while others don’t; AU’s academics have worked remotely across the country since the mid-2000s. A self-described data nerd, Mr. Powell has dug into the local job loss numbers. He found that 18 out of 25 senior leaders at the university were living in Athabasca in 2016, while today only five out of 35 do. All told, there were 415 AU positions located in Athabasca in 2016; in 2021 there were 299 positions.

Since the premier’s announcement, Mr. Powell has heard questions about government overreach. The government went on to rescind AU board chair Nancy Laird’s appointment in May, naming Byron Nelson instead. But to Mr. Powell, the location of a university’s buildings and jobs are not within the spirit of institutional autonomy. “A university does not have a unilateral right to pack up shop and leave town,” he said.

Drifting from the community

AU has operated a “semi-virtual” work environment since 2006, according to its most recent annual report, with more than half of its staff working remotely. In December 2018, the board of governors approved a proposal toward “optimizing” that environment.

By March 2020, prior to any pandemic lockdown, 54 per cent of AU’s staff were home-based. In response to COVID-19, all employees that could work remotely were required to. Satellite offices in Calgary and Edmonton were closed permanently, which Dr. Scott has said reaffirms the school’s primary physical location in Athabasca. In May 2020, AU’s board approved the shift to a “near virtual” organization post-pandemic.

As a board member from 2014 to 2020, Mr. Balay had voted for the “near virtual” plan. But he said he was told at the time that the university’s Athabasca footprint would increase, as positions previously located in Calgary and Edmonton moved back to the town. “I don’t know how we got from that to the point we are today,” he said. As of mid-May, Mr. Balay said the university’s buildings in Athabasca were still sitting empty.

Mr. Powell said as jobs leave, the quality of life for AUFA members still in town suffers and the fabric of the community changes. “For a small Albertan town, it’s a vibrant, interesting place with a lot going on. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that the university is here as the top employer,” he said. The AUFA wants to see the university maintain or expand its presence in Athabasca, with decisions on whether to work in office left up to individuals, and inducements tied to required in office hours on campus.

Mavis Jacobs, a member of the Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University group, worked at the institution for 20 years in various roles, including director of administration and director at the school of business. She worries about the impact of the “near virtual” plan on staff and students, and feels the university’s fixation on moving everyone virtual, regardless of staff preference, flies in the face of the open, flexible culture that existed when she worked there. “They’re on this mission, which I call an experiment, because it’s really unknown how well organizations will survive in a totally virtual environment,” she said, adding there are local “trickle-down” effects too, from lowering public school enrolments to challenges recruiting doctors.

Ms. Jacobs, Mr. Balay, Mr. Powell and many other Athabasca residents will be watching the next stage in the saga closely, eager to find out what’s next for the future of the school and their town. “We want the university to succeed,” said Mr. Balay, “because if the university succeeds and they’re in our community, we succeed.”

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  1. Tom Worthington / June 7, 2022 at 23:47

    It would be a loss to the town of Athabasca, to Alberta, to Canada, and to students around the world, if Athabasca University had to close, because staff were forced to live in the town. The town has a choice: host a vibrant online university, and receive some economic benifit from this, or require staff to live locally, and see the institution close, due to being unable to attract staff.

    If the town doesn’t want a university, I am sure there would be political and financial backers willing to reform Athabasca University elsewhere, under a name like “Canada Online University”.

    Tom Worthington MEd, AU class of 2016.

    • John Ollerenshaw / June 12, 2022 at 13:16

      In proposing that AU will close if it returns to the status quo, Mr. Worthington has taken a leap of logic that would confound a kangaroo. Since AU was established in Athabasca, some 38 years ago, it grew seven-fold to over 43,000 students; it became Alberta’s biggest university in terms of student numbers, it launched graduate programs and it did it almost entirely from its campus in the town of Athabasca. The best and the brightest came to Athabasca in their hundreds and built one of the world’s preeminent distance education universities, second to none.

      The abandonment of the Athabasca campus, at the behest of ten-or-so entitled executives who can’t imagine the privation of living more than a block away from a Starbucks, is already proving fatal. Undergraduate admissions have dropped 19 per cent over the last year; AU is no longer Alberta’s biggest university. Mr. Worthington’s argument that AU will close without following this already failed experiment flies in the face of irrefutable evidence.

  2. Judith / June 8, 2022 at 17:00

    2,800 residents or 43,000 students who pay a lot of money….I think I know what’s best.

  3. Candace / June 14, 2022 at 11:35

    This is not a new issue for institutions in rural areas or small towns. The place I’m currently in, in the US, is in a northern town of nearly 60,000 – a metropolis by comparison with Athabasca. I’m in a senior admin role. We have HUGE issues with recruitment – and yet we are within 4 hours of a city with 2 million people, and 2 hours of one of nearly a million. We do always manage to attract people – but the applicant pools are not what I saw in New York, Boston, Toronto, etc. No, not everyone wants to live in a huge city – but many, many academics do. We want partners and colleagues and a stimulating academic environment. And yes, we want culture and entertainment – and I don’t care what you say about “a lot of things going on.” No. There aren’t. Not at the level that would interest academics. And even more of an issue is retention. I have worked here for 7 years, and I am leaving in August, back to a big city on the coast. Our VP of Finance has been here 6 years, and is headed to another big city. There are several other openings in senior roles, and in my time here, I have seen us go through multiple Presidents and Provosts. No one seems to stay forever. The place pays very well, and many people will come for 5-10 years – but they don’t usually stay. You cannot legislate your way out of the fact that you are not getting applicants. You can legislate your way out of what you are allowed to do – but if you can’t fill the jobs, you are stuck. I don’t see what choice the President of AU has here – if he wants to run a university, based in Athabasca, he’s going to have to have a lot of virtual employees. Academics can go ANYWHERE for jobs – and we do. I have lived in multiple countries, states, provinces – and under no circumstances would I have ever wanted to live in a town of about 2,000 in rural Alberta. Sorry. Some will. Most won’t.

  4. Daryl Parkyn / June 16, 2022 at 08:36

    As a person who grew up in Northern Alberta and was a faculty member in a small city with a large university (University of Florida) for 25 years, I am very familiar with how the presence of an active University enriches the quality of life the community. If Alberta is serious about moving away from a oil-based economy towards a more diverse model, it is important that it support the development of schools in like AU. The physical presence of the school, including in-person classes will help further this aim. My brother-law-law completed his MBA at this school and it furthered his career in so many ways, so I understand the utility of virtual classes. However, as an educator who taught in-person and virtual classes for decades, I also know that in-person classes are a more effective methodology of teaching for many fields. So I see strength in encouraging both streams of teaching. Covid messed things up for all schools. Time is needed for things to return to normal.

  5. Stewart Rood / June 19, 2022 at 10:05

    The 43,000 student value is misleading. The vast majority are part-time or taking a course or two for programs elsewhere (Home – Canada’s Online University | Online learning | Athabasca University). Full-time equivalent (FTE) is a common comparator, but this metric was not obvious on the website. The report of ~1,500 annual graduates from the one to four-year programs would suggest about #6 in Alberta in size.

    Providing primary funding, it is understandable that the Province would favor employment for Albertans, who would contribute to the provincial economy and communities. Many instructors had reportedly lived in Edmonton and Calgary, which has probably worked well.

    The university also has administrative demands, and in-person interactions may be efficient. Regular on-campus presence by the senior administrators could be helpful and there was apparently reluctance by incoming President Scott to reveal his residency, which could relate to a feasible commute.

    The situation with AU has been peculiar from the onset, with this recent salvo renewing some of the complexities.