I recently received a letter from a managing editor at AU, one John Ollerenshaw, writing on behalf of the Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University committee, a local “ad-hoc committee … convened recently to try to reverse the AU Board of Governors’ plan to implement a near-virtual workplace at AU.” Sadly for Mr. Ollerenshaw, he really contacted the wrong place when he got in touch with me.
His letter notes that the AU Board of Governors “has approved a ‘near-virtual’ work scheme in which all AU employees who can work from home will be required to work permanently from home, anywhere in Canada. Of the more than 1,000 faculty and staff who now work at AU, only 30 to 50 will continue to work from actual officers or job sites by the end of this year. The university’s home in Athabasca, where some 300 core employees now report, will be mostly abandonded and other hubs will be closed.”
I’ve yet to verify his claims, but honestly, I’m not too concerned either way.
I’ve been strongly in favor of AU lessening it’s ties to small-town Athabasca for many years now. No offense to those professors and staff who AU has hired and have chosen to live there, but I see very little benefit to students, especially these days, of requiring our faculty and academics to give up where-ever it is they choose to live now and move to a small, rural community. It may be beautiful there, and it has many qualities that may make it an ideal place to live, but, let’s be honest, by requiring faculty and academics to move to Athabasca, they are automatically restricting the hiring pool to those people who don’t mind losing the ready amenities of urban life. In addition, this new policy certainly doesn’t prevent anybody from moving to Athabasca if that’s what they want to do. So this policy should widen the hiring pool, perhaps beyond that of even traditional universities, so that we can hire the best of the best for faculty and professors.
His letter goes on to say “The near-virtual scheme will create a strained work culture for employees. Their loss of sense of belonging, innovation, and creativity so crucial to the success of AU will be lost. Then course quality—the intangible, the inspired and creative ideas that make courses understandable, interesting, exciting, and doable—will be compromised.” I take some light offense to this. I think many AU students are quite aware of how you can find a sense of belonging, innovation, and creativity even working at a distance. Our current AUSU council, for instance, has completely given up a physical office space. Working from home is simply what they do now, and yet we’re seeing more innovative programming (such as the Virtual Food Assistance Program) than we saw when the majority of Council was concentrated in a physical office space.
He also notes that “Student support will inevitably decline as communication lines willl be fragmented”. But again I point to AUSU that has actually managed to increase its student support while working more at a distance than ever before. Basically, none of the bad that Mr. Ollerenshaw suggests will happen needs to happen, if AU can manage to run itself via distance intelligently.
AU always has been a distance based organization, after all. And I always thought it strange that an organization claiming it can deliver top quality education via distance was always so bound to a physical location to operate. How could the organization claim that it could deliver top quality instruction to anyone anywhere in the world while at the same time saying it requires people to be in the same physical space to deliver that instruction? So, I’m sorry, Mr. Ollerenshaw. I’m afraid I don’t agree with your letter or your specific concerns. Now, talk to me about the board not supporting the staff well enough regardless of physical space? We might have some agreement.