The University of Guelph's decision to close two agricultural campuses has left communities in Eastern Ontario frustrated, worried and rushing to preserve some of the programs and jobs on the chopping block.
The university plans to shutter its campuses in Kemptville and Alfred, Ont., at the end of 2015 to save $7-million in annual costs as enrolments have sagged. Most of the affected programs could be relocated or replaced, but more than 110 academic and staff jobs will likely be cut.
Students, farmers and politicians say closing the campuses will deal a serious blow to local agriculture and economies in the province's east, and many felt blindsided last week when the university announced the move. It has spurred a flurry of activity to seek new partners who could revive some programs and keep the campuses running before it is too late.
"I consider this a slap in the face not only for the agricultural community but also rural and small-town Eastern Ontario," said David Gordon, mayor of North Grenville, the municipality that includes Kemptville, which is near Ottawa.
By next year, current students at the Kemptville campus will finish their programs, most of which will then move to the university's Ridgetown campus, some 650 kilometres away, or to Guelph's main campus. But many local students expect to feel the effect for years to come.
Each weekend and some weeknights, first-year agriculture student Colby Huybregts, 19, drives 40 minutes from Kemptville to his family's dairy farm in Crysler, Ont., to help out. He couldn't have attended a program in Ridgetown, he said, and now with enrolments suspended, he'll only have half as many classmates to network with next year.
"With the school gone, I don't really know what the town will have left, mostly," he said. "If Kemptville closes, then everything will be up near Guelph way, and we're mad because we're farmers in Eastern Ontario."
Guelph began managing both campuses in 1997, but had just 145 combined students in diploma and bachelor's programs this year, plus several dozen in short-course certifications. Funding has tightened, enrolments dipped, and "the whole thing is just not working," said Alastair Summerlee, the university's president.
Mr. Gordon predicted the Kemptville closing will cost his community at least 100 jobs and hurt other businesses that supply the campus. Many farmers are extremely concerned, said the region's PC MPP, Steve Clark, who has started a petition to reverse the decision, garnering 4,000 signatures in two days.
The outlook is more hopeful for the College d'Alfred, the province's lone French-language agricultural college. Sudbury's Collège Boréal and Ottawa's La Cité collégiale have agreements-in-principle to continue offering some of the programs – possibly at the existing Alfred campus – but exactly how remains unclear.
"When you take away francophone programs in a French community it is harmful, so this is the last thing we want to happen, so we'll do our share," said Lise Bourgeois, president of La Cité. "It will not be the same, that's for sure. But it will be similar, it will be of high quality."
Grant Crack, the parliamentary assistant to Ontario's ministers of agriculture and francophone affairs, said he remains "optimistic" new partners can be found to revive Kemptville's campus. "The commitment by the University of Guelph obviously wasn't there," he said.
But Mr. Huybregts, who hoped to stay on at Kemptville to spend two more years expanding his skills as a diesel mechanic, expects that opportunity is gone.
"Ultimately, if they just don't have the money or they don't want us open, it's hard for us to win," he said.