Unsatisfying answers from Laurentian senate meeting, says professor

A Laurentian University faculty member has said none of the answers from the university’s administration were satisfying following a heated senate meeting on Tuesday.

Meeting focused on the auditor general's 'Preliminary Perspective on Laurentian University'

Several Laurentian University senate members changed their zoom backgrounds to the cover of the Ontario auditor general's 'Preliminary Perspective on Laurentian University' to express their displeasure with the university's administration. (Laurentian University)

A Laurentian University faculty member says none of the answers from the university's administration were satisfying following a heated senate meeting on Tuesday.

The Ontario auditor general's recent "Preliminary Perspective on Laurentian University" dominated discussion at the meeting, in which several faculty members changed their Zoom backgrounds to the report's cover, to show their displeasure with the administration.

Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, a senate member and professor with the university's School of Natural Sciences, was one of those faculty members.

"None of the answers that come out of the administration are satisfying," Schulte-Hostedde told CBC News.

"Once the creditor arrangement is sorted and they have their plan of arrangement, then trust can be restored."

Due to its insolvency, Laurentian cut 69 programs and fired more than 100 staff and faculty members to cut costs.

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said Laurentian's solution to its financial problems, restructuring under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), was a mistake that could have been avoided.

The CCAA was created as a tool for insolvent private companies to restructure, but it had never been applied to a public university like Laurentian.

"In this particular case, we do believe that Laurentian needed to pull together a stronger ask of the ministry and work with the Ministry of Colleges and Universities to pull together a plan, even a year ahead of time, to support them in their endeavours going forward," Lysyk said.

During the senate meeting, Laurentian President Robert Haché said the CCAA was never a preferred option, and was only chosen at the eleventh hour, on Jan. 31, 2021. 

"We did everything we could to provide information to government, to the ministry, to avoid this," Haché said.

Haché said the university met with legal counsel who had experience in insolvencies in March 2020, but added the motivation was to avoid an insolvency in the first place, and not to prepare for one.

Several members of senate expressed their dismay at the auditor general's preliminary perspective during Tuesday's meeting, and their lack of trust in the university's administration.

Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde is a Laurentian University senate member and professor with the university's School of Natural Sciences. (Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde)

Senate member Ernst Gerhardt, an associate professor with Laurentian's English Department, said the university was facing a "trust deficit" following its insolvency and the decisions that have followed.

He said the auditor general's preliminary findings devastated many of his former colleagues who lost their jobs in April 2021. 

"Some of them said that reading that report was worse than the day that they lost their jobs, because on the day they lost their jobs they thought that they were sacrificing for a necessity,"  Gerhardt said.

"The auditor general has now pointed out that it wasn't a necessity."

Financial accountability 

Tanya Shutes, an assistant professor with Laurentian's Faculty of Health, asked about the $24 million Laurentian had paid in legal and consultant fees as of March 3, 2022, which were highlighted in the auditor general's findings. 

Laurentian President Haché responded that thanks to its program and staffing cuts "the university has gone from a position of unsustainable deficits to reducing its expenses by over $40 million per year on an ongoing basis."

For senate member Schulte-Hostedde, the only way for the university to move forward is for its senior leaders, including Haché, to step down.

"From a trust perspective, I mean, that upper administration, we need to have new leadership," he said. "I think that's pretty clear."

He said the university's new board of governors chair, Jeff Bangs, has "said all the right things" so far.

"I have concerns about the board composition in terms of Francophone, Indigenous people, people who are actually familiar with post-secondary education and universities," he said. "But at this point, I mean, I'll take whoever actually wants to make the university better."


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