Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Is Convocation leaving Athabasca?

Photo by bulliver
Last Thursday, the mayor of Athabasca was on the radio taking questions. One listener queried whether Athabasca University planned to move convocation out of the town after this year’s ceremonies.

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


  1. But Bob you still haven't made the case as to why anyone who lives outside of the town of Athabasca should care about this.

    1. Thanks for your note, anonymous. I'm not sure I have any obligation to make that kind of argument (or that the implicit "irrelevance" critique matters at all). The issue matters to those in the town of Athabasca, particularly as it seems to be part of a pattern whereby the university is slowly (and somewhat secretively) diminishing its presence in the town where its main campus is putatively located. If you don't care about that, that's totally your call. I do, thus I write about it.

  2. Just a question, but doesn't this article seem hypocritical as you live in Edmonton?

    Yes, I believe AU should keep their primary operations in Athabasca, and it should start with the Exec, even the ones that were hired under the premise their jobs were primarily in Athabasca, but from what I hear are only there once a week, and hide out 8th floor Peace Hills Trust where nobody has access. I wonder where the 2 new VP's will be based out of.

    1. Thanks for your note, Anonymous. In this context, hypocritical means behaving in a way that is contrary to one’s stated beliefs (or something close to that).

      The assertion I advance in post is that: (1) the university is not being transparent about its plans for the Athabasca location, and (2) its decisions and comportment are not politically savvy.

      As far as I can tell, living in Edmonton has no bearing on those assertions (they are true regardless of where I live).

      What you’re engaging in, perhaps unconsciously, as an ad hominem attack (attacking my character, rather than my arguments).

      Ad hominem are great fun, but are poor arguments.

    2. I like how that was the part you focused on that part of my comment. (Insert smilie face emoji here, as tone is hard to tell via text)

      I'm what we in lesser edumicated (yes that was intentional) circles call a smart ass.

      It may be due to the fact that I'm not an English major, my intent was not to attack your character but rather to let you address the proverbial elephant in the room. In that you work from AU, and not from Athabasca. From what I've been told there was a time when all AU professors had an office in the main campus and were required to be there for some given amount of time per week/month. Then entered in the Teleworkers Policy which enabled Professors to work from home potentially anywhere in Alberta, or across the country in some cases. So really this has been a long term issue that has been recently greatly accelerated.

      From what I recall, every article of yours that I had read, I have for the most part agreed with, and my wife calls me an Internet Troll, it could be true as sometimes I do like to stir the pot.

      And as far as posting as “Anonymous”, I still 'kinda' like my job… and I don’t have the luxury of Academic Freedom.

      Anyhow, enough of my barely coherent ramblings.

    3. My apologies for mis-understanding your intent, Anonymous.

      Yes, faculty are no longer required to visit the Athabasca campus. FWIW, I’ve been an employee since 2004 and have never been subject to such a requirement.

      I used to go about once a month for meetings but the university stopped the bus from St Albert and closed the drop-in space I used when there so I gave up (I don’t recall the exact sequence of events).

      My sense is that the battle for academics in Athabasca was lost 10-15 year ago. The battle for professional and senior administrative positions in Athabasca is on going and could be won with concerted local effort.

      For example, the university president’s contract (Section 2.1) requires him to work “primarily” from the Athabasca campus.


      Yet, my understanding is that he’s there only one day per week and the rest of the time he works out of the 8th floor offices in AU Edmonton. Does the Board know he’s violating his contract? If so, why doesn’t the university enforce this term of employment?

    4. You mean section 1.2 :P Same goes for the Provost, that position was hired to be based out of the main campus with some travel to the Edmonton and Calgary locations.

      The Teleworking Policy was piloted May 1 2005 for a year before being rolled out fully. - http://ous.athabascau.ca/policy/humanresources/150_013.pdf apparently it was a practice before it was policy.

  3. not the same anonymous. I care as an expat Athabascan. perhaps i believe that what is good for the town i grew up in is good for the province. perhaps i believe in small community's. But it does matter outside the town.

    1. Thanks Anonymous; the more anonymi, the merrier.

  4. I risk being labeled another hypocrite as I too live in Edmonton. But as I said in response to an Athabasca -based colleague a few weeks back, a rule requiring professionals to go up to AU main campus 2-3 times a year could boost esprit de corps as well as boost the local economy. Everyone would go to Convocation, faculties and departments would schedule annual meetings there, with the knock-on effect of causing faculty to schedule course meetings, check out the library, etc. All with a relatively small constraint or inconvenience on our parts.