On March 24, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney visited Athabasca, 145 kilometres north of Edmonton, to discuss Athabasca University’s future at a town hall meeting.
Peter Scott, the president of the university, said the school’s leaders were not invited.
Mr. Kenney told the crowd his government instructed AU, an online institution with about 40,000 students in Canada, to beef up its physical presence in Athabasca by consolidating administrative and executive offices in the town of about 2,805 people. The university, he said, has until June 30 to deliver a plan to attract and retain more employees to work in the community. The government would amend legislation to give the town more representation on the school’s board, Mr. Kenney said.
While the school was implementing a plan that would allow more employees to work remotely, local politicians in Athabasca were pushing the province to ensure a slice of the university’s staff remain in the town to help fuel the rural economy. Forty years ago, Peter Lougheed’s government moved AU to Athabasca from Edmonton to do just that.
“I agree with his vision,” Mr. Kenney told the crowd. Mr. Scott, who assumed his post in January and said he was first informed of the government’s desires in a letter dated March 22, does not.
While Alberta and AU’s leaders are at odds over the school’s mandate, the fight is not just about where employees live. It is a battle over independence for postsecondary institutions, how to best bolster rural economies and the future of higher learning and working. It is a crash course in Alberta politics.
AU in 2018 drafted a plan to create a “near virtual” campus, which would give employees more freedom over where they live. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this plan, and heightened worry in Athabasca, where about 250 of the school’s 1,200 employees are based.
Prior to the pandemic, about half of the institution’s staff worked virtually, with others operated out of offices in Athabasca, Calgary and Edmonton. AU recently shuttered the satellite locations, which Mr. Scott said affirmed Athabasca as the school’s physical home. AU’s employees in Athabasca will still be able, but not required, to work at its physical campus under the “near virtual” strategy.
Mr. Scott, who came to Canada from Australia, is steadfast in his defiance to the government’s plan, arguing that people working in cubicles in Athabasca does not constitute rural economic development.
“You don’t make the future work by winding the clock back to 1980,” he said in an interview.
Alberta, he added, is asking AU to “radically change our mandate to turn us into the economic development engine” for Athabasca.
AU’s mandate, Mr. Scott said, is instead to work in the best interests of the institution and its students. The school must attract top talent to do so, and residency requirements would hamper the online university’s ability to lure prospective employees.
“It would be absurd for us to dictate where they buy their groceries,” Mr. Scott said, adding the university was not consulted on the government’s plan.
AU, he said, can better contribute to Alberta and its northern communities on its own terms. It serves learners in rural and remote locations, educating Albertans who otherwise may not be able to access higher education. Mr. Scott said AU is second to the University of Alberta when it comes to the number of enrolled students from the province. Producing research on Alberta’s northern communities, he said, is more valuable than rent cheques to landlords in Athabasca. Residency restrictions would hurt AU’s ability to deliver quality education and research.
“Red tape is our nightmare. Institutional autonomy is the win for the country,” Mr. Scott said. “If you liberate Canada’s universities to drive to the future, that’s the economic future that Canada wants.”
Mr. Kenney and Demetrios Nicolaides, Minister of Advanced Education, instructed AU to amp up its presence in Athabasca after the town and surrounding community lobbied government. The “Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University” campaign began to percolate in 2019, according to Rob Balay, the town’s mayor. It escalated last year, as townsfolk believed AU’s proposed “near virtual” campus would devastate the community.
“It affects so many families. It affects our schools. It affects our tax base. It affects our businesses. To lose all those jobs would be millions of dollars out of our local economy,” said Mr. Balay, who previously served on AU’s board for six years.
The town of Athabasca and Athabasca County each put up around $23,000 and the community raised another $30,000 to lobby the government, Mr. Balay said. The group hired Canadian Strategy Group, co-founded by Hal Danchilla, a Tory operative with close ties to the Premier. Mr. Danchilla declined to comment.
Mr. Balay said part of AU’s purpose should be to bring good jobs to the community.
“I don’t necessarily agree with the university’s stance of hiring the best and the brightest,” he said. “I think it is about how you specifically target individuals that want to relocate to this area.”
This approach could be compatible with AU’s current hiring practice, he said: “If they think they are getting the best and brightest now, well, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.”
AU and Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc, a kraft pulp producer, are the area’s two largest employers, the mayor said. According to data compiled by Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University, AU’s local employee headcount peaked at 520 in 2010. It dropped to 337 by 2019 and 299 by 2021, the group calculated. The university says its employees in Athabasca would still be able to work from the campus under the “near virtual” plan.
Alberta created AU in 1970 and envisioned a bricks-and-mortar institution in Edmonton. The plan quickly changed to distance learning and in the late 1970s, 22 communities competed to become AU’s new home base. The Lougheed government, with a vision to boost rural areas by “decentralizing” major institutions, announced Athabasca as the winner in 1980. The town’s campaign slogan during the lobbying years: “Athabasca wants you, Athabasca U.”
AU’s president at the time resigned, accusing the government of infringing on the school’s autonomy. Board members followed. Staff members decried the idea of moving to Athabasca, which they viewed as an outpost short on amenities and cultural attractions. In the spring of 1984, at the beginning of the move, the university estimated 65 per cent of its support staff and 35 per cent of its professional staff had quit because of the transition.
Mr. Nicolaides said the government made the residency request because AU was drifting away from the Lougheed government’s vision of the school doubling as an economic driver. Senior administrative and executive roles migrated out of the community in recent years, he said.
“It is only a matter of time until all operations cease,” Mr. Nicolaides said. The “near virtual” plan, which has been in the works for years, also concerns him. “It is problematic to see that because an important objective of the institution is to help bring jobs to rural and local communities.”
Alberta has trimmed university budgets in recent years, but Mr. Nicolaides, in his March 22 letter, pledged money to help AU meet his requests. He told AU he would be “happy to explore any support the Ministry can provide to Athabasca University, including financial support, to help achieve our mutual goals.”
Mr. Nicolaides named Nancy Laird as AU’s board chair in 2019. Her term, along with the appointments of two other governors, expires on August 14, 2022. Since March 23, the government has appointed four new governors, all with ties either to Athabasca or AU prior to the university landing in northern Alberta.
Mr. Scott, who also serves on the board of governors, considers the government’s letter a request to consider, rather than a directive to implement.
“We will respond in that way,” he said. The new president feels blindsided and said Mr. Nicolaides previously assured him the government would not meddle in the university’s business.
“A lot of people have said to me a mysterious thing,” Mr. Scott said. “They’ve said: ‘Welcome to Alberta.’”