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OPINION: University politics: déjà vu all over again

Always have a plan B. Nothing is for sure today.
Michael Atkins, president, Northern Ontario Business

It was with more than passing interest I noted the new Tory government has cancelled three new campus expansions for Ontario universities.

To be specific, a joint venture between York University and Seneca College in Markham was cancelled. A joint venture between Wilfrid Laurier and Conestoga College for a new campus in Milton was cancelled, and a joint venture between Ryerson University and Sheridan College was cancelled in Brampton.

Universities are complex organizations and require a goodly amount of research and patience to negotiate the politics of the academy, the government who funds, the administration who manages, the board who decides, the community who aspires, the donors who donate, and the students who make choices to find educational experiences they believe will prepare them for the future.

You can only imagine the debates and arguments between all of these stakeholders trying to come to ground on a strategy that satisfies these contending constituencies. Well, actually I can imagine it. I lived it. As a member of the board of Laurentian University for 12 years, the last three as chair, I remember it well.

It was one of the most frustrating adventures of my tenure and ended up with the board deciding to withdraw from teaching and building a satellite campus in Barrie. We had been there successfully for many years.

It turns out to be one of the most prescient (and lucky) decisions we ever made. Just like these other institutions. we would now be in the middle of spending scarce dollars and human capital preparing our business on the understanding of coming funding.

We had a good plan. The potential synergy between the Barrie and Sudbury campuses was exciting, the emerging course outlines were moving us into new and complementary competencies, and the new scale of the university would have stood us in good stead with diminishing demographics in Northern Ontario. It was important to us.

The irony is that some of these current heartbreaks might not have happened without our initiative in Barrie. Once we got going, other universities decided they would like satellite campuses as well. The government assured us we would be successful in the end because the case for Barrie was strong, but they needed to entertain a broader process to listen to other proposals.

Universities are important. They can make the difference between a vibrant growing community or one that puts its fate in the hands of others. As a result, they are highly sought after and political. In Sudbury alone, there are tens of thousands of Laurentian graduates who contribute to the economy and society every day of the week. The contribution is priceless. The university has been critical to the evolution of Sudbury from a mining camp to a medical and mining innovation hub.

In my second year as chair of the board, the president and I were doing one of those routine Queen’s Park meet-and-greet tours with ministers, policy wonks, and executive assistants when we jumped off an elevator on our way to our last meeting. We were feeling pretty pumped about our reception and confident things were going well. Cocktails awaited.

As the door opened, a familiar face came into view. He was a senior political advisor to the government. He knew our mission and felt compelled to give us free advice we weren’t asking for.

With the chirpy demeanor of a Second City improv pro he asked us if we knew how to count. How many ridings are there in Barrie? One. How many ridings are there in the Brampton area? More. He said we didn’t have a chance, notwithstanding the undertakings from senior politicians. We were stunned.

He was right. We had no chance. A year later, when the government offered us a funding consolation prize for what amounted to a broom closet in Barrie, we declined. It was a bitter pill, but inexpensive compared to the waste encountered by Ryerson, York and Wilfrid Laurier this month.

Always listen to political staffers even if they are annoying.

Always have a plan B. Nothing is for sure today.