Last week, Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt and University of Alberta president David Turpin had a nasty spat. The exchange seemingly came in wake of the U of A’s announcement that it would be cutting 4% in spending and raising a variety of student fees.
These cuts undermined the government’s messaging that they are maintaining core services by providing several years of 2% PSE funding increases. Last Monday, Schmidt attacked the university’s budget via Turpin’s enormous salary (over $800k):
It’s concerning to me to see the president lining his own pockets while he’s cutting money being spent on classrooms and students.Turpin fired back, claiming the government had green-lighted this approach and now scoring cheap political points at his expense:
Everybody in government knew what the University of Alberta was planning and we were told, 'Yes, you should get your financial house in order.'
And we're now seeing a minister of the Crown in this province attacking volunteers that he has appointed and criticizing their decisions. …
I've worked at three of the country's finest universities in three different provinces and this is the first time I have been personally and publicly attacked by a minister of the Crown.The announcement of a long-overdue cap (and, therefore, likely a cut) in university executive pay in Alberta’s 2018 budget may play a factor in this dispute, alleged Turpin:
For the last year, we've been working with the government as they work to put in place legislation which is going to force boards to roll back compensation at universities for senior executives.
So what we're seeing here is the minister using this as an opportunity to set this up for a public announcement [Thursday].Schmidt took a hiding in the press for attacking Turpin. While I suspect there was more to this exchange than meets the eye, it certainly cements Schmidt’s reputation as a minister with a short fuse and no tolerance for institutions that defy or embarrass the government.
Given that, it is interesting Schmidt has been so quiet about things at Athabasca University. Back in 2015, there was concern that the university would become insolvent and suggestion that being located in the town of Athabasca was a barrier to recruiting staff. This raised concerns about the university moving some or all operations out of town.
In January of 2017, Schmidt told the press that:
We have stressed to the board and administration that Athabasca University has to maintain a strong presence in the community. I've made it very clear that our government wants to make sure that Athabasca University maintains a strong presence.The resulting third party review of Athabasca University released last summer directed the creation of a fully costed report for an enhanced and focused presence in the town of Athabasca. There is no sign of that report yet and AU’s bevy of new strategic plans (with bumper-sticker management titles like IMAGINE, RISE, and EMPOWER) hardly mention the town of Athabasca.
What has emerged instead is disturbing new data about job losses in Athabasca. As the pictures at the top of the post indicate, the mothership's empty offices and buildings are like the Mary Celeste. The key facts seem to be:
- Professional positions leaving: In 2013, there were 125 professionals based in Athabasca. In 2018, there are 93. Professional positions at AU are among the best paid jobs in town. This entails a loss of about $3.5m to the local economy. This is a big issue in a small town.
- Executives leaving: In the past three years, the President, Vice President of Information Technology, University Secretary, Director of Human Resources, and Labour Relations Officer have all become based out of Edmonton. Traditionally these positions were based in Athabasca. They represent the loss of another $1m from the local economy. These departures also speak to the declining importance of the main campus.
- Bar on advertising jobs in Athabasca: The university is quietly forbidding most job applications from specifying a position is located in Athabasca. President Neil Fassina told the local paper that “this allows the university to cast a wider net to find better employees, who can then be persuaded to move to Athabasca.” There is no evidence that the university can't recruit to positions in Athabasca and clearly the university is not persuading new hires to move there.
Two weeks ago, he rather ambivalently commented in the local paper “Work needs to be done to ensure all the positions that make sense to be in Athabasca are here.” This is hardly a rousing defence of his constituent’s interests in good local jobs and will affect his chances of re-election in this traditionally conservative region. It also sets up a fight between the town council (which includes some staunch ND supporters) and the government.
It will be interesting to see if Schmidt cracks down on Athabasca University’s quiet and gradual defiance of his government’s policy direction as sharply as he did on the U of A’s public defiance. If not, that may suggest that the residents of Athabasca need to turn up the heat on the government.
-- Bob Barnetson