Sudbury·Audio

Laurentian president addresses students, says pandemic was 'final straw' that broke school

Robert Haché, Laurentian University's president, said it wasn't until he hired a third party to comb through the university's books that he realized how dire its financial situation was.

Robert Haché says he had basic understanding of Laurentian's finances before taking job

Laurentian University officials say they are preparing for a return to in-class learning in September. (Radio-Canada)

Robert Haché, Laurentian University's president, said it wasn't until he hired a third party to comb through the university's books that he realized how dire its financial situation was.

"I was aware of the financial challenges at Laurentian University before I came to the university, I understood that the university was in a position that it could not afford to run any future deficits," Haché said. "And I understood that challenge going forward. Certainly that was the intent."

Haché addressed students in a Zoom meeting Thursday night, where he fielded questions for nearly an hour, including how much he knew before taking the helm. 

"After I arrived, and as I learned more about the university...I began to discover the full extent of the financial challenges that the university has had," he said. " And a lot of that came when I brought in an external firm to help, help probe and help me understand the true state of the finances of the institution."

Laurentian's president, Robert Haché, invited students to a Zoom conference Thursday night. (Screen capture from Zoom meeting)

Haché said by 2020 he managed to bring the annual budget under control, but those financial challenges "deepened" as the year went on. 

"We went from a situation where we had a balanced budget to, you know, a $10 million expense as a result of COVID-19."

"There are a lot of things over the past ten or even 15 years that have contributed to taking the university to where it was. But it really was the pandemic that was the final straw."

But Haché stressed to students that the worst was over, no further cuts to programs were expected.

CCAA process expected finish by end of year

"All of the structural changes to the academic programs that we intended to make have been made," he said. "And they have have been extensive."

"But the suite of programming that we have today is a suite of programming that we expect to have, want to have, need to have and will have going forward."

He added that he expects the CCAA process to wrap up by year's end.

"We fully expect that by end of the summer there will be an additional extension, which will be the opportunity to finalize all of the agreements that are needed within the CCAA," he said. Come the end of the year or sometime approaching late fall, towards the end of the year, Laurentian will emerge from creditor protection." 

Haché said students can look forward to a return to in-class learning this September, provided the city continues its downward trend of COVID-19 cases. 

The school may even have vaccines available on campus for the fall as students return and activities return to normal.

Eric Chappell, the president of Laurentian's Students General Association, said he had several questions going into the virtual meeting with Haché, but left with a sense of optimism.

"It was a really interesting meeting," Chappell said. "I feel there's still students looking for a pathway to move forward and there's still some unknown variables. But it felt like the turning of a page...of a new time."

Eric Chappell is the president of Laurentian's Students General Association. (sga-age.com)

Chappell said students are still contacting him with questions about in-class learning, or if vaccines will be mandatory before students are allowed on campus.

"I think the world doesn't have an answer for those questions yet," he said. "So I think it's a bit much to ask Haché to come up with the answers."

Demetra Evangelou, who studies at Laurentian's McEwen School of Architecture, said overall, Haché's address to the students was positive, although she was left with lingering questions about how the university planned to move forward.

"Haché said it's about most students but not about all the students," she said. "And that's really sad to me. So it's not about helping all of them because the students [from cut programs] are still part of the university and part of the student body and community."

Evangelou says these students "need to be helped in some way. They're not all being helped, and that's still a problem to me." 

Demetra Evangelou, who studies at Laurentian's McEwen School of Architecture, says she feels not enough has been done to support the students whose programs were cut. (Supplied/Demetra Evangelou)

Evangelou recently started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for students who face unexpected expenses following program cuts, or find themselves facing extra fees to transfer out of Laurentian to a different university.

"My friends are still trying really hard to figure out what they're going to do and they're not getting necessarily the help they need, because most of them need to transfer to different universities," she said. 

"Right now they're talking about helping the people staying at Laurentian but what about the ones that are choosing not to because of everything that's going on? There's no financial support. There's nothing."

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