Laurentian crisis appears to near resolution

Surprise insolvency has brought campus resignations and nationwide labour stress

July 18, 2022
Laurentian University crisis appears to near resolution
Source: Getty

Laurentian University’s leadership appears ready to step down, but only after the year-plus battle over sweeping cuts prompted by a surprise declaration of bankruptcy has left a wake of campus resignations and nationwide labour anxieties, according to faculty leaders.

The university’s president, Robert Haché, and other senior leaders have been under pressure since early 2021 when they declared insolvency and embarked on a programme of cuts in jobs and services.

Faculty negotiations with the university leaders aimed at securing their departures appear near a resolution, said David Robinson, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

“I think we’re very close to getting an agreement,” Mr Robinson said in an interview.

Union leaders, however, have described the cost as already heavy. The local faculty grouping, the Laurentian University Staff Union, told a Laurentian board of governors meeting last month that at least 20 faculty and staff have left as the leadership uncertainty has dragged on.

That’s on top of the university, on its own, firing some 200 academics and other staff and losing about half of its 9,000 students and more than a third of its programmes.

The Laurentian situation is also complicating contract negotiations at other universities in Canada, Mr Robinson said, given the precedent set last year by Laurentian in becoming the first publicly funded university in Canada to file for creditor protection when it hit serious financial troubles.

The general understanding in Canada is that institutions facing insolvency use the financial exigency clause in their labour contracts, allowing for job cuts on a pre-determined basis. Because Laurentian chose not to, Mr Robinson said, academic staff in contract negotiations elsewhere are now demanding stronger terms to prevent a repeat of Laurentian’s tactics.

Institutions in tough contract negotiations, he said, include Dalhousie University, Queen’s University and several others in Ontario and Saskatchewan.

“Everyone’s concerned that universities abide by the financial exigency language that’s in the contract,” Mr Robinson said.

Earlier this year, Ontario’s auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk, looked into the situation. Her report, compiled without any cooperation from Laurentian, called the job and programme cuts unnecessary given that the provincial government had offered it aid.

Ms Lysyk blamed Laurentian’s problems on a decade-long campaign of campus expansion that was based on a misjudgement of student demand, and on the failure of provincial officials to monitor the situation closely enough.

Dr Haché told the trustees last month that he has not been replacing tenured and tenure-track faculty in part because the accounting firm Ernst & Young, appointed by the provincial court to oversee Laurentian’s insolvency restructuring, has advised against such hirings.

The trustees themselves have been hit by resignations, with the 25-member board now about half that size.

Laurentian declined to comment.

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