Thorneloe loses court appeal in fight for survival as Laurentian University restructures

Thorneloe University has lost its bid to appeal Laurentian University's move to do away with an agreement that saw the now-insolvent school offer select courses to Thorneloe students.

Laurentian severed federated pacts with University of Sudbury, Huntington, Thorneloe in April

Thorneloe University had argued the agreement it had with Laurentian since 1962 to offer certain courses could not be unilaterally cancelled by Laurentian. The Ontario Court of Appeal disagreed in a written decision. (Erik White CBC)

A three-judge Ontario court panel has ruled Thorneloe University cannot appeal Laurentian University's move to do away with an agreement that saw the now-insolvent school offer select courses to Thorneloe students.

Laurentian has been under creditor protection since declaring insolvency Feb.1, when it began taking steps to restructure financially. Under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), Laurentian can continue to operate while getting its financial house in order. 

In April, Laurentian dissolved federated agreements with Thorneloe as well as two other universities — Sudbury and Huntington — saying it would save money.

The University of Sudbury is pursuing its goal of becoming a standalone francophone university.

Huntington has not challenged Laurentian's decision, but Thorneloe has been fighting the move.

Thorneloe's hopes now appear dashed, with the Court of Appeal judges ruling severing ties with Laurentian was the "least undesirable option" for both universities. 

Termination of the federated agreement is one of the conditions of a bridge loan from financial institutions to Laurentian to be used for continued restructuring.

Laurentian's lawyer has also argued the university would close unless the federated agreements were discontinued.

Thorneloe, Laurentian still talking 

In their decision, the judges wrote: "In our view, there is a risk that an appeal would be a distraction from the real-time restructuring efforts. Laurentian and the DIP Lender also raise legitimate concerns that attempting to 'unscramble the egg' through an appeal would unduly hinder the progress of the CCAA proceeding."

Thorneloe's president, Dr. John Gibaut, said the school's lawyers are looking at other legal options, but isn't sure what they might entail.

However, he said Thorneloe and Laurentian are continuing to negotiate a termination agreement, including severance for most of the faculty members whose jobs end June 30.

John Gibaut, president of Thorneloe University, says the school's lawyers are looking at other legal options. (Supplied by John Gibaut)

Gibaut said while Thorneloe is changing and shrinking, it won't disappear altogether.

"We've gone from 2,500 students to 40 students, and we've gone from over 40 employees down to about four employees as of the first of July. So it's a very small operation, but we're still there and we're going to keep building from there." 

Although the dismantling of the federated agreement means Thorneloe can't offer courses to Laurentian students, it will continue to deliver an online religious studies certificate and retains ownership of buildings including a residence and a theatre.

Gibaut said the residence may be a source of income in the fall if students return to Laurentian.

The professors working at Thorneloe delivered courses in ancient studies; women's, gender and sexuality studies; and religious studies.

Faculty members terminated June 30

Guy Chamberland, who taught ancient studies, said he's disappointed but not surprised that the appeal failed.

At age 60, he'll be one of two professors eligible for early retirement and doesn't plan to stay in Sudbury.

"My wife is from Hamilton, Ontario. Her mother cannot really be alone, so, there you go. I don't have any reason to stay in Sudbury, and I have other colleagues who have said the same thing. Now, they don't have any reason to stay here. So I think there will be a big loss to Sudbury altogether."

Jason Lepojärvi taught religious studies at Thorneloe. His job ends June 30 and he's looking for an academic job elsewhere in Canada or in the U.S. (Martha Dillman/CBC)

Younger professors are competing for scarce academic jobs elsewhere.

Jason Lepojärvi emigrated from Finland to Sudbury with his young family to teach religious studies at Thorneloe three years ago.

"It looks like if I want to stay in academia, I will have to, we will have to move and leave Sudbury, which we've grown to love over the past three years, because Laurentian is basically the only viable employer," he said. "So far, the most probable leads are in the U.S. and England, but we're weighing our options and we're going to, as a family,  take our next step very carefully and prudently." 





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