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The Northern Ontario School of Medicine building on the Laurentian University campus on Feb. 1, 2021.Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

The Northern Ontario School of Medicine didn’t approach the provincial government about becoming an independent university, according to the school’s president, but was pushed in that direction by the Minister of Colleges and Universities.

Dr. Sarita Verma, president of NOSM, said she had asked the provincial government for more money in part to cope with the financial fallout of Laurentian University’s insolvency. The government’s response was that pursuing independence and its own degree-granting powers would put the medical school on firmer financial footing, she said.

NOSM is jointly hosted by Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and Laurentian University in Sudbury. Under legislation proposed by the Ontario government this month NOSM would be given its own powers to grant degrees and create new programs, ending the 17-year relationship with the two northern universities that gave it an institutional home.

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Lakehead University president Moira McPherson was shocked by the announcement. She said there was no consultation from the government about the impact of severing the medical school from its host universities.

“It is just astounding that this would be done with no consultation whatsoever with any of the key stakeholders who have been so invested in the success of the Northern medical program,” Ms. McPherson said.

“This isn’t a good decision for NOSM, it’s not a good decision for the community and the partnerships that have been established. I’m worried about destabilizing medical education and the further erosion of Northern universities, which are so important to the communities we serve.”

Ontario’s Minister of Colleges and Universities, Ross Romano, declined to answer specific questions about how and when the decision to promote NOSM to the ranks of independent universities was made.

In a statement, the minister described it as an institution taking the “next step” in its evolution that would make it “more agile and nimble.”

“This legislation will allow NOSM to offer the same high-quality degrees they offer today, but now under their own name,” Mr. Romano said.

NOSM, which opened in 2005, serves about 460 students with med school and residency programs based in Thunder Bay, Sudbury and other locations across Northern Ontario. It has been particularly successful at producing graduates to work in the region’s underserved communities.

But it faces some financial uncertainty related to the unprecedented insolvency at Laurentian University. The Sudbury school became the first publicly funded Canadian university to file for creditor protection in February. The university had spent money earmarked for research grants to fund daily operations. Earlier this month, 110 tenured faculty were terminated and nearly 70 programs were eliminated as part of its restructuring.

The medical program has $14-million in endowments tied up in the insolvency proceedings at Laurentian University. It also has $1.6-million in tuition fees that Laurentian was supposed to pass on to NOSM, but that money has already been spent, Dr. Verma said. There’s also about $6-million in research money intended for NOSM sitting on Laurentian’s ledger and it’s not clear whether it will ever be transferred.

Dr. Verma said she spoke with Mr. Romano and asked him to provide NOSM with $21-million, equivalent to the amount tied up in the Laurentian insolvency process.

“I did talk to the minister and I said, ‘We need some money.’ We didn’t ask him for degree granting [powers]. We didn’t apply,” Dr. Verma said.

The minister’s response was that independence was a better solution that would allow NOSM to grow by offering other new programs.

The news has been unsettling in Thunder Bay. The local city council passed a motion last week saying the government’s proposal is not in the best interests of Thunder Bay or the region. Lakehead is concerned about the loss of prestige and research partnerships that accompany a medical school.

Dr. Verma said the fears in Thunder Bay are not justified. The school intends to maintain its ties whether it is attached to Lakehead or not, she said, and criticized what she called misinformation being spread in the community.

“We’re not leaving Thunder Bay,” Dr. Verma said. “We need that environment to train our students and residents.”

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