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Upcoming Academic Terms: Info and Plans

Interim President’s Friday message

Updated on Apr 16
Tags: students, all updates

Laurentian reflection … and our own planning

A little more than two months ago, I wrote to the University of Regina community regarding a then-emerging situation at Laurentian University in Sudbury. President Robert Haché announced that “in light of unprecedented fiscal challenges” Laurentian had “commenced a proceeding under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act.”

 My message expressed concern for Laurentian colleagues, and assured readers that - despite the challenges posed by the pandemic - our financial situation at the U of R is not remotely like that facing Laurentian.

 Today I want to say more about our finances. But before I do, I need to respond to the last two days of news from Laurentian. Despite heavy media attention, there is not enough information to make an informed judgement about the appropriateness, or lack thereof, of Laurentian’s actions. And, indeed, it is neither helpful nor appropriate, as a sister university struggles, to criticize at a distance or to apportion blame.

 What I do want to say, however, is that I am saddened and unsettled by the way these events have affected the people of Laurentian. In the space of a day, nearly 200 positions have been lost, most of them through abrupt terminations. In a few weeks, almost one-third of the tenured faculty will be out of work. For those who remain employed, salaries have been cut, and teaching loads increased. Nearly 70 academic programs, many in the humanities, are gone.

 The agreements with the federated universities – Laurentian’s equivalents of Campion, First Nations University, and Luther - have been unilaterally terminated. Students are uncertain whether they will be able to, or indeed will wish to, complete their academic programs at Laurentian. Staff and administrators who collectively have given hundreds of years of service to the institution will be leaving in the next few weeks.

 In human terms, the impact on individuals and families is wrenching. It will be felt for years. In economic and social terms, the impact on Laurentian’s home city, Sudbury, and the University’s multiple constituencies in Northern Ontario, the Indigenous communities, and among Ontario francophones is similarly profound.

 What we are watching at Laurentian is unlike anything that has previously occurred in the Canadian postsecondary sector. For many of us it raises a troubling question: will the Laurentian situation remain unique, or is it in fact a harbinger of wider disruption to the Canadian postsecondary sector?

 At this point it seems that the Laurentian situation is anomalous, and shouldn't be taken as a sign of turmoil pending elsewhere in the country. (The situation in the US is different, particularly for small colleges in the upper midwest and northeast.)

 That said, however, readers of these Friday updates and those who attend the Friday town halls will know the challenges we face here at the U of R fourteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic. As you know, we have addressed, on a one-time basis, the current $13.5 million shortfall with funds put aside by nearly every unit for purposes such as renovations, equipment renewal, program initiatives, and more.

 But this is a one-year solution to a challenge that will span several years. Now, with urgency we’ve not seen before, we must think strategically about the future. The recent provincial budget announcement has given us four years of stability in operating funding. In the current climate of government debt, this is a welcome signal of strong support for our University and the provincial postsecondary sector as a whole.

Even with that stability in the operating grant, however, our costs go up every year. To address cost inflation, roughly 70% of which is in salaries and benefits, we need to find new sources of revenue. We also need to find ways to reduce costs by examining processes and activities that can be accomplished in less costly, more effective ways. In a word, like universities across the country, we need to examine all aspects of revenues and expenditures so as to ensure the long-term health and fiscal sustainability of the University.

How are we addressing this urgent need? In addition to four years of stable base funding, the provincial budget provides one-time funding of $5.5 million in 2021-22, and the same amount in 2022-23. Those one-time monies will assist us to develop secure new sources of revenue, to address inefficiencies, and to develop new ways of providing high-quality education, research, and public service in a manner that will sustain the University well into its second half-century.

Working with the Senior Leadership Team, we have begun looking at criteria and timelines for the use of these one-time funds. Via town halls, consultation with the Council Committee on Budget, regular communication with URFA and CUPE leadership, and more, we are committed to transparency during this process. We will take the time necessary to do this right, and to build the foundation for a truly sustainable University business model. With input from incoming President Jeff Keshen, and then from July forward under his leadership, decisions on the use of one-time funds will follow.

As I close this lengthy note, I need again to express my sadness at what has happened to Laurentian students, faculty, and staff. I also want to express my strong confidence that, working together, we will build a secure future for the U of R rooted in the mission, vision, and values of kahkiyaw kiwâhkômâkaninawak - most tellingly our commitment to build the world we want to live in.

Fall 2021 – a transitional term

Yesterday, Interim Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Dr david Gregory sent an email to campus outlining current plans for the Fall 2021 term. Additional detail may be found in the “Frequently Asked Questions - Fall 2021” section of the website.

Per Dr Gregory’s email, Fall 2021 will see a carefully managed re-opening of our campuses, with a significant increase in the volume of in-person classes, services, and other activities. The transitional Fall 2021 term will set the stage for what we hope will be a full re-opening of our University in Winter 2022. This long-term approach has been developed in close consultation with Saskatchewan health authorities and our sector partners, including the Ministry of Advanced Education.

To some, such an approach might seem overly optimistic given the current high infection rates of COVID-19 in our province and city. We must keep in mind, however, that by September the situation is expected to be far different.

By then, all who wish to receive a first dose of vaccine – and most likely a second - will have had the opportunity to receive it. As a consequence, public health restrictions on in-person gatherings are expected to be relaxed by fall. All who study, work, and live on our campuses are strongly encouraged to receive a vaccine when it is offered to them, because our ability to re-open our campuses even to a limited degree is predicated on our ability to keep everyone safe – and vaccines will be one critical factor helping us navigate through and beyond the pandemic.

That said, with the health and safety of our University and wider community remaining our first priority, we will carefully monitor the trajectory of the pandemic in our province, adjust our plans as necessary, and keep the University community updated and well-informed. Those updates will include information about returning to the workplace for those who have been working remotely. As noted in the FAQ section of the website, no date has yet been set for that return, but we will provide a minimum of four weeks’ notice to help faculty and staff make necessary arrangements.

With some COVID-19 public health regulations such as mask wearing and physical distancing likely to be still in place, as a transitional term Fall 2021 will still look very different than past September terms. More importantly, however, it will also look very different than Fall 2020, when COVID-19 sharply curtailed in-person coursework, restricted in-person research, kept many of us separated from our colleagues, and altogether prohibited in-person gatherings on our campus.

In short, our University will not be back to “normal” for Fall 2021 – but we expect a greater sense of normalcy than we have known for more than a year, and a closer return to the “university experience” that is so important to students, faculty and staff alike.

Sincerely,

Thomas Chase
Interim President and Vice-Chancellor