Draft shows Athabasca University funding agreement will be tied to local staffing

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Athabasca University’s Board of Governors met Friday to consider a draft investment management agreement that requires the institution to consolidate employment at Athabasca and abandon the transition to near-virtual operations.

The council must sign the MAI by Aug. 31 or the province will begin to withhold $3.4 million in operating funding each month.

The plan also calls for the university’s president and management to work full-time at Athabasca by 2025. AU’s current president, Peter Scott, lives in Edmonton.

The council held part of its meeting in public, allowing members to ask questions of Alberta Minister of Higher Education, Demetrios Nicolaides. Council moved into an in camera session at the end of the question and answer session.

Nicolaides said he heard the board might ask for more time to review the IMA.

Although he is ready to be flexible, Nicolaides said he was reluctant to extend Wednesday’s deadline. He highlighted the five months that have passed since he ordered the AU to submit plans to base the executive and administration in Athabasca.

“If we’re 80% of the way there and it’s August 30, then OK. It’s okay. We’ll get there,” Nicolaides said.

“But if there’s a request to say ‘we need two more months to explore this’, I would be much more reluctant.”

The university does not plan to provide additional information on Friday about what emerged from the board’s discussions.

Friday’s meeting is the latest step in a battle that has intensified over the past year.

Athabasca residents have opposed the university’s shift to near-virtual operations, fearing it will hasten jobs leaving the community and hurt the local economy.

Months of lobbying and advocacy culminated in a visit by Prime Minister Jason Kenney in March.

At that time, Kenney told an Athabasca town hall that his government was committed to maintaining AU operations in Athabasca.

UA has been ordered to bring Athabasca-based employees back to work on campus. He was ordered to submit plans to increase local employment and have the executive working full-time in Athabasca by 2024-25.

The university administration resisted. Scott said scrapping the near-virtual plan would threaten the institution’s long-term viability.

The stakes grew higher in early August when Scott revealed the government was tying 9% of university funding to 65% of university employees working at Athabasca by 2025. Currently, 25 % of the establishment’s 1,200 employees live in the city.

The quota alarmed university staff. The Athabasca University Faculty Association said it supports encouraging new recruits to live in Athabasca, but opposes forced relocations.

Nicolaides has since softened that request, indicating that he is open to seeing alternatives from the administration if a goal is impossible to achieve within a prescribed time frame.

Because the decision rests with the board of governors, Nicolaides said he doesn’t want staff forced to move to Athabasca.

“Would I put the institution in a position where it should? Certainly not,” he said.

The Athabasca board of governors is now chaired by Byron Nelson, a Calgary lawyer with ties to conservative Alberta politics. Nelson ran for the leadership of the former Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta.

Nicolaides removed Nancy Laird from the chair of the board of directors last spring.

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