Restructuring overlooks important environmental legacy: critics

·6 min read

Sudbury has garnered a reputation around the world as a community that knows how to recover an environment degraded by mining and smelting operations.

Most of that know-how was developed by Laurentian University researchers — expertise that will be lost as the university restructures, critics warn.

Laurentian is cutting environmental science, environmental studies, ecology and restoration biology programs - among many others - as part of a process to balance its books.

The university is insolvent, can't pay its bills and has filed for protection under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act as it restructures.

So far, it has cut almost 200 jobs and 69 programs.

Many, however, say cuts are a severe blow to the reputation of Sudbury as a leader in landscape revitalization.

“All you have to do is to look out your window and see the impact of Laurentian on the landscape," said Franco Mariotti, formerly of Science North, a past employee of Laurentian and a graduate of Laurentian’s Biology program. "When the city became green it didn’t just affect how people, outsiders, looked at us but how we looked at ourselves. (It's) 42 years of change. It is a beautiful place.

“The very thing that helped change this community into what we are today is what they cut.”

Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, director of the Centre for Evolutionary Ecology and Ethical Conservation, wonders why Laurentian’s environmental and ecology programs were targets.

He said the “Sudbury Story” is something the City of Greater Sudbury and the university have been proud to boast about and share internationally. Visitors – including Dr. Jane Goodall – have come here to celebrate and learn how to replicate the process.

Schulte-Hostedde listed the termination of key staff and researchers, including (among others) Nadia Mykytczuk, an expert environmental microbiologist; Brett Buchanan, an internationally recognized scholar in environmental philosophy; David Lesbarrères, a recognized expert in amphibian disease and population decline; and Gillian Crozier, a Canada Research Chair in Environment, Culture and Values.

Schulte-Hostedde went to Twitter with this pithy summation: “A university without philosophy, political science, mathematics, physics is not a university.”

Critics say people can add ecology and the related environmental sciences to those losses. The implication to mine waste research, tailings characteristics, reprocessing, and any study on mining remediation has effectively ended, they say, adding the cuts do not acknowledge the expertise and world recognition in what has taken place here, like lake and land research and rehabilitation.

“This is a disaster. ... the environmental story of Sudbury is part of the soul of Laurentian. The emphasis on ecology and environmental research and teaching set Laurentian apart. No longer,” Schulte-Hostedde said.

From plants to animals - and even the non-living world - the programs developed scientists, and nurtured graduate-level researchers who explored important topics. Courses built specifically to address northern, boreal and distressed environments were often collaborative and cooperative. Turtle research, insects to birds, to soil and geology, engineering and chemistry, to water, the interconnectedness of ecosystems led to much ongoing interdisciplinary research.

The future in those areas now appears uncertain.

“Those of us that are left will carry on," Schulte-Hostedde said. "But, if these cuts stand, the critical mass of academics here doing environmental and ecological research is lost, which will have implications for teaching and research. In my letter to the editor, I highlighted Nadia Mykytczuk. She is a rock star researcher and amazing teacher. How could they terminate her? How could they terminate any of the professors? It boggles the mind.”

He predicted an exodus of graduate students. "Most will leave Laurentian. How do we attract graduate students here after this? The critical mass of researchers will be lost, along with the necessary support for graduate students. The future is grim.”

Some research was for the National Research Council and others for industry, and "they can't be happy to see the investments that they have made in Laurentian being squandered," Schulte-Hostedde said. It’s a disgrace.”

John Gunn, the director of the Vale Living with Lakes Centre, echoed those comments. “We have not yet seen the final restructuring plan. It is to be released by the end of this week (potentially April 30) according to the CCAA process, so there may be still some hurt coming our way, loss of buildings, labs, equipment - other assets. I didn’t think on Monday morning (a week ago) this would apply to us. We had a lot of partnerships, and we generated a lot of revenue, scholarships, endowments, research grants, reserves. Everything I thought I was the signing authority on was taken from us.

“This is also not a high school where the board calculates how many students per room to figure out the teacher list for fall. Undergraduate numbers and tuition fees drove decision-making. I would have thought strategic planning would have something to do with this. The proportion of women researchers that were taken out; that’s obscene. I’m flat out rescuing all the bits that have crashed on the shore. I’m engaging at every level. We were so blindsided. Who ever thought that CCAA would apply to a public institution?

“We had established name recognition and we were so well placed to do research on climate change and impacts on the James Bay Lowlands. It’s an absolute smear on the whole community. This should not have gone the same route as the Algoma Steel process. That was the first time CCAA was applied in Canada. It was a cold-blooded effort with only simple instructions: there was a certain amount that had to be reduced, and secondly, to retain only the profitable components of the enterprise.

“I’ve been flooded with emails from around the world saying we can’t let the Living with Lakes Centre go down. I don’t even know if we are finished with the worst of it. It is an avalanche.”

Gerard Courtin, now a Professor Emeritus, arrived at Laurentian in 1968. “This process? It is a betrayal of me and so many others who have dedicated their life’s work to Laurentian," he said. "They manipulated the numbers to suit themselves. Their interest is the bottom line, only asking only ‘where can we cut?’ They have no context, no understanding. I imagine it is a firm in Toronto. Instead of thinning the stand, they clear-cut. I’ll use this metaphor, it’s like a china cup. Once broken, it doesn’t matter how carefully you glue it back together, the cracks always show.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

Twitter: @SudburyStar

Hugh Kruzel , Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star