'It's so disheartening': 3 small Sudbury universities try to survive after being set adrift by Laurentian

The impact of the financial crisis at Laurentian University is obvious at the three smaller Sudbury schools that were once federated with northern Ontario's largest university. They have been cut loose with no students or provincial funding, and face an uncertain future. 

3 formerly federated universities ran on tuition money from Laurentian students

A bearded man wearing a suit stands in an empty classroom
President John Gibaut stands in one of the many empty classrooms at Thorneloe University, which has gone from 2,500 students to 26 online learners. (Erik White/CBC )

Just walking through the quiet halls of Thorneloe University is tough for president John Gibaut.

"It's so disheartening. This building was built to teach, and we don't have students," he said.

For 60 years, Thorneloe, Huntington and the University of Sudbury were part of the Laurentian University federation: independent partner schools that built on land leased from Laurentian, offering programs to Laurentian students.

But when northern Ontario's largest university terminated the federation this spring as it tries to dig itself out of financial insolvency, its neighbours on the Sudbury campus were cut loose.

Gibaut said Thorneloe went from 2,500 students to 26 online learners in its theology program and dropped from 40 employees to four. 

The university still has some money coming in from its residence, although with the 14 per cent drop in Laurentian enrolment only 36 of the 58 rooms are booked.

Gibault said Thorneloe has been able to rent out its theatre to local arts groups and could be "slowly becoming a cultural hub." 

Four signs in a square
Thorneloe University says it's in an 'unwelcome transition year' dealing with very tight finances while it tries to make plans for the future. (Erik White CBC)

But the short-term financial picture is grim— with severances to pay to laid off faculty and ongoing building costs, including new expenses such as setting up their own internet service— and the future is very unclear. 

"What will we be in another year? I assume we will be here, but that's not.... so yeah, lot of things in the air. But this is a transition year," said Gibaut.

"If you think Thorneloe University is this building, who knows? Thorneloe is a charter signed 60 years ago by the Queen and the community that gathers around it. That can happen anywhere."

A smiling man in a blue suit stands against a stone wall
Serge Miville, the new president of the University of Sudbury, is inspired by the empty classrooms and offices, as they speak of the potential of relaunching the school as a standalone francophone university. (Erik White/CBC )

The University of Sudbury is also eerily quiet this fall with no students and only a handful of employees.

But that's exciting for new president Serge Miville. 

"I see the offices that are empty, I see the classrooms... what I actually see is the potential," he said.

"There's nothing depressing at all. We're looking forward. We're not seeing the hurt of the past. We're not dwelling on that."

The University of Sudbury has moved quickly to try to transform itself into a standalone francophone university.

Miville said after the mass layoffs in the spring they are actually hiring some more administration staff, lobbying the provincial and federal governments for permanent funding and putting $1.5 million in renovations into its 150-room residence.

If all goes well, he hopes to welcome students back in the fall of 2022.

Caution tape frames a construction worker out on a roof
The University of Sudbury is spending $1.5 million on renovations to its residence to get ready for a planned reopening in September 2022. (Erik White/CBC)

Miville credits his predecessors for taking good care of the books.

"Sound fiscal management making sure we do have the resources to weather the storm," he said.

"We're currently in a storm, we're actually weathering it pretty well, considering."

The CBC has been asking Huntington University about its current status and future plans for the past six months, and president Kevin McCormick has not been made available. 

But he did speak about it in October at a church service in Sudbury. 

Words on a building reads 'Huntington University' framed through trees
Despite six months of requests, Huntington University has not provided CBC with any information about its current status or future plans. (Erik White/CBC)

"On Feb. 1, Huntington University's world changed through the actions of another institution," McCormick told the congregation.

"I'm very proud to stand here today to say that our institution continues to grow, to develop community actions and community plans and to ensure that the 60 plus year legacy will continue not in a different way but in a continued way."

The Huntington website still welcomes students, lists academic programs it no longer offers and professors who were laid off.

That includes Birgit Pianosi, who taught gerontology there for 20 years, but moved with the program to Laurentian University, where she is now a part-time professor.

She says after her position was cut, she didn't get an email, call, letter or any other communication from Huntington leadership.

"I was disappointed, but not surprised," says Pianosi.

"Huntington University was not a healthy work environment, so for me it's kind of a good thing that I no longer work there."

A faded sign reads Sudbury, Huntington and Thorneloe
A faded and outdated sign on the Laurentian University campus points the way up the hill to the three federated universities. That agreement was terminated earlier this year. (Erik White/CBC )

Long before the financial crisis at Laurentian, Pianosi was an outspoken critic of Sudbury's four-headed university and while she wishes the schools well as they decide what they'll become, she isn't mourning the end of the Laurentian federation. 

"It was financially very expensive to keep up all four universities and I think in that sense it's a good development, but it's unfortunate it had to happen the way that it did."


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to