The Strategic University

Pierre Trudel

Le Devoir, Chronicles, April 19, 2022

The Auditor General of Ontario, Bonnie Lysyk, was mandated by parliamentary committee to investigate events at Laurentian University, in Sudbury. Her preliminary report, published April 13, examines how and why the University administration sought shelter from its creditors under a law designed to regulate and remedy the insolvency of commercial enterprises. Lysyk explains that the university management strategically planned to resort to this law, which neutralizes the normal mechanisms of operation of the University.

This maneuver led to the elimination of 72 programs, including 29 in French, and the dismissal of dozens of professors. In placing itself under the protection of the federal Companies’

Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), the university appealed to a procedure designed as a last resort for commercial enterprises. In other words, they organized their financial bankruptcy in such a way that it would neutralize the normal operating procedures and collegial requirements inherent in a public university.

The Auditor General explains that, faced with a catastrophic financial situation, the university administration chose not to follow well-established practices which would have meant an appeal for assistance from the government ministry. Instead, on the advice of outside consultants, they persisted in resorting to the Creditors Arrangement Act. The Auditor notes that if the university had acted sooner and in a more transparent manner, and accepted financial assistance from the province, there would have been sufficient time to review the financial situation and put in place a plan for the future of Laurentian University.

To be clear: by behaving as if it were running a shopping center rather than a university, the administration lost sight of the fact that a university is a public service.  Instead of mobilizing the university community, it opted to sideline faculty, staff, and students, and to waste precious funds on hiring outside “consultants.” In addition, the University embarked on major construction expenditures and increased expenditures related to senior management. Specifically, it multiplied expenditures in order to strategically pursue “restructuring.”

The Auditor General’s Report explains that the university’s senior management refused to honor a clause in Laurentian University’s collective agreement with its faculty – a clause designed to deal with financial emergency. The triggering of the mechanisms outlined in this clause of the collective agreement would have obliged senior management to share financial information with faculty representatives in order to identify solutions to the impasse – an impasse provoked by erratic management. However, instead of seeking cooperation with the architects and artisans of the university, namely the faculty, senior management stubbornly resorted to the Creditors Arrangement Act, while maintaining an information blackout that left professors and students in the dark about the true state of the University.

The Lessons

The behavior of the Laurentian university administration disabled policies that were put in place to respect academic freedom. Laurentian’s story illustrates how essential it is that professors have effective input into management decisions. There is no real academic freedom when university administrations can arbitrarily cut programs and fire professors and researchers, en masse.

This scandal exposes the dangers threatening universities when they are left in the hands of indifferent managers who are not committed to public service.  Could we find a better illustration of the need for solid legal procedures ensuring that professors and all those who contribute to the achievement of the university’s mission would as a matter of course be made aware of the state of the university finances and be able to respond? This aspect of academic freedom is crucial: it conditions all the others. What good is it to have “a voice” if the administration has the freedom to abolish entire programs?

We will be told that Laurentian University is an extreme case. However, this extreme case is part of a weighty trend. In recent decades, the boards of many universities have been stuffed with business people more concerned to put in place current business mores and practices than to promote the critical mission of post-secondary education.

Too often, these Boards of Governors work in secret. Too often, they based their decisions on information from middle managers who are not accountable to the people on the ground, i.e., professors and students. Such Boards, to be sure, tolerate a few individuals from “the staff” who sit on their decision-making counsels. However, the staff representatives are often muzzled, forced by rules of “governance” imported from the world of commerce, to keep all decision-making processes and practices entirely confidential.

The Laurentian University saga is unbelievable, hallucinatory. It illustrates what happens when the real architects of a university, i.e., the faculty, are excluded from meaningful decision-making. When business-minded administrators are free to plan course and program cuts, there is no academic freedom. This is a reminder that the real guarantee of academic freedom depends on the strengthening of democratic and inclusive governance of universities by those who do the real work of the place.

Translated by Susan Knutson.

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