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The main entrance to the Laurentian University campus, on Feb. 1, 2021.Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

Tenured professors at Laurentian University expect to know Monday whether they will be laid off as part of an extraordinary restructuring aimed at cutting costs at the insolvent and debt-burdened school.

For many professors, the secretive process, in which negotiations have been held behind closed doors, has been a cruel and uncertain time.

Rachel Haliburton, who has taught philosophy and bioethics at the university for 25 years, said it’s horrible to see the lives and plans of colleagues suddenly derailed. She fears she and many others will soon be out of a job.

Laurentian University becomes a victim of a failing business model

“We can all see the writing on the wall,” Prof. Haliburton said. “I’ve been here 25 years. I’ve turned 56. I’ll never get another university job.”

The process will be devastating to Sudbury and Northern Ontario, she said, where the university has been a beacon of learning and a pathway for many students, 60 per cent of whom are the first in their family to go to university.

For weeks, she has heard of friends suffering chest pains and anxiety as careers that seemed among the most stable and secure have been thrown into turmoil. Her husband, also a professor at Laurentian, decided to take an early retirement offer. He had just 72 hours to decide whether to take it and secure better benefits or risk a worse settlement down the road.

Laurentian said a year ago that the pandemic threatened to tip its finances toward a crisis, but in the postwar era no Canadian public university has come through something of this nature. In February, the university announced it was seeking creditor protection, which gave it until the end of April to draw up a plan for restructuring.

It’s the first time a publicly funded university in Canada has used a court process normally reserved for private corporations, the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act, which gives the court wide latitude to achieve a settlement. The Laurentian Faculty Association, which represents about 380 professors at Laurentian and its federated universities, has criticized the use of this court process for a public institution. The provincial government has so far refused to heed calls to step in to help, despite protests in Sudbury.

Laurentian declared insolvency in February just as it was on the verge of being unable to meet payroll. It has debts of nearly $100-million from a building spree that didn’t produce enrolment gains and it ran deficits in the range of $2-million to $5-million a year for several years, according to its court filings. It also spent millions in grants earmarked for research to keep the lights on, owing in part to the practice of having just one bank account where incoming funds from various sources were mixed.

The university argued in court filings that its operations are inefficient: There are too many faculty, too many programs and classes are too small. More than half the university’s courses have fewer than 15 students, the court documents say. Laurentian’s undergraduate enrolment is about 6,000 students, roughly the same as in 2007.

Laurentian has made clear it intends to reduce teaching costs through the insolvency process, rather than through the financial exigency clause in its collective agreements.

Faculty say they tried to negotiate with the university for months before the insolvency was triggered, but the university refused.

Jean-Charles Cachon, a professor in business and secretary-treasurer of the faculty association, said the past few months have been an eerie time at the university.

The administration seems to have turned against successful programs that had positive evaluations. Small class sizes, once sold to prospective students as a strength, have been recast as a weakness, he said.

“There are so many distortions and discrepancies,” he said. “It’s awful. I’ve been teaching over 40 years and I could be out of a job.”

One of the reasons Laurentian has smaller classes and a relatively large number of programs is its mandate. It was conceived as a bilingual institution that offers courses in French and English. But its mandate is also tricultural, reflecting the local French, English and Indigenous communities. There are fears that its unique character could be sacrificed in the restructuring. The university president, Robert Haché, has tried to reassure the community that those mandates will remain central to what he has called “Laurentian 2.0.”

The university this month dissolved its relationship with the federated universities that were at its heart – the University of Sudbury, Thorneloe University and Huntington University. The federated universities, associated with the Catholic, Anglican and United churches, respectively, banded together in the early 1960s under the Laurentian umbrella to receive public funding as part of the new secular institution for Northern Ontario.

Today, the federated universities employ professors in fields such as philosophy, gender studies and Indigenous studies who teach Laurentian students. Many of those faculty now fear their jobs could disappear.

Réal Fillion, a professor of philosophy for 25 years at Sudbury, worries his career could end prematurely. He said he doesn’t know what will happen, in part because information is tightly held under the secretive, court-controlled insolvency process.

“It’s just complete silence. We don’t know. Our union suggests it will wind down,” Prof. Fillion said. “I’m not the first 57-year-old to face a layoff due to insolvency. But at a university ... it doesn’t make any sense. One of the reasons you have tenure is to protect modes of inquiry.”

Many faculty members wonder what kind of institution will emerge from the insolvency process.

Plans for the new structure were voted on at a university senate meeting last week, but the contents remain secret for now. There’s a belief among faculty that administrators will try to create a more streamlined institution focused on research strengths in mining and natural resources and sacrifice faculty in arts and humanities.

Prof. Fillion argues a university is distinguished in many ways by the electives it offers.

“We don’t expect to graduate a lot of philosophers, but every university should want its students to graduate with some understanding of philosophy,” he said.

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