Lessons from Laurentian

LUFA and OCUFA are calling for the resignation of Senior Laurentian University Leadershipand Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano who they claim were complicit in creating the university’s financial crisis. The result of the crisis is that Laurentian has terminated 83 professors, eliminated 27 positions through attrition and retirement, and cut 70 programs. Laurentian faculty recently ratified a Collective Agreement “under duress.” Members were told the University would close if members did not vote in favour of a 5% cut in salary and a two-year salary freeze (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/sudbury/laurentian-faculty-collective-agreement-1.5986953). 

At a time when the financial exigency clause was needed, it was nullified. University Leadership, with the blessing of the Ontario Government and the Minister of Colleges and Universities, used insolvency to bypass the Collective Agreement’s financial exigency clause. As LUFA President Fabrice Colin said, “It now appears that this was the outcome that both Laurentian’s senior administration and Minister Romano were working toward.” 

There have been strong allegations of corruption committed by the senior administration at Laurentian and calls for an investigation into the university’s financial management. Laurentian University is the first publicly funded Canadian university to declare itself insolvent. 

Laurentian declared insolvency in February just as it was on the verge of being unable to meet payroll. It has debts of nearly $100-million from a building spree that didn’t produce enrolment gains and it ran deficits in the range of $2-million to $5-million a year for several years, according to its court filings. It also spent millions in grants earmarked for research to keep the lights on, owing in part to the practice of having just one bank account where incoming funds from various sources were mixed. (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-laurentian-fires-professors-slashes-programs/)

There is a need for universities to have institutional autonomy. However, institutional autonomy should not be about the independence of a privileged elite at the university diverting public fund towards expenditures for which they were not intended, it should be about the institution’s right to collectively decide the academic mission. 

The crisis at Laurentian University was not caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While Senior University Leadership bears much responsibility and should be held accountable, the crisis at Laurentian is the result of ongoing political will to do little to support post-secondary education in Ontario. Chronic underfunding by the Ontario government and legislated tuition cuts with nothing to offset lost revenue have led to the situation at Laurentian. Provincial governments across the country need to accept their responsibility in creating financial crises at Canadian Universities and choose not to be part of the cause.