Is northern Ontario about to lose one of its only universities?
The news that Laurentian University is insolvent is crushing for both Sudbury and northern Ontario as a whole. Now protected from its creditors through the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) process, Laurentian is embarking upon a secretive restructuring process while everyone is waiting for the inevitably bad news.
The details are pretty grim. All signs point to the university being unrecognizable once the restructuring process has taken its course, threatening important signature areas like Indigenous studies and French, among others. The administration has apparently appropriated funding allocated specifically for faculty research projects and used it to keep the lights on. Contracts with three other federated universities on the Sudbury campus have been terminated. The restructuring process has been completely behind closed doors, shutting out important stakeholders and sidestepping collective agreements already in place.
The restructuring plan was recently drafted by a subcommittee of the Laurentian senate and voted on, but details are still scarce. What we do know is that the normal process of collegial governance, the principle of academic communities collectively and collaboratively engaging in important decision-making, has been completely discarded. Ominously, Laurentian President and Vice-Chancellor, Robert Haché, recently said that the university would cease operations at the end of the month if the restructuring plan were ultimately unsuccessful.
That’s a high-stakes decision, to put it mildly, and it’s actually contrary to the university’s own bicameral governance structure, in which academic matters are typically the domain of the senate and financial matters are typically the domain of the board of governors. Importantly, the CCAA process was designed and intended for the private sector, not a publicly funded university. Nobody is arguing that the creditors ought not be paid, but the CCAA process is obviously not the right tool for the job. Some of the most conspicuous creditors are Canada’s biggest banks, which means they’ll have an unprecedented stake in the future of a Canadian university.
So, where is the Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities, Sault Ste. Marie’s Progressive Conservative MPP, Ross Romano? Unfortunately, he’s been mostly on the sidelines waiting it out. It’s truly a remarkable thing to behold, because we know that higher education in northern Ontario is important to Romano. He’s naturally expressed concern as the cabinet minister with this portfolio. But more importantly, he’s an Algoma University alumnus, so you might expect higher education in the north to be personal for him. Instead, the response has been equal parts callousness and indifference.
According to Romano, “The government will be exploring its options, which could include introducing legislation to ensure the province has greater oversight of university finances and to better protect the interest of students and Ontario taxpayers.” At first glance, this messaging might seem reasonable. If a university cannot responsibly manage its own finances, the government has a responsibility to ensure its affairs are in order before forking over our tax dollars. Every large and unwieldy institution can find efficiencies if it wants to go looking for them, but we cannot understand this crisis by simply pointing fingers at the obvious financial mismanagement at play.
There’s a bigger picture here that requires additional context. Despite being the beneficiary of government funding, there’s a good reason why universities are endowed with some institutional autonomy. Their mission is to create and disseminate new knowledge and they can only do so in an environment that is free from undue constraint. Governments have a predilection for singing the praises of institutions when they do something in line with their objectives and throwing them under the bus when they present something embarrassing or inconvenient. Corporations have a predilection for availing themselves of (mostly) publicly funded institutional resources for their own financial benefit. The public has a predilection for valuing higher education in the abstract but demanding fiscal restraint from their elected officials even if that translates into low quality public services (like education). Caught in the middle of all of this are students that just want to learn, and academics (including nascent ones like myself) that just want to research and teach.
In the post-war era, universities grew significantly in size, number, and stature. They were considered integral to a robust economy and a vibrant democracy, training highly skilled workers and developing informed citizens. As a result, universities became important societal institutions that were no longer the sole province of the elite. Higher education has now become an opportunity for social mobility, increasingly (but unevenly) accessible to more and more Canadians and internationals, which has been a great thing.
Nonetheless, over time, public funding for these institutions waned considerably, especially amid policy agendas based on austerity. Every politician will mouth familiar pieties about the importance of higher education, Romano and Ford Nation included, but these words are rarely met with action. Students keep acquiring massive debt loads, teaching is increasingly done by sessionals with low pay and no job security, and university administrations are incessantly jumping through more regulatory hoops.
In response to waning public funding, universities have had to figure out ways to deliver high quality educational opportunities while diversifying their revenue sources. Some of these sources include endowments from alumni and wealthy philanthropists, tuition from domestic and international students, and sponsored research from government, industry, and private donors. This has changed the political economy of higher education in Canada and around the world.
It’s why a significant portion of higher education bureaucracy is devoted not to the noble mission of creating and disseminating new knowledge, but to the cold, hard reality of fundraising. It’s why every university nurtures its own coveted ‘brand’ in competition with every other university. It’s why university leadership is typically tilted towards the private sector as opposed to those with intimate knowledge and experience in higher education.
In sum, universities have responded to waning public funding by becoming more like a business, incorporating supposedly best practices from the private sector. Therefore, if and when they fail as spectacularly as Laurentian, it’s just the marketplace instilling a little fiscal discipline. In this sense, the Laurentian crisis is symbolic of much deeper and longstanding issues in Canadian higher education as a whole, so it’s sad that northern Ontario needs to be on the receiving end of a broken system that it didn’t create.
Sitting on the sidelines with folded arms and watching creditors (including big banks) decide the future of (northern) higher educational opportunities is not exactly good public policy. Sadly, the pandemic has resulted in two mutually reinforcing phenomena on this front. First, the bar has been considerably lowered for political expectations. At a time when most people have comfortably adopted pajamas as their default attire and are consumed with basic survival, it’s hard to expect anyone to have the discretionary time necessary to hold our leaders accountable. We only get the leaders we deserve, of course, but a pandemic poses a particular challenge for public accountability.
Second, and making matters much worse, the pandemic has been a godsend for anyone with an agenda that would otherwise never pass muster. This means that drastic policy changes can become a reality without much democratic input and accountability. The unprecedented restructuring of Laurentian is a good example of both.
Make no mistake: Laurentian might be reduced to a hollow shell of its former self. This will be a devastating blow to Canadian higher education and especially northern Ontario. At a time when we need politicians and policymakers to boldly steer us out of the pandemic with grace, good faith, and honesty, we seem to be content with precisely the opposite. Keep the pajamas, sure, but let’s not keep the apathy.