Learned Helplessness or Actually Helpless?

Alberta's Advanced Education Minister Provides AU Students with a Case Study on Present-day Politics

When trying to understand the present negotiations between Alberta’s Advanced Education Minister and Athabasca University surrounding the former’s demand for the latter to increase employee headcount in Athabasca, I have found it helps to split the issue into two parts:

  1. The publicly stated desires of the Advanced Education Minister, and
  2. The underhanded methods by which the government is getting what it wants.

If you want a refresher of the issue, I believe this is a fairly comprehensive article on the lead-up to recent events, while this article is as recent as August 5.

In early 2022, with the prodding of the Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University group, Premier Jason Kenney and Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides began to express their desire for AU to increase its physical presence in the Athabasca region to drive economic development.  It has also been said that economic development was the reason AU was first moved to Athabasca from Edmonton in 1984. Expressed a little less publicly are the claims that AU’s near-virtual strategy is compromising the school’s mission to be a distance education leader – a claim not made by Nicolaides himself (that I could find), but by other proponents of the Minister’s plans, the Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University group most notably.

Initially, I was greatly bothered that money earmarked for post-secondary education was to be co-opted for economic development. My thought was that AU is supposed to be for students and that provincial money for the school should primarily be for their benefit. That the province would meddle in the affairs of a university as a means to their own ends felt hugely inappropriate. However, now I’m not so sure.

When a post-secondary institution is justifying its existence (which is more often than should be necessary), the benefit to the regional economy is an item probably in the top five.  Since money given to the school benefits both students and the economy, how could a politician resist generous funding? If this was once the understanding between AU and the Alberta government, but now the government feels AU is no longer upholding its end of the deal, why isn’t the government free to decline to give as much money? Perhaps that is what has happened: the government wanted ‘A’, AU wanted ‘B’, and without an agreement reached the government is reducing its funding for the school. If this is a rational world full of good-intentioned people, then that is all there is to it.

To me, however, it’s obvious we’re living in a political climate full of double-speak, underhanded dealings, and the desire to win at any cost. When the true goal on its own is too objectionable to stand in full view, it will instead be covered with the thinnest veneer of good intentions—a bucket of sand for those who, wishing to stay ignorant of the unsavoury dealings happening in their government, can stick their head in; a shield of plausible deniability for those willing to achieve their goals by dishonest means, and a cover to distract opponents who debate in good faith.

Demetrios Nicolaides provides us with an ongoing case study of this phenomenon. The veneer?  Athabasca University should be in Athabasca to fulfill its purpose of providing distance education and as an economic driver in the community. That’s why the school was moved there in 1984, that’s what the UCP government has publicly stated should happen since the beginning of this year. AU is free to not stay in Athabasca, but the government is free to provide less funding.

The Means to an End – A Timeline

All dates in 2022

  • January – AU president Peter Scott meets with the Alberta Minister of Advanced Education Demoetrois Nicolaides. Scott says this meeting included a discussion of AU’s near-virtual plan, at which time no concerns surrounding the initiative were brought up.
  • March 24 – Premier Kenney and Nicolaides announce during a town hall meeting in Athabasca that directives have been issued to AU which will help the community.
  • MayNicolaides replaces the AU Board of Governors chair Nancy Laird, who had rejected Nicolaides’ March 2022 directives to, among other things, consolidate AU’s executive and administrative offices in Athabasca.
    • Nicolaides’ pick is Byron Nelson, a Calgary lawyer who ran for leadership of the Alberta PC party in 2016, and who supports the plans of Nicolaides.
  • June 30 – AU responds to the Advanced Education Minister’s directives with a draft talent management plan, asking for the opportunity to meet. AU president Scott states no response was received until:
  • July 29 – Rather than responding to AU’s request for input, Nicolaides makes more demands, setting deadlines and tying AU’s funding to the school’s progress with moving AU staff to Athabasca.
  • August 7 – The Advanced Education minister states that because what AU submitted hadn’t provided any “financial asks” they were forced to “take a step forward” on their own. While painting a picture of an uncooperative university, Nicolaides still says he’s optimistic and open to working with President Scott.
  • August 11 – Nicolaides signals he’s willing to negotiate the proposed residency target, calling the previous 65% residency goal “a suggestion” which he is willing to chat about.
    • Scott believed that even if the school agreed to the terms of Nicolaides’ original directives that the timelines were so tight the school would still lose funding. This may change now in light of the Advanced Education Minister’s August 11th
A Pattern of Behaviour

One could—and many proponents do—look at the individual events above and say “well, we don’t really know what their intentions are/were.” However, in the context of history, it’s safe to start making assumptions.

The above timeline fits a pattern of UCP behaviour towards AU, post-secondary education in Alberta, and public institutions in general.

Much like a statistician – as new information emerges surrounding how the UCP operates, we must update the probabilities we assign. The actions of Nicolaides are likely not simply well-intentioned moves to help a University and rural town.

How has This Been Playing Out?

In the realm of public discourse there’s no winning or losing, just more “what abouts,” arguments with moved goal posts, contradiction, and general internet shouting. It’s not just about economic development now, it’s also about how bad remote work is, and that’s compromising AU’s mission! You see, remote working is both terrible and good, and which one it is depends exactly on what I want to be true. Administrative staff can’t work effectively remotely, but exemplary learning experiences can be had remotely. Appeals to authority are made: Elon Musk doesn’t like remote work, and he’s super rich!; a brazen willingness to make unsubstantiated statements, demands of proof used in the hopes the other side can’t deliver or isn’t dedicated enough to produce, menacing and demeaning language, etc., etc. In this environment, the principled participant is at a distinct disadvantage, and those willing to engage in these underhanded means of argument believe they’ve come out the victor.

There are of course people on each side of the issue, however, there are also those who stand off to the side. “They saw this coming,” “it’s always been this way,” “both sides need to work together,” “none of this really matters,” etc. To me, this attitude affords those who wear it the safety of not needing to pick a side, but also an air of superiority. This, I worry, is damaging and infectious, holding apathy up as an attitude that rises above bickering arguments, but allowing wrongdoing to carry on without a rightful chorus of condemnation.

In the situation AU finds itself in, we can see how this “off to the side” attitude is detrimental. Both sides are being called confrontational, with several saying they must reach a compromise. If your waiter brings you the “stewed-bug jambalaya” but you asked for a cheeseburger, are you the one being confrontational if you decline to eat it? Well, now the other restaurant patrons are telling you to work it out and come to a compromise; just eat a few bugs, why are you being so confrontational?

In his August 10th video which addressed the ongoing discussions with the Alberta Ministry of Advanced Education, Peter Scott earnestly (apparently) suggested that if only the Minister had engaged with the school he would have seen how AU benefits—and plans to benefit—the Athabasca region.  Scott ends his video by stating we’re in a democracy and urged those who wish to help the school to voice their concerns. Generally, this appears to be the recommended response when people ask “what can I do?” But it presupposes that the government is acting with a sincere interest in what’s best for its citizens. The mind boggles to think that anyone would believe, at this point, a government official would alter course due to a well-worded letter. But isn’t this, in effect, what people are implicitly hoping for when they write to tell their elected officials about their concerns surrounding a government policy? Short of eliciting a tidal wave of disapproval, “voice your concerns” feels particularly impotent against the brash actions of a conservative government in Alberta.

Learned Helplessness, or Truly Helpless?

“Pick a side,” “don’t argue in bad faith,” “the government’s not going to listen anyway.” What is it I’m suggesting? I don’t know. I don’t see a good answer.

What I feel has been most effective at motivating change is out-sized outrage. With their out-sized outrage over masks and vaccine mandates, “trucker” convoys mobilized and, in some instances, shut down border crossings or occupied downtown Ottawa, seemingly without significant repercussions. Similarly, “cancel culture”—for any definition of it I can think of—garners results from mobilized masses of outraged people (some or even many incidents may be justified, and thus not “out-sized,” but the effectiveness of mass outrage is the point). It’s not coincidental that the outraged side has a black-and-white view of the issue and no appreciation for potential nuance; such characteristics would slow the spread of outrage.

If others are anything like me, they believe there’s intellectual dishonesty to making an out-sized-anything over an issue. These same people aren’t going to be the ones saying they care about X while simultaneously destroying it; acting as though the world is made up of only black-or-white situations—asserting we’ve always been at war with Eastasia. In the political climate today, such people are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to shaping the world. They’re the kind of people who, in the face of a government-led existential crisis might say “voice your concerns.”

Many bemoan voter apathy and lack of civic engagement. Some say you get the government you deserve. But I ask: is the problem lack of engagement, or that much of the power we’re told democracy affords us is actually fiction? From the presidency of Donald Trump to today (and probably before, too), I’ve watched Americans tirelessly attempt to influence the direction of their democracy using all the methods we’ve been told are effective. I’m skeptical that the outcome achieved in the US represents a true “averaging” of the will of Americans. On a personal level, as a rural Albertan I write my MP and MLA, and invariably the canned responses I get back only tangentially reference what I wrote about before delving into “Justin Trudeau’s Liberals” or “the previous NDP government.” But I shouldn’t worry, they’re going to keep fighting for what’s important to me.

This Lesson Isn’t Over

While the methods Nicolaides is employing may be predictable, his desired outcome, at this point, is not. The situation the Advanced Education Minister has put AU in is so untenable that one wonders what outcome Nicolaides is actually hoping for. What I feel I can conclude is this – if the students come out on top in the end it’ll be dumb luck, because the politics of today have succeeded in creating a populace who, despite what they may want, are ineffective agents of change.

Keep Athabasca In Athabasca University. Retrieved from: https://www.keepathabascainau.com/
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Stocking, Heather.,  “AU Board of Governors chair dismissed by minister” in Town and Country Today., Retrieved from: https://www.townandcountrytoday.com/athabasca-news/au-board-of-governors-chair-dismissed-by-minister-5415394
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