Why is Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides suddenly in such a rush to relocate 500 Athabasca University employees now scattered across Canada to the institution’s namesake town in the aspen forest 145 kilometres north of Edmonton?
Just eight months ago, not long after AU President Peter Scott was wooed away from an academic post in Australia, Dr. Nicolaides appears to have been just fine with the distance-education institution’s idea of going full-on virtual campus and possibly even closing or selling off existing facilities in the town of 2,800.
The big switch seems to have happened between then and late March, when Premier Jason Kenney showed up in Athabasca with Dr. Nicolaides in tow and promised residents at a crowded town meeting that “we have directed the Board of Governors to strengthen its physical presence in the Town of Athabasca by consolidating executive and senior administration offices in Athabasca at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Well, the government had been lobbied by a professional with United Conservative Party connections not to let AU pull any more workers out of Athabasca, but that hardly explains Dr. Nicolaides’ current haste toward the end of his government’s mandate.
Even in March, the UCP Government’s big idea didn’t appear to involve the influx of 500 or more people into Athabasca, which, even if they didn’t bring partners and children, would increase the size of the town overnight by almost 20 per cent.
In a blog post published on March 24, hours after Mr. Kenney made his comments at the town meeting, the former president of the Athabasca University Faculty Association said he’d been told by Dr. Nicolaides that “AU staff outside of Athabasca are not included in the above mandate and that will be for the university to decide.”
David Powell wrote then that the minister also told him, “Our assumption is this will mean status quo for all who currently live outside of the area.”
That assumption now appears to have changed dramatically.
In March, Dr. Nicolaides gave AU until June 30 to come up with a plan.
Dr. Scott said nothing had changed, AU would continue to move toward the virtual campus.
When Dr. Nicolaides didn’t like the plan AU gave him, he ordered the university’s board to come up with another by Sept. 30. This one had better include everything he’s been demanding, he implied.
He threatened to cut off the AU’s operating grants of $3.45 million a month if the university wouldn’t knuckle under to his demands.
Dr. Scott warned that would soon bankrupt the place. He said that the government’s “1980s thinking” could put the university on the “path to destruction.”
Now, according to a Canadian Press report over the weekend, Dr. Nicolaides says the government is so anxious to see the Big Move take place that it’s willing to fork over extra cash to help the 500 employees move.
So what is it about the next two years that makes it so essential to the minister to immediately relocate as many as 1,000 people when you include households to a town of fewer than 3,000 in a region where, at the moment, there are fewer than 60 real estate listings on the market?
You’d think UCP members would have other matters on their minds right now, what with the battle to replace Mr. Kenney unfolding across the province.
And where are these poor folks supposed to live? In tents?
In case you missed it, it gets cold in Alberta in the winter – even with global warming.
And right now there are no houses or apartments for them to move into.
This sounds like a municipal planning disaster in the making.
In the CP interview, Dr. Nicolaides responded to accusations the UCP is just trying to attract rural votes by describing his plan – if it can be called a plan with so few details available – by trying to sound reasonable.
“I don’t believe we’re asking for anything new,” he told CP’s reporter, just continuing down the “path of excellence “AU’s been on for decades.
Actually, it’s probably true that this isn’t about courting rural votes. Remember, this is a government that not long ago told oil companies they didn’t really need to pay their taxes to rural municipalities. And as things stand, the UCP will probably win in the riding anyway, no matter what they do or who then choose as a leader.
Has anyone thought about the planning that will be necessary to ensure the developments required are not an instant rural slum? And who is going to pay for it? It seems unlikely the town now has the planning capacity to carry out work of this scope.
So what’s actually going on? Who’s going to slap up the housing that will be needed to make this plan reality? Where’s it going to go? And what’s the hurry?