One year after Laurentian University began its restructuring under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), students’ needs remain the priority for faculty and staff. Despite the anger and sadness, the goal of educating the next generation is what motivates many to continue working at the institution.
Fear and nervousness are also part of the cocktail of negative emotions. University employees are refusing to talk to media, even with their anonymity assured. “They’re extremely nervous,” said Tom Fenske, president of the Laurentian University Staff Union (LUSU). Trust in the administration is at an all-time low, “because we haven’t had a chance yet to rebuild it.”
The lack of trust is shared by faculty members, who feel the administration is not being honest with them. Although they were invited to an online “engagement forum,” the chat function was disabled. “‘We don’t want to listen to you’ is the message they are sending,” said one faculty member who asked to remain anonymous.
When faculty do have the opportunity to ask questions, the president’s answers are often seen as meaningless. “I’ve been to too many meetings where I’ve seen either the president or the vice-president make statements and when people try to reinterpret them to make sure they understand them, they go back and manipulate their words and turn it around and say the person misunderstood. But 40 people can’t all have understood the same thing and misunderstood at the same time,” said the professor.
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“It’s about controlling the message,” said Mr. Fenske, who is also a technologist in the school of natural sciences. “It’s crazy if you think about it. We’re in a university in Canada, where free thought and free expression should be at the forefront of everything we do. But it’s been really muffled.”
President and Vice-Chancellor Robert Haché was not available for an interview. But the institution responded in a written statement, saying that it is “on a difficult and necessary path of transformational change. During the difficult task of restructuring, we are going through a complex process involving many stakeholders with the assistance of a court-appointed monitor and under the direct supervision of the court. Particularly in light of support we are receiving from the province, we remain confident that Laurentian will emerge fully restructured, financially viable and rejuvenated for the long term.”
The work continues
The faculty has lost about 100 members. LUSU also lost 41 members, 27 of whom were permanent. Some departments no longer have administrative staff, which forces faculty members to take on new tasks, often in addition to their increased teaching workload.
“I start my days with a plan and, with no exaggeration, there hasn’t been a single day since September when I’ve been able to follow it, because there are always things that come up that disrupt everything,” said the anonymous faculty member. The situation is affecting both their teaching and research duties.
Not everything is on hold until the restructuring process is finished, said school of liberal arts director and professor Simon Laflamme. When he started in the position in September 2021, he tried to recreate two schools through the new structure. He is not alone in trying to rebuild what was dismantled.
Along with his colleague Ali Reguigui, he also succeeded in obtaining approval for a new master’s degree in relational studies. Dr. Laflamme is also hoping to bring back courses that were cut last spring in fields such as language and philosophy.
Students are the solution
“In [my] faculty, there’s a lot of anger towards the administration, and great sadness. But at the same time, there’s great energy from the remaining faculty members to rebuild,” said Dr. Laflamme. In his view, the number of faculty members has decreased, but not their quality or ability.
“There are several professors who were heavily involved in saving a number of students’ degrees, because management hadn’t assessed the consequences of the cuts,” he said, adding that the relationship with students has remained the most stable and rewarding aspect of working at Laurentian.
According to Mr. Fenske, focusing on student well-being is helping staff find meaning in their work. “That’s one thing we can control.” But even that can be frustrating due to the financial restrictions imposed by the CCAA, compounded by the challenges caused by the pandemic.
“I’m relieved that I can continue doing the work that I love. My heart is broken for those who aren’t here,” said the anonymous professor.
It’s important to add that the CCAA actions were preceded by substantial cuts in faculty complement, as the following will demonstrate:
There were 408 full time faculty members at Laurentian and its three federated universities (Huntington, Thorneloe, and Sudbury) in January 2017. In August 2021, there were 228 full time faculty members left at Laurentian, while the three other institutions were forced to lay off all their faculty.
The resulting cut is of 180 positions, over 43 percent of the original total.