Minister pushes for meeting to finalize Athabasca University funding agreement

.The university moved to Athabasca, Alta. in 1984 as part of the province's program to move jobs to rural communities.   ( - image credit)
.The university moved to Athabasca, Alta. in 1984 as part of the province's program to move jobs to rural communities. ( - image credit)

After months of discussion and extended deadlines, Alberta's advanced education minister wants the board of governors at Athabasca University to sign an agreement this month compelling more of its employees to work in the town of Athabasca, Alta..

The board's next meeting was originally scheduled for Dec. 9. On Tuesday, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said he wants the board to meet this month.

"I sent an email to the board chair [Byron Nelson] asking him to convene a special board meeting, as soon as possible, to finalize the university's Investment Management Agreement (IMA)," Nicolaides said in an email to CBC News.

"I have also made a commitment to attend the next board meeting in-person, to provide my feedback in real time in the hopes that an agreement can be reached."

The minister's request comes after a months-long standoff with university administration over its plan to move AU to near-virtual operations against the wishes of Athabasca residents.

The situation escalated in March after former premier Jason Kenney announced his commitment to keeping AU's operations in the town 150 kilometers north of Edmonton.

Nicolaides issued directives shortly afterwards instructing AU to end pandemic-related work-at-home arrangements for employees based in Athabasca.

AU's administration was also ordered to submit plans by the end of June aimed at increasing local employment and getting the executive working full time in Athabasca by 2024-25.

The plans were submitted by the end of June but Nicolaides rejected them. Since then, AU has worked past two previously-announced deadlines with the aim of having something to give the minister.

In the meantime, Nicolaides changed the makeup of the board of governors last month by rescinding appointments for four governors and bringing in seven new members.

"I thought it was important to just make sure that we have some new thinking, some new perspective on the board and a clear understanding that the institution should focus on bringing executive and administrative jobs to the community and should make that a priority," Nicolaides said in an interview on Tuesday.

Nicolaides said the government's position on AU employment has not changed since Danielle Smith became premier.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Kristine Williamson, vice-president for university relations, said the new board members will need time for orientation before they are ready to attend board meetings. She said Nicolaides has been invited to attend the meeting on Dec. 9.

Local leaders hopeful

The dispute centres on what university believes is feasible for a degree-granting institution offering all its instruction online to students from around the world.

AU president Peter Scott said Nicolaides was tying 9 per cent of the university's funding to getting 65 per cent of university employees working in Athabasca by 2025. Currently, a quarter of the institution's 1,200 employees live in the town.

Scott argued that imposing a decades-old model on the 2022 version of AU will not work.

Supplied by Athabasca University
Supplied by Athabasca University

Nicolaides said he doesn't know what the hold-up is even though he has spoken with Scott and Nelson. He said he is flexible and will look at alternative ways of getting the executive and administration back to the campus.

Nelson did not respond to interview requests on Wednesday.

Nicolaides's desire to settle the IMA was welcomed by the region's municipal leaders.

Brian Hall, the reeve of Athabasca County, and Rob Balay, mayor of Athabasca, said they are hopeful about the new developments.

Both the town and county governments have advocated to keep AU's core operations on the main campus.

"The sooner that we can come to some sort of decision and path forward that's good for both the community and AU the better," Balay said.

Hall is also optimistic. He said the ongoing dispute has created uncertainty for staff and students.

Northern Alberta research

AU's senior administration has largely remained silent throughout the talks.

On Wednesday, the university confirmed that it retained the services of Ken Coates, a university professor and consultant from Saskatchewan, to work on the institution's land and facility use plan.

Williamson said in a written statement that Coates has talked to faculty, staff, students and Athabasca residents for his current assignment.

Coates was the author of an independent third-party review on the sustainability of AU.

The report, released in the spring of 2017, included suggestions the institution establish a northern Alberta research unit on campus to study the "environmental, social, economic, cultural and political realities of northern Alberta" and work with other northern post-secondary institutions to establish a centre for "advanced education, training and professional development" of northern Alberta residents.