'An ugly stain for years to come': Laurentian University students, staff reeling from cuts

The emotionally charged reaction to deep cuts to staff and programs at Laurentian University continued to pour in Tuesday, a day after the news first hit students, staff and other interests in the Sudbury, Ont., community.

Associations boost calls for province to step in with funding for Sudbury, Ont., school

A young man with glasses.
Adam Kirkwood, a PhD student in the boreal ecology program at Laurentian University, one of the graduate programs left unscathed by cuts announced Monday, said Tuesday the school community is 'going through a lot.' (Adam Kirkwood/Supplied)

The emotionally charged reaction to deep cuts to staff and programs at Laurentian University continued to pour in Tuesday, a day after the news first hit students, staff and other interests in the Sudbury, Ont., community.

On Monday, roughly 100 faculty members lost their jobs and dozens of programs were axed. 

Adam Kirkwood, a PhD student in Laurentian's boreal ecology program, one of the grad programs that avoided the cuts, said Tuesday he's experiencing, sadness, fear and guilt.

"I am one of the lucky ones where my supervisor wasn't terminated and my program wasn't terminated. But I'm watching everyone being cut and terminated, and all of my friends who are losing supervisors," he said.

"They're going through a lot. I don't even think they or their supervisors know what their plans are. And definitely there's a lot of fear for those students, and I feel absolutely terrible for them."

As Laurentian manoeuvres the insolvency process, the job and program cuts are the most stunning development yet, the result of an academic senate vote last week that aims to help the financially beleaguered university restructure operations.

Laurentian's court proceeding under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) started Feb. 1. The insolvency process allows for creditor protection, so organizations can keep operating while undergoing changes to regain financial footing.

Staff, faculty and students are mourning dozens of job losses and program cuts at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. (Yvon Theriault/Radio Canada)

Read the list of program cuts here

Kirkwood said people are reaching out and asking how this incredible situation unfolded.

"There's decades of mismanagement that came to a head and then, unfortunately, some decisions were made that weren't in the best interest of preserving the university," he said.

"The university has really just been reduced to a numbers game, and trying to satisfy creditors and balance the books rather than thinking about the people at the university and community of the university."

Kirkwood acknowledged finances are important for a university, but he doesn't believe it's a business.

"It's a place of higher education where people are able to go and learn, and develop critical thinking skills and learn about so many different aspects of life or science or art," he said.

"And if you're running it as a business, then things become a product. And I think that, at some point, defeats the purpose of what a university is purposed to do."

Earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighed in on the evolving situation at Laurentian, shifting the focus to the Ontario government.

"Our francophone institutions, particularly for minority communities like franco-Ontarians, are extremely important that we protect," he told reporters in Ottawa.

Trudeau gave assurances that Minister of Official Languages Mélanie Joly has reached out to her Ontario counterparts "to see what their plan is to support and protect this institution."

"The federal government will be there to support. But it is a provincial jurisdiction, and therefore they need to figure out what the plan is. And we will be there to support because we know how important it is to protect official language minorities across the country."

Province on 'the sidelines'

On Tuesday morning, Sudbury MPP Jamie West delivered a passionate member's statement at the Ontario Legislature, detailing ways students, faculty and the broader community are being affected by the Laurentian situation.

West also called out the province for not stepping in to provide funding and prevent the cuts. 

"Conservatives aren't defending francophone and Indigenous programs ... The Conservatives are responsible for every single one of these job losses, and [the] Conservatives could have stopped this from happening and are simply refusing to get off the sidelines."

Students, staff and faculty have felt as if they've been on the sidelines since Laurentian surprisingly launched its financial insolvency. Little has been said to the school community as administrators swiftly moved to try to find solutions.

Monday's cuts were a gut punch for people including political science student Katlyn Kotila.

Katlyn Kotila, a political science student, said the deep program and staff cuts are 'an absolute loss, not just for the university, but especially for students.' (Submitted by Katlyn Kotila)

"I found out the news on my program on Twitter ... but then to see it officially confirmed in the email was just absolutely heartbreaking," said Kotila.

"It's an absolute loss, not just for the university, but especially for students.These students came to Laurentian to study with academics who are top of the class in their field. Many of these professors are doing incredible things in the fields that they study." 

Faculty, dismissed or not, also react

"I've got friends and colleagues whose lives are destroyed. It's brutal," said Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, a professor in the department of biology and a Canada Research Chair. 

"I have to go back to work, and how am I going to handle working for an administration that implemented this grossly inhumane and cruel plan? It's very difficult."

The biology department is not part of the School of the Environment, which has been shuttered, but the discontinued ecology and restoration biology programs are within the department where Schulte-Hostedde works.

Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, a Canada Research Chair of Applied Evolutionary Ecology at Laurentian University, called the staff and program cuts 'grossly inhumane and cruel.' (Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde)

"The entire legacy of the re-greening of Sudbury has been wiped out," said Schulte-Hostedde. "The university uses its expertise in environmental science and environmental studies in its marketing. Its strategic plan points out our expertise and productivity in those areas. It has wiped out the whole school of the environment.

"I am deeply deeply worried about my colleagues and friends. I am worried about the mental health state of all of the people who have endured this inhumane process we have been asked to go through," he said.

"Every aspect of what made Laurentian unique — its Indigenous character, the francophone programs — all of that stuff is just gone."

Losing academic programs will 'hurt,' prof says

Gone as well will be money flowing into the Greater Sudbury economy, something David Robinson, an associate professor of economics at Laurentian, said will be in the tens millions of dollars.

In the wake of the cuts, the professional programs were left intact.

"Which is kind of appropriate for the city; it's the right general direction," said Robinson. 

"This is Canada's big mining town. Right? This is the mining university for Ontario. And I see that they haven't cut that part of the university."

David Robinson, a Laurentian economics professor, says the cuts will come with 'a whole cascading bunch of effects,' including to the school's reputation. (Yvon Theriault/CBC)

But the more academic programs are gone, which "will hurt a bit," said Robinson.

"We don't have a lot of people coming to Sudbury," he said. "When you don't have a decent arts scene, it's hard to get partners to move to Sudbury in many cases.

"There is a whole cascading bunch of effects. The reputation effect is one. It doesn't look good for a city that has been seen as a dirty mining town — and had changed its image to a large extent — to suddenly have its intellectual sector collapsing. That doesn't look good at all."

Impact on Indigenous learning

A spokesperson for the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-Ontario), which represents 350,000 students, said French-language students are being targeted.

Midwifery, the only bilingual program of its kind and the only one in the North, is among the close to 40 French-language programs dropped, representing a big proportion of the cuts.

"Laurentian University is one of the most significant francophone institutions in the province," said Sébastien Lalonde, president of CFS-Ontario.

"Francophone students are being told that their education, language and culture aren't worth saving."

In a statement, CFS-Ontario also points out that Laurentian's mandate is tricultural, and a hub for Indigenous learning and research. It says the program cuts will have severe and negative impacts on Indigenous learning and language degrees.

"These groundbreaking programs have made significant contributions to Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination and decolonization through research and expansive curriculum," the statement said.

"These cuts counter the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's Call to Action #16: 'We call upon post-secondary institutions to create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages.'"

"It is unacceptable that students, who have invested so much in their education, are impacted by financial challenges created by reckless administrative decisions and the erosion of public university funding," said Kayla Weiler, CFS-Ontario's national executive representative.

"The manufactured crisis at Laurentian could be stopped at any time by the Ontario government. The 2021 budget is the third budget in a row with reduced funding for post-secondary education. It is time to invest in all students no matter where they live in Ontario."

Push for provincial funding help

For its part, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) is calling for the resignation of Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano, and for the province to provide immediate investment in Laurentian.

"If Ross Romano had done his job, none of these cuts would have occurred," said OCUFA president Rahul Sapra.

I urge people to pay attention, because what happened at Laurentian can happen anywhere. And so hopefully this never has to happen to any other… post-secondary institution ever again.- Katlyn Kotila, student

"Romano and the Ford government knew about the depths of Laurentian's financial difficulties for months, if not years. They had numerous opportunities to take action to avert this crisis. Instead, they chose to do nothing and betrayed the trust of Ontarians."

For students like Kotila, whose future as a student is now up in the air, Monday's news will be "an ugly stain on Laurentian University for many years to come."

"We're losing so many incredible academics and in the process. We're also going to be losing many students who will likely leave and go on to pursue academics elsewhere now that their program is being cut," she said.

"I urge people to pay attention, because what happened at Laurentian can happen anywhere. And so hopefully this never has to happen to any other … post-secondary institution ever again."

With files from Kate Rutherford