Monday, November 21, 2022

Update on Athabasca's jobs fight with the government

Earlier this summer, I wrote about a fight between Athabasca University (on the one hand) and the government and residents of the town of Athabasca (on the other). The nub of it is that AU has been moving jobs out of the town for years, to the detriment of the local economy. (AU was moved to Athabasca in the 1980s to, in part, spark regional economic development.)

After years of AU ignoring the concern of local residents, a lobby group (funded by the town, county, and individuals) formed and it convinced the government this is a problem. Subsequently, the government directed AU to develop a plan to return jobs to the town. AU has repeatedly told the government to go pound sand. This month, things seem to be coming to a head.

In roughly chronological order, here are the details:
  • June 2022: As directed, AU provided a plan to the government that, in the government’s view, does not address its expectations. No one knows what was in this plan because both sides, while fighting about the issue publicly, are keeping all the documents secret.
To be fair, this demand was impossible to achieve. There is inadequate housing and office space and there are complicated contractual issues with forced relocations. It is maybe best seen as the province staking out an aggressive bargaining position. The faculty association sent the minister a letter with several ways to address the government’s concerns. AU seems intent on ignoring its staff's idea (gasp!).
  • August 2022: As the government’s deadline for AU to sign the IMA approached, the Minister appeared at a public Board meeting and indicated (1) some willingness to compromise on outcomes but (2) limited patience with AU’s obvious stalling. The threat was that, if some version of the IMA was not signed, the government would begin withholding funds.
  • September 2022: AU failed to provide the government with detailed strategies or concrete commitments to achieve the government’s goals. This is likely AU stalling in the hope that the early October departure of former Premier Kenney (and maybe the Minister) would alter the political landscape and reduce the pressure on AU.
  • October 2022: Right before Kenney’s departure, the government replaced a number of Board members. This is likely an effort by the government to break the current impasse by (1) stacking the Board and (2) showing the remaining Board members what will happen if the Board continues to resist (i.e., crucify one and the rest will get Jesus). It may also be a bit of political payback by Kenney. In the resulting cabinet shuffle, the current Minister retained his portfolio (ruh-roh, Raggy).
  • November 2022: In early November, the Minister asked AU to convene a special Board meeting that he planned to attend in order to get the IMA signed. AU has resisted this, likely to buy time to inoculate new Board members against the Minister. Late last week, the government sent a new IMA to the Board (which has a bottom-line feeling to it) which requires 10% increases in local employment each year for the next three years and half the executive to move to and work from town. Since we haven't seen the new IMA and don't know the base number, it is hard to know how many new people would need to hired. If there is 300 people in town, that would be about 100 more over three years. 
Update 2022/11/23: Yesterday on CHED, the Minister twice said the demand was for 5% annual increases, which would reduce the local hiring. He also indicated 44% of executive will need to be based in two by 2024. Forty-four percentage suggests 4 members of a 9 member executive. Who counts is an interesting question.
I’m hearing that a Board meeting with the Minister will be scheduled late next week, ahead of (or in lieu of?) the regular December 9th meeting. It is unclear if the President will be in attendance. As someone who is potentially affected by the government’s directives, both the Conflicts of interest Act and AU’s own Board Conflict of Interest policy appear to require the President to recuse himself from this decision.

It is interesting to contrast the public positions of the government and AU’s President (presumably on behalf of the Board). The government has been unwavering in its view that AU needs to commitment to significant job gains in Athabasca. AU keeps pointing to its (inadequate) June 2022 plan and has layered on the idea that jobs can be brought to the region via the creation of some kind of ill-defined research centre.

I’m skeptical of the research centre idea. It won’t likely bring permanent residents to Athabasca (which is the underlying issue), but rather transient researchers. It may also bring no one because it is basically a “build it and they will come” proposition. In the end, no one will really be responsible and accountable for ensuring its success. This seems to be another version of stalling.

In the meantime, Athabasca-based staff are being told to clean out their offices as AU pushes its near-virtual (i.e., no one on campus) strategy. AU has also opened “hotelling” (drop-in) space in Athabasca, but in a room that the locals call “the dungeon”. The rest of the buildings are a ghost town, which raises the question of why the drop-in space isn’t in a nicer location.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, some sleuthing has turned up that at least two members of the AU executive live in BC, one in Ontario, and one in the US. The rest appear to be located in the Edmonton and Calgary regions. This may, in part, explain the executive’s reluctance to acquiesce to the government’s demands (including that they move to town).

So where do we go from here? Here are four possible end games:

  • AU acquiesces: The new Board could sign some version of the IMA and possibly direct the executive to abandon its near virtual plan (if that is in the IMA) and set hiring quotas or offering staff inducements to move. Whether the President and other executive would stick around for that, is an open question. Also, plummeting enrollments means AU’s hiring is likely to be curtailed (indeed, there is talk of layoffs) so meeting IMA quotes will be tough. Inducements are an option with additional government funding. 
  • Government buys a pig in a poke: The government may decide AU’s “status quo plus research centre” plan is as good a resolution as it can get. That will cost the UCP votes and it sits uneasily with the government’s focus on rural issues. It would also be a personal defeat for the minister. 
  • AU resists and government dithers: AU may continue to stall (hoping the UCP loses the next election) and the government may continue to let them (perhaps deciding the cost of an actual fight isn’t worth the eventual gain). Again, this would be a personal defeat for the minister, albeit a less visible one.
  • AU resists and government acts: The government basically has two cards to play. First, it can cut off some or all of AU’s government funding (which is about 35% of revenue). AU could ride this out for a year based on its present reserves but, in the end, there would have to be layoffs to cope with the revenue hit. Layoffs would mean fewer jobs, which is not the government’s goal. 
The other option is the government can sack the Board and appoint an administrator. The administrator can then sack the president and the rest of the executive and order whatever policy the government wants. This is not an easy or automatic solution. But the government just sacked the Alberta Health Services Board so it obviously isn’t afraid of the political costs.
I don’t really see how the President of AU keeps his job in any of these scenarios. He has been the face of AU’s resistance. (Interestingly, his contract explicitly requires him to live in or near Edmonton and Calgary.) A departure, perhaps framed as going down fighting for institutional autonomy, is likely and may be his best option to exit. (That is certainly a better narrative for him than “I misread the politics and got outmaneuvered by a plucky and sly bunch of townies”).

Other executive departures are also likely. In addition to the whole jobs fight, there are two issues lurking just off stage that may set up a house cleaning. Staff were surveyed about their impressions of AU and its executive last month. The quantitative indicators have not been released yet and AU will likely not release the comments (under the guise of protecting privacy). But the comments that have been shared with me have been excoriating. The last question, for example, was “what is one thing AU’s exec could do to improve things?” Almost every answer I saw was some version of “Quit”. There is almost zero faith in the executive’s abilities or its intentions.

The second issue is the implementation of AU’s new Integrated Learning Environment (ILE). The ILE was the centre-piece of AU’s current “Imagine” strategic plan. The roll out has been delayed several times and is now going to a phased roll out (which staff are calling “death by a 1000 cuts”) because major operational issues have not yet been sorted and the current (overtaxed staff) will now be maintaining our existing systems as well as rolling out the new one, possibly for years.

The root problem here seems to be that the AU executive, in speccing out the system, did not listen when staff, who actually understand how AU runs, said (repeatedly) “uhhh, have you considered X?” Now that we’re knee-deep in launching the new system, all of those things staff flagged are suddenly cropping up as (surprise!) big, big problems. This is, ultimately, a management failure and warrants a house cleaning all on its own.

-- Bob Barnetson


Anonymous said...

Thank you Bob for this blog post, and thank you for voicing the opinion of many who have either voiced their concerns on deaf ears or are afraid of their positions to speak out. In all this turmoil, the support staff are being more and more undervalued. The biggest dig was this quote by Mr. President "That's where we would like to see the real jobs coming into the north for things that really matter!” Support staff who support our learners don’t matter?

Anonymous said...

Oh my. Serious mess. How is it that AU seems to get "leadership" whose shoe laces are firmly tied together and who apparently can neither manage a university nor think their way out of a political paper bag?

Anonymous said...

LOL! My answer to “what is one thing AU’s exec could do to improve things?” was "quit" Sorry I have to stay anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Thanks,Bob, for clearly articulating the issues in this awful mess. As a former AU employee and a strong supporter of distance education, it breaks my heart to witness this (once) tremendous enterprise potentially going up in flames.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bob, please keep posting.
It's been a struggle to effectively communicate what is going on to my family and friends. I send them links to your articles which help a lot.