‘A Putin approach’: Behind the layoffs of Canada’s top online university
Sir John Daniel is a world-renowned expert in distance education.
Over the course of a 50-year career, his contribution to higher education has earned him international distinctions, including the Order of Academic Palms of France, the Knight Bachelor of the United Kingdom – thus the Sir in front of his name – and in 2013, he became an Officer of the Order of Canada.
And so, given his status as a distance education icon, he doesn’t mince words when talking about being unceremoniously dumped last week from the Athabasca University Board of Governors by Minister of Alberta Higher Education, Demetrios Nicolaides.
“It’s kind of Putin’s approach. If you don’t get what you want, you escalate and push harder, when that might not be the most sensible thing to do,” Daniel said in a phone interview from his home in Vancouver.
Like three other Athabasca board members, Daniel officially learned that he had been fired not from the minister, but when he saw the executive order rescinding his appointment.
In May, Nicolaides fired board chair Nancy Laird and replaced her with Calgary lawyer Byron Nelson. Nelson ran unsuccessfully against Nicolaides for the United Conservative Party nomination in Calgary-Bow.
The dismissal last week of the four members, including Andrew Ko, a globally recognized expert in distance learning technology, follows the recent resignation of three other board members. Nicolaides immediately replaced them with seven hand-picked members to replenish the 17-member council.
“I guess we were seen as troublesome people whose primary commitment was the success and future of the university and not rural development in Alberta,” Daniel said.
With this massive razing and subsequent board stacking, Nicolaides is bolstered in his ability to achieve his stated goal of forcing the relocation of 65% of the university’s staff to the town of 2,800, to approximately 150 km north of Edmonton.
About 500 employees, including senior executives, as well as their spouses and children, should settle in the city within two years to support the economic development of the region. (Nicolaides later claimed that the number of 500 employees was only a suggestion, an open position in negotiations with the university.)
University president Peter Scott argued that it was not the school’s role to act as an economic driver for the city. But Nicolaides has threatened to cut the university’s $3.4 million monthly grant if the board of governors does not produce an implementation plan to meet its relocation directive.
The Board of Governors backs down
Daniel said the council met before the September 30 deadline set by Nicolaides to adhere to his directive.
Instead, says Daniel, the council “sent him a letter saying, ‘We’re not going to do this. But we have solid proposals in place on how we will increase our contribution to the city and the region.
Nicolaides did not respond to an interview request from Tyee. But he told other media last week that he had cleaned house to force the council to enforce its executive order.
“We have not, to date, received any detailed strategies or concrete commitments that work is being undertaken to achieve these goals,” Nicolaides told Global News.
“And so we choose to put other people on the board who have strong and very deep ties to the city and the region in order to be able to offer more information to help the team. of management to respect the directives of the government.
Daniel said cleaning up the minister’s board made even less sense given that the board had produced a workable solution that could satisfy the city’s and Nicolaides’ economic development goals.
He said Peter Scott and his management team recently met with the city about a proposal to establish a boreal forest and water research center at the university’s underutilized Athabasca Research Center. .
“They seem to be heading in the direction, as the university is proposing, of creating a research center for northern Alberta in Athabasca and generally increasing the contribution to the local economy in that way, rather than the stupid idea to move all the staff,” Daniel said.
Mayor Robert Balay, in an interview, agreed that the proposal had “real potential” and “was quite exciting.
“If they can find a way to use the ARC building to benefit the university, the province, the country, the community, then I think that’s a worthwhile initiative,” he said, adding, however, that he still wanted other university administrators to staff located in town.
Minister approved board’s quasi-virtual university plan
Daniel and other informed observers are baffled that Nicolaides would employ what Daniel called “the nuclear option” just as former prime minister Jason Kenney limped to the end of his shortened reign.
Kenney resigned after receiving just 51.4% support from UCP members in a review of his leadership. The party recently elected Danielle Smith as its new leader with 53.7% support.
Government sources told The Tyee that Nicolaides was merely following Kenney’s orders through his repeated attempts to force the recalcitrant board of trustees to implement a directive that Scott said could threaten the university’s survival.
Scott declined an interview request. But in a previous interview, he said when he discussed the university’s plan to move to almost entirely virtual learning with Nicolaides in January, there was no mention of changing that mandate.
The university is Canada’s largest online post-secondary institution, with all of its programs and courses specifically created for distance learning. It has more than 33,000 students in Alberta and another 10,000 in Canada and around the world.
The vast majority of its staff have worked remotely for years, and during the pandemic even more have worked from home, a trend other post-secondary institutions around the world are adopting.
City pushes for more college staff
For more than a year, an Athabasca group has been pushing to move more jobs to the city. They hired well-connected lobbyist Hal Danchilla, who has publicly stated that he was a campaign strategist and adviser to Kenney.
In March, Kenney and Nicolaides held a town hall meeting in Athabasca. No member of the university’s executive or board of governors was invited to the meeting, which was widely seen around town as a campaign event for Kenney as he strove to win support. support and sell memberships for his ultimately unsuccessful leadership vote.
During the meeting, Nicolaides expressed his “non-confidence” in the governance of the board of trustees and did not back down when members of the audience lambasted senior university officials.
In the months that followed, Nicolaides issued several ultimatums to advance his directive which Scott and the board not only ignored, but publicly rejected.
As The Tyee reported in August, a rural planning expert, along with senior university officials, said Nicolaides’ directive was logistically impossible to implement and would lead to a mass exodus of employees and, possibly students.
Balay said the city never asked or wanted 500 employees and their families to relocate to the city and he admitted it would be impossible to accommodate an influx of this magnitude in two years.
Daniel said he found it staggering that the government had ignored the interests of over 40,000 students “and instead acted at the behest of a small population in the city who didn’t really understand what was going on and didn’t didn’t ask what the government is trying to do.
“Is it really about the students?
In a phone interview from his home near Washington, D.C., Andrew Ko said he didn’t know why he was removed from the job, but assumed it was because he didn’t support the directive. Nicolaides.
And he doesn’t understand why Nicolaides is focused on moving staff to Athabasca when the pandemic has forced many universities to reinvent how they deliver education.
“That is changing, and some universities will survive and many will not in the future,” he said. “Because boundaries are no longer so present in your traditional way of teaching and learning. And universities are now trying to reinvent themselves to become financially viable and impact their learners.
Athabasca University was in serious financial trouble a few years ago. The plan to go almost entirely virtual stems, in part, from the need to survive.
Ko said that even before joining the board, he was impressed with the university’s leadership vision and the dedication of its staff.
“What impressed me the most at Athabasca, even during the short term I was with the staff, was that the people, the faculty, really cared about me, and I don’t always understand that. in the hundreds of universities I have visited. .
“And they’re very open to trying to reinvent themselves, to progress,” he said.
Ko has worked in many places around the world, interacting with many ministers, prime ministers and even presidents. He is diplomatic about Nicolaides’ attempt to force the university back to a brick-and-mortar campus.
“All I would say is, ‘Is this really about the students?’ This is or was the true heart of the university’s mission.
‘Will the students get more out of all of this because of the decisions that have been made?’
Daniel said that Nicolaïdes had handled this situation so badly that he “maybe he won’t survive the change of government, then maybe [the new premier] will look at that and say, “Listen, we have to calm this down and let the university do its job.”
Sources close to Prime Minister Danielle Smith say she hasn’t had time to consider the matter yet, but will be notified.