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That would be a significant economic blow to the town, as convocation is one of the biggest events in the community each year. And it would be another step in diminishing the university’s presence in town.
Since 2013, a quarter of AU’s professional jobs in Athabasca have disappeared and the university’s executives have all moved away. And, several years back, there were efforts to locate a new building in St. Albert despite there being lots of space on the Athabasca campus.
The mayor couldn’t confirm what the university’s plans were and, when I asked the university about this, it tweeted back (two hours later) that this was just a rumour and convocation 2019 was set to occur in Athabasca.
It was odd that the university didn’t make any definitive statement last week about this issue. An email to staff would take about 30 seconds and would kill the speculation. It is also interesting that the President’s weekly email to staff didn’t appear last week. This week's presidential email was early. It ignores the dust up and quietly confirms that convocation is in Athabasca in 2019.
This response to a potentially big issue was weird so I started asking around.
From what I have been able to find out from multiple independent sources, the university’s executive decided some time ago to move convocation away from Athabasca after this June. I suspect this happened during the budget process, but no one would confirm this. (Convocation was shrunk from 3 days to 2 this year.)
The strong reaction to the announcement leaking out last week may have caused the executive to reverse course (at least for the moment). Assuming this is true, it raises a number of questions:
1. What was the rationale for moving convocation? It can’t possibly be appreciably cheaper to host it in Edmonton. Is it part of a multi-stage plan to slowly shift staff and functions away from Athabasca, until there is nothing much left—a death by 1000 cuts approach?
2. Who authorized this move? The Board of Governors members I’ve spoken to have all denied any knowledge. This suggests the university’s executive made the decision. Do they have that authority? If so, when was the executive going to tell the Board?
3. How does this decision (seemingly the latest effort to diminish the university’s presence in Athabasca) square with the direction AU received in January of 2017 from Advanced Ed Minister Marlin Schmidt when he said:
“We have stressed to the board and the administration that Athabasca University has to maintain a strong presence in the community [of Athabasca].”
Was the government’s commitment to Athabasca University in Athabasca just empty rhetoric? Or has AU’s leadership just decided to ignore the government’s direction?
4. How will this affect the university’s efforts to acquire $5+ million in additional funding from the government to advance the goals of the university’s strategic plan? The university’s future in Athabasca was a big local issue in the last election. If I were the government and hoping to keep the seat in Athabasca during the 2019 election, I wouldn’t be happy with a university admin that keeps pissing off local voters.
5. How does withdrawing employees and function from Athabasca align with the new strategic plan? The plan seems silent on moving locations. You’d think a concerted effort to move operations out of town would warrant a bullet point somewhere. Or is the strategic plan just motherhood and apple pie and there is some other, actual plan afoot?
6. How will this kerfuffle affect relations between the university’s administrators and the Board of Governors? Already, only half of the Board voted in favour of the university’s new strategic plan. And 5 of the 7 public members voted against the plan or abstained from voting on it. Those kinds of numbers suggest a degree of dissatisfaction with the direction proposed by the university’s executive. I imagine getting surprised by a potentially explosive political issue like this will not play well at the next Board meeting on May 25
7. Why the silence? If this was an unfounded rumour, a quick “nope, this was never on the table” would have killed the speculation. I suspect the silence was an effort to finesse the issue. Specifically, the university executive is trying to message “Convocation 2019 is in Athabasca” to dampen down local angst while avoiding a denial that this had been, in fact, the plan (which could be undercut by (for example) emails to the contrary). This strategy leaves open the possibility of announcing convocation is moving once the heat is off (say, for 2020).
It will also be interested to see how the university’s open house in Athabasca on Wednesday (from 6-9) goes. Putatively, this open house is intended to explain how the new strategic plan will benefit the community of Athabasca. I imagine that local residents will have difficult questions in light of recent press coverage about job losses, the potential loss of convocation, and the abandonment of the community by the senior leadership of the university.
-- Bob Barnetson