Education

Insolvency declaration at Laurentian throws much into limbo

Department by department, 100 faculty members at Laurentian University in northern Ontario were called to Zoom meetings earlier this month and unceremoniously told they’d be out of a job by May 15 at the latest.

“Today was a difficult day and we recognize that,” Robert Haché, president, said in a statement after the mass layoffs. “All of our faculty and staff are part of the fabric of Laurentian, and these changes will require a period of profound adjustment.”

To professors — who knew the situation at Laurentian was bad, but not that bad — that is a profound understatement.

“The cuts were much deeper than we expected. And those of us that are left to pick up the pieces are struggling with trying to empathize and deal with the loss of our colleagues,” said Thomas Merritt, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry who will keep his position. “There’s no way to make that go away, and it’s a very difficult thing to process. Those of us that are left have got to figure out a way to go forward.”

Laurentian referred all questions about the layoffs and its future to a series of public announcements.

Insolvency … and Questions

Laurentian filed for creditor protection and declared itself insolvent in February. Yet at the time, the university said students and day-to-day operations wouldn’t be significantly affected during financial restructuring.

That hasn’t really panned out. In addition to the faculty cuts, dozens of programs are ending with this semester, and there is no comprehensive teach-out plan for students whose courses of study are disappearing. International students are particularly concerned about what happens next, given that their legal status in Canada depends on what they’re studying, where.

Whether Laurentian can continue to fulfill its unique-in-Canada tricultural mandate to serve Anglophone, Francophone and Indigenous students with 110 fewer faculty members — a quarter of the faculty — also remains to be seen.

“That’s the question of the day, right?” said Nadia Verrelli, a professor of political science who, along with her entire department, just lost her job. “The university in public communications says it’s committed to moving forward and fulfilling its bilingual and tricultural mandate, but I just don’t know, looking at the programs that were cut, if it can or how it can.”

When Verrelli and her department colleagues are gone, Laurentian will have no more political scientists, and no more political science. Among other canceled undergraduate programs are philosophy, music, modern languages, physics, geography, ecology, environmental science, math, anthropology, labor studies and midwifery. That’s just in English. Laurentian is cutting more than 20 Francophone programs as well, along with numerous master’s programs offered in French and English.

As part of its financial restructuring, Laurentian also announced that it is ending its federated agreement with nearby universities. This is not symbolic: Laurentian is the degree-granting institution and a major source of revenue for those three institutions, meaning that Laurentian’s mess throws their futures into limbo, as well.

Mary Ann Corbiere, professor of Indigenous studies, is technically employed by one of those partner universities, the University of Sudbury, in one of Canada’s oldest Indigenous studies programs. But she and her immediate colleagues teach many Laurentian students, as Laurentian doesn’t have its own Indigenous studies department.

Now, Corbiere said, unless something changes, students won’t get credit for taking Indigenous studies courses at Sudbury. And even if they somehow enrolled anyway, she added, it’s unclear how their professors would get paid.

A Broken Federation

“This is how it’s all so inconsistent, because Haché didn’t say that the Indigenous studies department or any of the federated programs are being terminated,” Corbiere said. “But he said it indirectly when he said that credits are not going to be recognized from any courses offered at those places.”

Guy Chamberland, chair of ancient studies and classical studies at another federated institution, Thorneloe University, said, “Our academic programs cannot currently exist outside the Laurentian federation.” With the single exception of a theology program, he said, Thorneloe programs are Laurentian programs, and “our students, therefore, obtain a Laurentian degree.”

Laurentian and the third federated institution, Huntington University, recently reached an agreement to keep Huntington’s gerontology program running through Laurentian. But what happens to the rest of Huntington’s programs, as well as all of Sudbury’s and Thorneloe’s? That’s a legal question now: both Sudbury and Thorneloe are fighting Laurentian’s plan to sever ties with them in court.

Thorneloe’s motion, for example, argues that Laurentian can’t unilaterally cancel an agreement that dates back to 1962. Thorneloe further argues that terminating the agreement won’t help Laurentian out financially in any meaningful way and that Thorneloe, as a much smaller institution, will pay the price for a crisis it didn’t cause.

Regarding Indigenous studies, Laurentian says it reached an agreement with Sudbury to off six distance-learning courses by sessional instructors this spring. Going forward, Laurentian says it’s “committed to ensuring that the approximately 140 students who were registered in the indigenous studies program at the University of Sudbury have access to courses rooted in indigenous perspectives already on offer through Laurentian’s Faculty of Arts, in a variety of disciplines.” It also pitched the idea of an Indigenous perspectives program.

Program Quality in Jeopardy

Corbiere, of Sudbury, said that’s not at all the same as offering a department-based course of study led by trained Indigenous studies scholars who are actively engaged in Indigenous studies research — most of whom are Indigenous themselves.

“Oh, it’s monumentally offensive. Highly regressive,” Corbiere said of Laurentian’s proposal. “All we can do is laugh at the ludicrousness of this whole thing, otherwise we want to cry. Yeah, it is just unfathomable.”

Laurentian says that a group of faculty senators, who are involved the court-supervised mediation process, actively participated in reviewing and making recommendations about terminated programs.

But Verrelli and other professors say it remains something of a mystery to the faculty as a whole why Laurentian cut what it did.

“There’s a lot of confusion and devastation over the way in which we were told,” said Verrelli. “It was just a very cold, inhumane way letting us know, and no information was provided. There was no time for discussion, no clarification why we specifically were let go. So it was shocking.”

Subsequent attempts to get answers have been met with obfuscation, or vague references to the confidentiality of the legal process with which Laurentian is now consumed, she said. All Verrelli’s heard for sure is that programs with low enrollments were targeted. But she doesn’t know what kind of formula was used, if any, or if it took into account not just numbers of majors but how departments serve other programs’ majors through cross-listed course offerings.

Verrelli said she taught an introductory course on Canadian politics and governance, for instance, “and that was attended by or was taken by students across all faculties and different programs.” Now that the course is gone with the elimination of political science, she said, “it would be equivalent to a faculty of liberal studies or liberal arts in the U.S. not having an intro to U.S. government and politics course.”

Jamie West, a liberal member of Provincial Parliament who represents Sudbury, is among those legislators pushing for government intervention in the Laurentian case. Citing estimates that the local economy stands to lose 100 million Canadian dollars, or about $81 million U.S., as a result of the cuts, West said the news about Laurentian has been “devastating to our entire community. Many students, faculty, staff and their families have now been left in the dark about their futures.”

‘Canary in the Coal Mine’?

Laurentian “has been a gem in the city of Sudbury for 60 years, as a bilingual, tricultural, northern university,” West continued. “These cuts will unfortunately change that.”

Laurentian is more than 91 million Canadian dollars in debt, or $74 million U.S., to banks from which it’s drawn credit, and it has additional millions in liabilities. These deficits date back at least a decade and have been exacerbated by population declines in Ontario and the pandemic, according to various analyses of Laurentian’s situation.

While Laurentian’s finances are particularly bad, West said that it could be the “canary in the coal mine” for academe in Ontario, where, in his view, higher education is chronically underfunded.

West said that the Ontario government, led by conservative premier Doug Ford, “had known for months about Laurentian’s situation and chose not to protect the programs, the faculty or the students. It allowed the university to go into bankruptcy court when it could have stepped in more than seven months ago.”

Laurentian is a public university, and therefore Ford and Ross Romano, provincial minister of colleges and universities, are ultimately responsible for it, West said. Criticizing Ford and Romano’s action or lack thereof regarding Laurentian thus far, West said their government “still has time to provide the funding Laurentian needs to stop the cuts and to save programs.”

Faculty members at Laurentian continue to fight for government help, but not everyone is counting on it coming.

Merritt, who plans to stay at Laurentian, said, “This is incredibly raw. But do I think that everybody is thinking in terms of, ‘OK, this is really terrible, and we have to deal with the grief and the loss. And we also need to pick ourselves up and make sure that we are going to be able to provide the educational experience that made us proud to be here in the first place.’”

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