With Laurentian University (LU) on the verge of finally exiting creditor protection, board chair Jeff Bangs said LU’s future actions will be closely watched by the province and the auditor general, among others.
“Our work will be scrutinized like no other public institution in Ontario or Canada for years to come,” he said during a Nov. 10 Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce event, where he was the keynote speaker.
Jeff Bangs is Laurentian’s board chair until at least June of next year. He was first appointed to the board in December after a shake-up that included 11 members stepping down and another five being appointed by the province.
He told the Chamber audience that Laurentian has an oversight agreement in place with the province that will last for years.
Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, who is expected to release her full audit into LU’s finances in the very near future, has already indicated her intention to produce a follow-up audit in 2024 and each year after, for at least three years.
Bangs said Laurentian’s recovery will proceed with the continued court supervision of a monitor. The court-appointed monitor of Laurentian’s insolvency restructuring has been the firm Ernst & Young.
“But it's the right thing to do,” Bangs said.
“Some people are nervous of this. They fear this constant process of oversight. I say nobody should be hesitant about it. We should embrace it. We should set ambitious but realistic goals, who should achieve them, and demonstrate all of those watching we can and will succeed.”
He spoke of his optimism for Laurentian’s future, invoking a phrase that’s often used to describe the career of boxing great Mohammed Ali: “The comeback is always greater than the setback.”
“If we do this right, Laurentian’s best years are yet to come,” said Bangs. “Just watch us.”
Laurentian filed declared insolvency and filed for creditor protection under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) in February 2021. Since then, it has undergone significant restructuring, including massive cuts to its programs and employees.
The university’s creditors finally approved its plan of arrangement in September of this year, and Laurentian expects to finally exit insolvency by the end of this month, something Bangs referenced when he said LU is currently in an “in-between” phase.
“We’ve gone through a lot of hard work, and the next phase of hard work is set to begin,” he said, adding that he hopes the upcoming chapter is much brighter, while acknowledging those hurt during the CCAA process.
“The Laurentian story very nearly came to an abrupt end,” Bangs said. “Let me assure you, we won’t let this second chance slip away.”
He said the university’s rebuilding phase will be a “multi-year effort” that “won’t happen overnight.”
In doing this, Laurentian will take into consideration third-party reports, including the operational and governance review, which was released this past March, as well as the upcoming auditor general’s report.
Then there’s the plan of arrangement itself, which Bangs quipped is now Laurentian’s “Bible.” The university is required to implement it over the next three years, and it comes with many different conditions.
Bangs outlined Laurentian’s long to-do list. He said this includes:
- Continuing the leadership transition at Laurentian. That began with the recent departure of former Laurentian president Robert Haché. Provost Marie-Josée Berger is also set to retire in the near future. Bangs welcomed who he referred to as “interim interim” LU president Tammy Eger (who’s also the university’s VP of research) into her temporary role. He said an interim president and provost will be announced in the near future. It’s hoped that a new permanent president will be in place in 2024.
- Developing an “ambitious, yet realistic and pragmatic strategic” plan with the help of an independent third-party expert.
- Make sure that donors and funding partners have confidence that funds earmarked for specific purposes will only ever be used for those express purchases by putting in place appropriate internal controls. “We can never again let our donors down,” Bangs said.
- Completing within three years the necessary real estate transitions with the province, which is purchasing LU real estate, to provide creditors with up to $53.5 million.
- Hiring a management consultant to make sure Laurentian has proper systems in place, assembling a transformation working group, and once a transformation plan is developed, establishing a continuous improvement plan.
- Changes to the board of governors, including asking the province to allow staff and faculty representatives to become voting members, changes to the board’s bylaws to bring it in line with the best practices of other post-secondary institutions, including training for board members.
Following Bangs’ address, a member of the audience also asked him what could be done about Laurentian’s dismal showing in the recent Maclean’s university rankings issue. Laurentian ranked dead last for reputation for the second year in a row.
“I don’t say this lightly, but when you’re at the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up,” he said. Bangs said this year, Laurentian shouldn’t be incurring “self-inflicted wounds,” referring to LU’s well-publicized fight with Ontario’s auditor general about access to certain documents.
“It's our job to climb that ladder, regain our stature, and move our way, claw our way back up the list,” he said.
Heidi Ulrichsen is Sudbury.com’s associate content editor. She also covers education and the arts scene.