Concern: The Situation at Laurentian University

Concern: The Situation at Laurentian University

– Dave Starbuck, Ontario Political Forum, May 13, 2022 –

In February 2021, the Laurentian University administration announced that it was applying for bankruptcy protection under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA). Laurentian had a total of almost $300 million in debts they could not pay. As a result of the CCAA proceedings, the restructuring process saw the termination of agreements with the three federated universities, University of Sudbury (Catholic), Huntington University (Anglican) and Thornloe University (United). The federated universities had delivered programs under contract for Laurentian University because as religious institutions they could not be funded directly by the Ontario government and could not grant degrees under Ontario law.

The CCAA proceedings resulted in the closure of 58 undergraduate programs (34 English-language programs and 24 French-language programs), 11 graduate programs and nine programs offered by the federated universities. In all, 36 per cent of Laurentian’s programs were eliminated, which disrupted the studies of almost a thousand students. The closed programs included Indigenous Studies, Environmental Science, Geography, History, Midwifery, Music, Philosophy, Physics, Religious Studies and many others.

Laurentian also terminated close to 200 staff and faculty.

In all this, the Laurentian community, except for the administration, had no role to play, no say in any of these decisions.

The Laurentian community has been very active in fighting against the CCAA wrecking of the university, through the group Save Our Sudbury, the Faculty Association and others, and are demanding that the Ford government intervene to take action to defend the university and the rights of faculty, staff and students.

Despite the very difficult situation with COVID-19, the Laurentian community organized a number of actions, car rallies, physically-distanced pickets and other actions. It organized Zoom meetings which are still going on to get everyone who wants to fight the CCAA procedures together. At the present time the fight is centred around the university’s lands and buildings, especially the Art Gallery of Sudbury which is housed in the historic Bell Mansion. The Art Gallery houses a collection valued at $6 million, mainly donated by members of the community, which the financial oligarchy wants to seize under CCAA and monetize.

The administration of Laurentian University was not at all open with the community as to what the situation was. They accumulated a lot of debt on a building spree and when they ran into problems they started shuffling money around, using money designated for things like bursaries and scholarships and research for their building projects instead. At the same time, a huge responsibility lies with the provincial governments of various stripes over the last two or three decades. Ontario universities have been chronically under-funded. Ontario has the lowest per-student provincial funding for colleges and universities in Canada.

Over time, this created a serious problem, especially in northern Ontario where you have a declining population and a smaller number of people wanting to go to university. The universities raised tuition fees, increasingly placing the burden of the universities’ crisis onto the backs of students and their families. Universities are also encouraged to recruit foreign students who pay much higher tuition fees compared to Canadian students, but northern Ontario is not as inviting as Toronto is in term of attracting foreign students.

The University is still under CCAA and will be until at least September.

Laurentian is the first Canadian post-secondary educational institution to be forced into bankruptcy protection under the CCAA. Whatever is said about the CCAA process, experience with it confirms that it is not designed to solve the problems facing the workers or students or people of a community. It is designed for one thing only and that is maximization of the profits of the banks and the big financial interests. The concerns of the people just don’t come into the equation, unless the people insert themselves by opposing what is going on. That is what the Stelco workers in Hamilton did against that fraudulent CCAA bankruptcy scheme. Until now, the CCAA had never before been used when a public institution faced financial difficulties. It had been solely geared to private business enterprises like Stelco, Vale Inco and others.

CCAA has no business being used at all, let alone in public institutions. CCAA is not in the business of providing education and guaranteeing the right to education for all. People are wondering if the real purpose of CCAA at Laurentian University was a test-run of using CCAA to restructure public institutions. It is a definite possibility because there is not really a lot of rationale for the Laurentian administration to resort to the CCAA process. We do know that there were communications between the administration of Laurentian and the provincial government before the decision was announced that Laurentian was applying for CCAA protection. One of the things that is also being said is that the restructuring of Laurentian may be aimed at turning it into a polytechnic university providing training rather than education in certain engineering disciplines in order to provide a skilled workforce to the monopolies, especially the mining industry.

Laurentian University is an important public institution for the people of the north. It was the first university established in the north in 1960. It is the largest university in northern Ontario. It provides educational opportunities for the youth of the north close to home. It has about 8,000 students and about 1,000 employees performing various tasks. It was instrumental in developing other universities in the north that were first set up as campuses of Laurentian and then became universities in their own right.

Whether we are talking about a big university like the University of Toronto or a small one like Hearst, it becomes a centre of culture and knowledge in a community and it provides an opportunity for young people to get an education within their home community as much as possible and this is really important. It is a huge expense to go to a big city to attend a big university. Laurentian provides both general knowledge and specific scientific and technical knowledge that serves the economy in the region. Laurentian University is also unique in the sense that it also serves the francophone community and the Indigenous communities.

The faculty, staff and students are highly knowledgeable in a wide range of disciplines. They could have found solutions to the problems of Laurentian if the university administration had been open with them and told them the true extent of the situation and provided time to analyze it and find a solution. Instead, they kept the situation hidden for the longest possible time and then took the “nuclear option” – CCAA. The result has been the wrecking of Laurentian University.

Not only at Laurentian, but in all of northern Ontario, the solution is for the workers and people to participate in politics on the basis of defending their interests against the attacks of the monopolies and striving to build a human-centred society fit for human beings.