Editorial—Officially Over It

The AUFA has officially voted to accept the recent deal proposed, with 83% in favor, by the AU administration.  This means that there will absolutely not be strike action affecting student studies at AU.

Also, if you read last week’s editorial earlier in the week, you likely haven’t seen that I have made a fairly significant correction to it since.  Notably, it was pointed out to me that I had missed that the changes to research and study leave were only being applied to the administrative and professional side of AUFA, that is, the IT, student services, and university relations departments.  Not the academic faculty.  This renders all of my supposition about what that wording change could mean—that the province or the board of AU was angling to make AU more of a teaching institution than a research institution—moot.  There are no indications that anybody is looking at changing the direction of AU from a research-based institution to a teaching one.  And that’s a good thing.

However, it’s an unfortunate sign of the times that the people pointing this out to me did not want their comments printed as a letter either because they were not authorized to be speaking “on the record” or because their statement had not been composed for a general audience.  And I kind of get it.  These days, when every word a corporate or government organization makes is hyper-analyzed by media, public, and even lawyers, it means statements have to be vetted multiple times to make sure they’re saying exactly what needs to be said and no more.  But it’s what leads to so much communication coming from businesses, organizations, and even politicians to feel so fake, scripted, and as if it were created by a committee rather than a single person—because it was.

And speaking of politicians, it is interesting to see the provincial government attempting to wade into operational decisions made by the university.  If you weren’t aware, AU has been leaning into the idea of a virtual campus.  Where instead of our faculty and administration all having to relocate to the rural and quite northern town of Athabasca so that they can go to a physical campus, they can instead do their job from the comfort of their own homes, which may or may not be in Athabasca.

There has been a movement within the town to stop this from happening, with people in the town being afraid that the university doing this will mean significant possibilities for employment in the town will disappear.  And now into this has stepped Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides and Premier Jason Kenney, who have stated that they will amend the Athabasca University Act to ensure some representation from the community of Athabasca is always on the AU Board of Governors.  No similar requirements are currently made at any other post-secondary institution in the province.

For the Alberta government, then, the purpose of a university is not to educate Albertans with the best people that can be found, but rather to provide a source of employment for a rural area that supports their own political party.  This was always somewhat true, of course, but I never expected it to be so blatantly and obviously promoted.

Athabasca may be a wonderful community if you prefer the rural lifestyle.  But the evidence of urbanization suggests that a majority of people do not, and it has always baffled me why Athabasca was willing to limit its talent pool to only those who were willing to move to the northern reaches of the province when, especially given their mode of operation, it simply wasn’t necessary.

Of course a limited talent pool doesn’t mean you can’t get some of the best employees or that AU doesn’t already have some of those, but, by definition, it limits how many of those are available, and judging from the reaction of new President Peter Scott, he may indeed be one of those who would fall outside the new limits, as he noted in a recent email “I would like to underline that our operations, mission, and mandate remain unchanged,” and how AU has been coy with noting where the President’s residence now is, aside from within Alberta.  However, the residence at Athabasca owned by AU for the President remains empty.

For those of us who no longer remember, while the government of the day often sets benchmarks for public universities to achieve, the universities themselves are supposed to be largely independent in how they go about their goals.  To be directed specifically in operational matters, especially when those directions may well increase how much of the limited budget the government provides will need to be spent on recruiting and relocating and housing better administration as opposed to supporting students, is, to me, simply wrong.

To argue, as Premier Kenney did, that you can’t replicate a university community and culture online, is to argue despite the evidence that already exists, such as the unofficial Athabasca University Facebook page, the AUSU discord, and other communities and cultures that have sprung up because of AU and its online status.

What’s more infuriating about this is that absolutely nothing in AU’s idea of a virtual campus prevents people from moving to Athabasca, and it was noted by President Scott in that email that AU has and will continue to prefer to hire people who live in or indicate a willingness to live in the Athabasca region.  If the town is worried about not enough people moving there, maybe instead of relying on government to force AU to hire in the town, they start making their town appealing enough that people will want to move there on their own—and if they can’t, well, whose fault is that?

Overall, the result is that AU will have a more limited talent pool to draw from especially for its top administration and executives, may well have to pay more to attract the top end of that more limited talent pool to live in a rural and somewhat remote area, and will then have less funding available for all the other things that actually matter to students.  In addition, the provincial government will have a significantly larger footprint on AU than it does on any other university in directing it’s operational actions, all because of a town that doesn’t want to compete fairly with other areas to bring in top talent, and a government with an internal crisis that is forcing them to pander for any and all votes they can hope to bring in.

But tell us how you really feel, right?

At any rate, meanwhile, we’ve got a decent issue this week, interviewing a student and entrant to our last fiction writing contest, Bronwyn Appleby—who is also a historical fan right down to her current employment.  Plus, a bit of an extreme take on how to get your friends to read those books that you know they need to read, some advice on balancing everything, tips for spring cleaning, events, scholarships, informative pieces and more by people from the Athabasca University community—which exists no matter what Premier Kenney might say.

Enjoy the read!