Editorial: Laurentian needs support, not slash and burn

Laurentian University

The second most significant feature of the debacle that defines the financial crisis in which Sudbury’s Laurentian University finds itself is the obvious fact that recent boards of directors and senior administration at this important Northern Ontario institution enormously mismanaged the financial affairs of this critical regional asset. The institution is $200 million in the red. The cost to the region of the layoffs and programs cuts is an estimated $100 million annually, according to Lakehead University economist Livio DiMatteo.

The main feature, though, is the academic fallout—the slashing of programs and the associated termination of staff that will likely result. Laurentian will now assume the mantle of university of last resort.

Laurentian University was the dream, in the late 1950s, of a handful of visionary people in Sudbury who envisioned what the university could become. A friend of this writer began his undergraduate studies at Laurentian University 60 years ago, in 1961, and cheerfully reported at that time of taking his classes in a variety of loaned classrooms and storefronts in downtown Sudbury and even the Flour Mill area.

Start small and build a dream.

The late Dr. Stan Mullins, who spent his retirement years in the Kagawong area, was Laurentian’s first president and held this office during the turbulent 1960s, simultaneously dealing with protesting student sit-ins in his administrative quarters while overseeing a great deal of the construction of the buildings on the Ramsey Lake Road campus that remain the institution’s skyline, impressively visible from Paris Street, Bell Park and Science North.

The campus property on Ramsey Lake Road was donated to the university, providing a unique opportunity to make its presence from a lofty plateau.

These are small details, but indicate the university’s early boards of directors and administrators had a sense that they were creating something important.

This visionary style flies in the face of the current decision by administration and the board—chopping programs that most universities would consider fundamental undergraduate study disciplines. Many post-grad studies have also been axed.

The list of cuts is long but as of now, a student can no longer pursue a degree in either physics or philosophy, mathematics or anthropology, music or ecology, environmental studies or midwifery, music studies or political science.

The list is depressingly long, cutting great swaths across the humanities, natural sciences, applied sciences and social sciences—programs many would consider germain education.

Over the decades Laurentian has carefully crafted a primary undergraduate institution in Northeastern Ontario. The wide variety of courses played a central role. 

Laurentian, from its humble origins, took on an academic leadership role in Northeastern Ontario. What is now Nipissing University in North Bay morphed out of the old North Bay Teachers’ College into full degree-granting university status by initially becoming a college campus of Laurentian University. Courses were offered and taken in North Bay but Laurentian awarded its degree. Nipissing University was granted independent degree-granting status in 1992. 

Similarly, Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie also has its origins as a college campus of Laurentian University beginning in 1965, continuing this relationship until it too became an independent degree-granting university in 2008, with the blessing of Laurentian.

Professional schools at Laurentian University (the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, the McEwen School of Architecture, the Schulich School of Business, the School of Nursing, the Bharti School of Engineering) are largely left out of these cuts, with the exception of the civil engineering program where the first two years must now be taken at another institution and the Faculty of Education where junior and primary concurrent English BA and BSc and the French language BA intermediate and advanced teaching programs are eliminated.

Apparently, the School of Midwifery, a unique bilingual four-year health discipline, is not considered in the same professional status as the health disciplines—for it too met the axe.

Southwestern Ontario has Western University as its shining post-secondary institution. South-central Ontario has the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo and McMaster University as top-tier institutions while eastern Ontario takes pride in Queen’s University and the University of Ottawa (which is also bilingual.) Northwestern Ontario has Lakehead University (which continues to offer undergraduate degree programs in mathematics, physics, archeology and anthropology with post graduate degree programs to match).

Current and recent members of the Laurentian University board of directors and administration must be held accountable for letting things go so far as to became the first post-secondary institution in Canada to seek bankruptcy protection.

More importantly, Laurentian University is far too important to fail, or regulated to bush league status in this spectacular manner. 

The provincial Minister of Colleges and Universities, Soo MPP Ross Romano and his department, have been conspicuously quiet on this file.

Minister Romano is a Northern Ontario minister, this is completely his area of responsibility and Laurentian University simply cannot afford to be allowed to flounder; it is far too important an institution to all of Northeastern Ontario.

Substantial Indigenous studies are at stake (although the university has committed to taking over some of them from the Université de Sudbury affiliated college where they had been offered).

This is a time for Minister Romano to show some leadership of his own and, as a Northerner, recognize that this institution needs bailing out right away.

Perhaps caps or reasonable minimal enrolments could be set for the programs scheduled for discontinuation. Perhaps midwifery could be offered exclusively in French or in English?

But the myriad of cancellations of programs, as it stands, certainly hollows out the spirit of Laurentian University and this is something that Ontario’s Northeast region cannot afford.

A $200 million debt is a big number but, in these pandemic days, we are getting used to funds flowing in the billions of dollars. Surly there is a path.

Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus led a parliamentary debate in Ottawa last week, getting the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages, Melanie Joly’s, attention in the process with a commitment to come to the assistance of Laurentian University, “as long as provincial partners come forward with solutions, and we will then be there to support them, through funding,” Ms. Joly said during the emergency debate.

This may be all about politics but it is an offer that Minister Romano must seriously consider.