SUDBURY — Staff, students, and faculty at Laurentian University are reeling at the news that the school has cut nearly a third of its programs as part of its creditor-protection process in an effort to avoid bankruptcy.
The process, announced February 1 in a letter from Laurentian president Robert Haché, remains confidential under the federal Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), but details have been made public through Laurentian, its federated universities, and the Laurentian University Faculty Association (LUFA).
Last Monday, the university announced plans to cut 58 undergraduate and 11 graduate programs and lay off 110 faculty. “Today was a difficult day and we recognize that. Our faculty and staff are part of the fabric of Laurentian, and these changes will require a period of profound adjustment,” says Haché in a statement.
So what has been cut — and what will Laurentian look like going forward?
Programs and courses cut
Of Laurentian’s 175 degree programs, only 108 remain — 34 undergraduate programs offered in English and 24 offered in French were shut down, as were 11 graduate programs.
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Undergrad math and programs in humanities disciplines, such as music and political science, were cut, as were both undergrad and graduate programs in physics — noted for their affiliation with and proximity to Sudbury’s SNOlab, a neutrino lab. The environmental-science program, whose faculty played a role in the internationally recognized re-greening of Sudbury, was cut. The midwifery program, one of seven in the country, was cut. More than half the programs offered in French were cut, regardless of discipline: 24 programs taught in French remain for the roughly 2,000 francophone students at Laurentian.
Laurentian says it will offer “all or parts of the modules in terminated programs” and provide course substitutions and letters of permission that will let students take courses at other schools. “For a small number of students, Laurentian will assist them in transitioning to a related program or another institution,” reads an April 12 statement, which includes a full list of program cuts.
Termination of the Laurentian Federation
On April 1, Laurentian declared its intention to terminate its federation agreement, which had allowed three religiously affiliated universities to offer Laurentian degrees. The Laurentian Federation that formed the modern university in 1960 consists of the University of Sudbury, Thorneloe University, and Huntington University — all on the main Sudbury campus — and the University of Hearst, a francophone institution with campuses in Hearst, Kapuskasing, and Timmins. Laurentian’s intention to terminate the federation puts each school’s future in limbo.
Thorneloe University president John Gibaut says the school challenged the intent to terminate in court on Thursday. If the agreement were terminated, he says, “our courses would not be recognized [for a Laurentian degree] anymore. There wouldn't be any students to take our courses. The consequences of that? We'll cross that [bridge] when we when we come to it.”
The province announced Thursday that it is proposing legislation to allow the University of Hearst and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine to become standalone degree-granting institutions, “providing students with access to medical training and French-language studies in Northern Ontario,” says a statement from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities.
Huntington University reached an agreement with Laurentian on April 7 that will see the school become independent, though Huntington’s gerontology program will move to Laurentian. “We are not able to provide any further comment at this time,” a Huntington spokesperson tells TVO.org via email.
The University of Sudbury filed a notice of motion on April 14 challenging Laurentian’s intent to terminate the agreement, citing “significant financial hardship to USudbury” and stating that “Laurentian is not acting in good faith in connection” to the agreement. On March 12, the University of Sudbury announced it intends to become a francophone university, receiving support from l'Association de la francophonie de l'Ontario. “This really is dependent on support from our community and government partners,” says University of Sudbury president John Meehan. “There’s a lot of work to be done. This is not a fait accompli.” The school announced April 20 that it has hired PGF Consultants “to develop and formalize a business plan” to submit as part of a proposal to the Ministry of Colleges and Universities.
The university’s Indigenous-studies program is in doubt. While not listed in Laurentian’s cuts, its fate is tied to the University of Sudbury. An Indigenous-studies professor who asked to remain anonymous told TVO.org, “Although the faculty have had no formal communication with administration, in a union meeting we were told to expect termination letters by May 1.” Meehan declined to comment on the status of the program or its faculty.
Laurentian will offer six Indigenous-studies courses taught by sessional instructors during the spring semester. After that, it will offer its 140 Indigenous-studies students courses “rooted in Indigenous perspectives” through its Faculty of Arts to help them complete their degree. In an April 15 statement, Haché says that the program will receive “active and ongoing engagement with the Laurentian University Native Education Council (LUNEC).” However, LUNEC member Roxane Manitowabi was unaware of the course offerings when TVO.org spoke with her on April 16. “Any future programming at LU must include seeking advice from LUNEC,” she says. “The way this letter has been written sounds like we’re doing the writing. We are not in any way, shape, or form writing courses for Laurentian.”
Faculty and students react
“Everybody was crying, was outraged,” says Thierry Bissonnette, former professor in the French department, describing how he and his colleagues responded when they learned they would no longer be employed. One, he notes, is eight months pregnant. “It was really worse than what we expected.” Nearly one in five people in the northeast are francophone, according to the province. “Laurentian just abandoned its bilingual mission,” he says, adding that the school has “the confidence of the creditors, but they will have lost confidence of the huge part of the community.”
Though Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, a biology professor, didn’t get laid off, he says he was also in tears. “I have friends that have lost their jobs. And they’re accomplished international scholars,” Schulte-Hostedde says. “These university-professor positions are actually quite rare. For a mid-career researcher or academic, it's really difficult to find a new position.”
The Agenda featured a discussion of the Laurentian University cuts on April 19.
When faculty, staff, and students in the midwifery program gathered on Zoom to discuss the program’s closure, “We sat there in silence — in tears and enraged — for a good three minutes before we could get a word in,” says student Chantal Longobardi, 40, who moved from Calgary with her two children to attend the program. “I could have gone to Ryerson, McMaster, or Mount Royal, but I chose Laurentian.” Longobardi, who is Red River Métis, says, “I chose Laurentian because it was on Anishinabek territory. It spoke to me because of my cultural heritage. I want to bring birth back to families that don't have access to this care.”
LUFA president Fabrice Colin says faculty ratified a new five-year collective agreement with Laurentian on Wednesday; scheduled to take effect May 1, it will bring a 5 per cent pay cut and a two-year wage freeze for remaining staff. Colin says faculty held no-confidence votes for members of Laurentian’s board, including Haché, vice-presidents Marie-Josée Berger and Lorella Hayes, board chair Claude Lacroix, and registrar Serge Demers, and demanded their resignations and the resignation of Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano. “Students, faculty, and staff should not pay the price for the poor governance practices of an underfunded public university,” Colin says. LUFA also claims its pension fund has a going-concern deficit of $4.5 million.
How are provincial and federal governments responding?
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Colleges and Universities tells TVO.org via email that “it is deeply concerning and regrettable that Laurentian University has had to take such drastic measures to get their fiscal house in order.” The statement doesn’t mention emergency funding but notes that the province had offered close to $80 million in operating grants per year over the past five years and that other “grants accounted for more than 40 per cent of Laurentian’s total revenue in 2019-20, compared to a 23 per cent average for the universities’ sector overall.”
Laurentian’s woes have also become a topic of federal discussion. On April 14, Timmins–James Bay NDP MP Charlie Angus called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons. The CCAA process at Laurentian, he said, was “an act of intellectual vandalism without precedent” — and he’s urging that creditor-protection legislation be reformed and that the university be granted emergency funding.
Sudbury Liberal MP Paul Lefebvre tabled a private member’s bill, which went through its first reading Monday, to amend the CCAA by “simply adding publicly funded post-secondary institutions to the companies excluded from CCAA protection,” Lefebvre said. In the April 14 debate, however, he noted that “it is not the role of any politician to insert themselves in an independent judiciary process.”
During the debate, Minister of Official Languages Mélanie Joly said that the province has to “be able to come up with a solution, and we will be there at the table to help them financially —however, the groundwork has to be done at the provincial level.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that LUFA's pension fund was missing $4.5 million. TVO.org regrets the error.