They are calling it Black Monday in Sudbury. The Northern Ontario city, made famous by its nickel mines and a Stompin’ Tom Connors ode to its raucous Saturday nights, is reeling from this week’s announcement of massive cuts at struggling Laurentian University.
Everyone is rightly looking for someone to blame for the financial mess that led Laurentian’s current administration to fire more than a quarter of the university’s professors and eliminate dozens of programs, from mathematics to midwifery. After filing for court protection from its creditors in February – a first for a publicly funded Canadian university – Laurentian this week broke another major taboo of higher learning by handing out pink slips to tenured faculty.
Dozens of professors earning comfy upper-middle-class wages were shocked to learn that they did not have jobs for life after all. The precedent set by the sacking of 83 professors – another 27 teaching jobs were cut through early retirements and the elimination of vacant posts – has some wondering whether the ivory tower is really a safe space any more. Many also think it is no coincidence that the carnage at Laurentian is taking place on Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s watch.
“We are watching today the effect of populist govts & their mode of thought. Laurentian University left to bankruptcy/insolvency wolves,” B.C. Indigenous lawyer Brock Roe, a University of Alberta graduate, tweeted when the axe came down at Laurentian on Monday.
Higher education consultant Alex Usher commented on his blog that “an administration that wasn’t so keen on sticking the boot into higher education would have taken a more responsible path” by lending Laurentian the money to solve its immediate financial crisis. “That doesn’t mean that the province is ‘responsible’ for what happened, because that would absolve management of things for which they should not be absolved,” Mr. Usher added. “But it does mean the province deliberately passed up a chance to sensibly solve the problems.”
The Ford government was roundly despised within the ranks of the academy well before the Laurentian debacle landed on its plate. On the campaign trail, Mr. Ford railed against cancel culture on university campuses in his province. Only weeks after taking office in 2018, his Progressive Conservative government implemented new rules requiring post-secondary institutions to “protect free speech” and “not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive.” That put a lot of noses out of joint on campus, where woke culture rules with an iron fist.
Next up, the Ford government cut tuition fees by 10 per cent and froze them for two years, without topping up university operating grants. For smaller institutions, which already had a harder time than their bigger peers drawing premium-paying international students, the revenue crunch made already tight budgets unworkable. For Laurentian, which appears to have overextended itself on capital projects it had little business undertaking, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent loss of foreign students left it with no choice but to call in the bankruptcy experts.
The university’s line of credit with the Desjardins credit union was closed last summer, leading Mr. Usher to ask: “Did the bank actually withdraw the line of credit? If so, why? Or did Laurentian University’s President [Robert Haché] actually choose to renounce the line of credit in order to provoke a crisis?” Someone will eventually need to answer those questions.
Laurentian’s largest creditors, Royal Bank of Canada and Toronto-Dominion Bank, hold $85-million in unsecured loans. That the banks did not require Laurentian to put up collateral may have stemmed from the belief that the debt was implicitly backed by the province. Laurentian’s court filing threw that notion out the window. That could have serious consequences for other small universities.
A proper analysis of what led Laurentian to this place needs to delve deeper than the events of the past year and examine whether the university, and others like it, have been pursuing outdated mandates they have neither the means nor expertise to pursue. Laurentian had a far lower student-faculty ratio than big-name institutions. It maintained dozens of programs that catered to far too few students.
Unfortunately, an honest discussion about that is likely to be entirely obscured by politics. Quebec’s National Assembly this week passed a unanimous motion denouncing the “underfinancing of minority French-language institutions across Canada” as cuts at bilingual Laurentian hit francophone faculty and programs particularly hard. Liberal and New Democratic MPs and MPPs – the Tories having been consistently shut out in Sudbury area ridings – accused the Ford government of showing contempt for Northern Ontario and Franco-Ontarians rather than simply cutting Laurentian a fat cheque.
You do not need a PhD to figure out it is all much more complicated than that.
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