Athabasca University's 'near-virtual' reality has town leaders worried about future of campus

A battle to keep Athabasca University’s campus open in Athabasca may make it to the floor of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association convention in Edmonton next week. 

AUMA expected to hear resolution aimed at keeping bricks-and-mortar campus open

A sign.
Athabasca University is Canada's largest online university, hosting 40,000 students linked up virtually across Canada and beyond with instructors. (CBC)

Though there's never been a definitive announcement of its demise, the fight to keep the Athabasca University's campus operating in the town for which it's named is expected to be heard at a new venue next week.

The Town of Athabasca, 145 kilometres north of Edmonton, has submitted a resolution to the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) convention asking that the province make a clear business case and consult with the community when contemplating the closure, privatization or move of a publicly funded organization.

The City of Lacombe has agreed to second the motion when it comes up during the three-day convention, which begins Nov. 17 in Edmonton.

The AUMA resolution is the latest salvo in a campaign to prevent an expected closure of the campus. Last year, in a move that alarmed staff, politicians and business leaders in the town of about 3,000, the Athabasca University (AU) board of governors voted to transition to "near-virtual" operations.

"I feel within 10 years ... there'll be hardly any people working at AU that actually live in our community," said Rob Balay, a former councillor who was elected Athabasca's mayor last month. "And that's a huge concern for us." 

Town's economy vulnerable

Balay said the "near-virtual" policy could eliminate the need for new hires and current employees alike to live in Athabasca, as they could work anywhere with an internet connection.

An exodus of AU employees could have a detrimental impact on the town's economy and viability, he said.

Balay is involved with a grassroots organization called Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University. Over the past six months, the group's public awareness campaign has included writing op-eds for newspapers, making appearances before municipal councils, and hiring a lobbyist to make its case to the provincial government. 

Athabasca University moved from Edmonton to Athabasca in 1984 as part of the province's decentralization plan. The university's mandate is to provide distance university education to people who are unable to attend bricks-and-mortar institutions in person.

A spokesperson said there are no plans to close the main campus. 

The board of governors decided to let the leases expire on the university's offices in Edmonton and Calgary and affirm that "our primary physical home is in Athabasca," said Kristine Williamson, AU's vice-president of university relations, in a written statement.

Williamson said she is disappointed with the Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University group for disseminating "inaccurate" information.

"AU is not moving to a fully virtual work environment," she stated.

"As pandemic restrictions allow, AU team members will again work in our buildings in Athabasca in a near-virtual workforce design," she wrote. "In AU's near virtual-design, Athabasca-area residents will have the opportunity to apply for any role — place-based or remote — creating more opportunities for job growth in the region."

Athabasca University has faced significant financial troubles over the last decade. A report commissioned by AU in 2017 made several recommendations to keep the university viable.

'Deafening' silence

Mavis Jacobs, a retired accountant who served in numerous roles at AU including assistant professor, comptroller and senior administrator, is a member of Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University. She said AU's leaders haven't been forthcoming about their plans.

"To the public, their silence has been deafening. Because they're just not commenting at all," Jacobs said. 

"There has not been any open forums, there's not been any distribution of information. It's as though we do not matter."

Employees have been working from home since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Jacobs said people have been discouraged from coming back to the campus, despite grappling with poor Internet or high summer temperatures. 

Balay sat on the board of governors at the time of the decision. He was assured the closure of the Edmonton and Calgary offices would increase the number of employees in Athabasca. 

The message changed, he said, once people started working from home. 

"That's when we started to get concerned and started to take some action."

New president

The hiring of the university's new president has also fuelled speculation about AU's future in Athabasca.

Peter Scott, an academic from Sydney, Australia, will take over as AU president in January. The university said he will live in Alberta but won't be specific about where, saying that would violate Scott's privacy.

AU's presidents used to be required to perform most of their duties at the Athabasca campus, but that stipulation has been removed from contracts. 

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said in a statement there was no plan to close the Athabasca campus.

"I understand Keep Athabasca would like the government to compel the university to keep executive and office positions within the town of Athabasca," he said.

He urged people with concerns to discuss them directly with the president and the board of governors, "as these officials are in the best position to make operational decisions for the university."