Sudbury·Updated

'Under duress,' Laurentian University faculty ratify new collective agreement

Two days after deep staff and program cuts were announced, the Laurentian University Faculty Association has ratified its collective agreement — but the association's president says it was done under duress.

Members told the university would close its doors if they didn't have contract in place

Fabrice Colin, president of the Laurentian University Faculty Association, says members voted in favour of a contract that included a five per cent salary cut because they felt they had no choice. (Fabrice Colin/Supplied)

Two days after deep staff and program cuts were announced, the Laurentian University Faculty Association has ratified its collective agreement — but its president says it was done under duress.

On Monday, 83 professors were terminated and 27 positions were cut through attrition and retirements, while 70 programs were cut. It's all part of the restructuring the Sudbury, Ont., university has been undergoing as part of the insolvency process, which has allowed it to operate while taking steps to get its financial situation in order.

LUFA head Fabrice Colin said members were told the university would close if the union didn't vote in favour of the tentative contract — they agreed to a five per cent cut in salary and a two-year salary freeze.

"It was a vote under duress because the alternative was the failure of the ratification vote, and therefore the failure of the CCAA process," said Colin, referring to the actions under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act.

Laurentian's president wrote in a March 8 letter posted on the university's website that labour agreements had to be in place by April 30 in order for the next phase of restructuring to begin.

"We are hopeful that by April 15, the community will start to see emerging clarity around key issues such as how Laurentian's academic offerings and federation agreement will be structured for the fall of 2021," the letter reads. 

On Wednesday, the university reacted to the ratification result with "Laurentian's largest labour partners," writing on its website that it reflects "the tremendous commitment and sacrifice of all faculty and staff to the university and its future."

"Salary and benefit reductions are being implemented for all employees, including non-union, administration, management and designated executives including the president & vice-chancellor." 

It did not reveal the amount of the reductions.

'An impossible position'

Colin and his colleagues with the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) are calling for the resignations of the following, accusing them of having roles in the financial crisis at the school:

  • Laurentian president Robert Haché.
  • Vice-president academic and provost Marie-Josée Berger.
  • Vice-president administration Lorella Hayes.
  • Board chair Claude Lacroix.
  • Registrar Serge Demers.
  • Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano.

"This was an incredibly difficult process and, unfortunately, its outcome means that important programs and jobs at Laurentian will be lost. We fought hard to minimize the damage but, without the provincial government at the table, we were in an impossible position," said Colin, referring to everything that led to the contract ratification.

"It now appears clear that this was the outcome that both Laurentian's senior administration and Minister Romano were working toward."

Contacted by CBC News, Laurentian said it was "unable to respond at this time" when asked to comment on the call for resignations.

LUFA and OCUFA are calling for new leadership at Laurentian to guide the university into the future.

They say current senior administration were complicit in creating Laurentian's financial crisis and can no longer be trusted.

"This is an incredibly sad week for the people of Sudbury, for francophones, for Indigenous communities, and for all the people of northern Ontario," said OCUFA president Rahul Sapra.

Laurentian University officials say the target date for completion of the key components of its financial restructuring plan is April 30. More information is available at laurentianu.info. (Radio-Canada)

Sapra accused Romano and the province of "abandoning Laurentian."

"They knew about the depths of the university's financial difficulties for months, if not years, and had numerous opportunities to take action to avert this crisis. While we were fighting for Laurentian's faculty, staff and students, Minister Romano stood by and did nothing."

CBC News also reached out to Romano's office about the calls for him to resign. 

In an email, press secretary Scott Clark said it's "deeply concerning and regrettable that Laurentian University has had to take such drastic measures to get their fiscal house in order." 

The ministry isn't involved in the insolvency process, so can't comment specifically about it, but it's "monitoring the situation," said the email. 

"Our priority is the continuity of learning for Laurentian's students."

'Disturbing precedent'

Meanwhile, more than 3,000 academics have sent a letter to Romano, in solidarity with Laurentian students and staff.

"Laurentian University and their community needs long-term, stable funding to ensure that no student's education and no jobs will be affected. There must be a community-oriented collaborative process that is transparent and which serves as the foundation of any future actions taken on determining Laurentian's future," the letter says.

"What has transpired at Laurentian University sets a disturbing precedent for the administration of post-secondary education in the province of Ontario."

The chair of the Canadian Federation of Students said he's heard from many Laurentian students about how the cuts at the university will affect them and their degree paths.

Sebastien Lalonde said the university's insolvency is part of a chronic lack of funding for post secondary education in the province, and the government should have intervened months ago.

"Where is the minister of colleges and universities on this topic? We have heard so little coming out of that office," he said.

"The ministry is meant to assure that we have proper funding and functioning in our universities and colleges to make sure students can graduate and get the education experiences they signed up for when they initially applied."

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