With Laurentian University now predicting an overall $10.6-million deficit for 2020-2021, Robert Haché said it is time to take a hard look at what the institution offers and why.
Laurentian “cannot continue to support structures, programs, courses and activities that rely on historical laurels that drain resources from in-demand activities,” the Laurentian president wrote in a report to the university’s Senate earlier this month.
“We must stop having courses with almost identical outcomes offered in different faculties/programs. We must stop treating wishes like commitments and supporting activities and initiatives in the absence of documented and verifiable business cases.
“We must stop pretending to be all things to all people and focus on promises that we can deliver on.”
The pandemic, he said, is pushing the institution “closer to the precipice than ever before,” and to ignore the challenges Laurentian faces would be to “invite disaster.”
Haché said in his conversations around the university, there seems to be the impression that Laurentian has always faced challenges and somehow the school always seems to “muddle through.” The pandemic, this line of reasoning goes, is no different from any other pressure LU has faced in the past.
Not true, Haché said. The challenge Laurentian currently faces is unlike any it has tackled before and it is one the school won’t meet without concerted effort, he said.
“What we’re dealing with here in the middle of a pandemic is different, is bigger than things that we’ve had before,” Haché said in a recent interview with Sudbury.com in which he did not pull any punches about what he feels needs to be done to pull LU out of the financial hole it is in.
“We can’t just say it has always worked out before, it’ll work out again. We have to put the effort in to make sure that it happens.”
In terms of the specifics of Laurentian’s current finances, Haché said back in the spring, the university was predicting a deficit in the range of between $7 million and $20 million for this fiscal year.
“We’re landing on the lower end of the range of about $10 million,” he said.
Haché said that pre-COVID, Laurentian faced an annual structural deficit, which means a deficit that is based on its current cost and revenue structure of more than $7 million, with costs expected to continue to rise year over year in an environment where tuition has been rolled back by the province and frozen going forward.
Now, COVID-19 has added another $5 million to its cost revenue gap for 2019-2020, and is projected to add at least another $7 million in 2020-2021 to its total operating deficit, which stands at almost $20 million at the end of fiscal 2019-2020.
This is a result of increased costs to address health and safety in a pandemic environment and decreased ancillary revenues from sources such as residences and food services.
At the same time, Laurentian has “negative reserves,” Haché said, which means there are no banked funds available to cover deficits, and the institution is also approaching its ceiling on borrowing.
On the positive side, Laurentian’s overall enrolments are up four per cent, mostly in programs that were designed to be delivered online.
Haché said the “marching orders” are certainly to come as close as possible to a balanced budget, but that will likely depend on some government help this year.
“Strictly on the revenues and the costs that we have now, I suspect balancing that budget would depend on a little bit of government assistance toward the end of the fiscal year,” he said.
“We’re already more than halfway through the fiscal year. With everything we’ve done, and there are a few more things that we can do, it does look like it’ll be a challenge to get straight to zero.
“I would suspect that if you talk to any university president today, they’d pretty much tell you the same thing.”
Laurentian has been engaging in a number of cost-saving measures (Haché got into specific details about those measures in an October interview with Sudbury.com).
This included the controversial suspension of admission of 17 academic programs, unpaid furlough days by non-unionized staff, a hiring freeze, savings as a result of an early negotiation with the Laurentian University Staff union, as well as no travel and fewer office expenses due to the pandemic.
One piece of new information Haché provided is that Laurentian has reduced its course offerings by about 15 per cent by cancelling low-enrolment courses.
“Our faculty have responded wonderfully in terms of trying to create efficiencies and reduce duplication in what we do,” Haché said.
“We’re actually going to be offering 15 per cent fewer courses overall this winter than we were last year at this time, without diminishing either the choice of the quality of the student experience.
“In fact, we’ve worked closely with our student groups in organizing this as well. You have courses that are very similar in different faculties, and we’re creating a single course instead of having two courses. Those kinds of things that are going to generate some savings.”
We checked in with the Laurentian University Faculty Association (LUFA) on their thoughts on these savings measures.
According to secretary-treasurer Jean-Charles Cachon, LUFA, which is in contract negotiations with Laurentian, has filed grievances about some of these issues.
Namely, “reneging” on promises made earlier in 2020 to replace faculty who have retired, and “engaging into overall financial cuts to all programs, as such cuts should trigger the application by the administration of the financial exigency clause of the collective agreement.”
Cachon said in an email that LUFA members have so far contributed more than $10 million “through cuts to the salary mass and other student services-related expenditures since May 2018.”
Despite all of the challenges detailed above, Haché, who only joined Laurentian as president 18 months ago, said he thinks the institution’s future is bright as it celebrates its 60th anniversary. Unfortunately, those anniversary celebrations were muted due to the pandemic. But Haché said he has no doubt that Laurentian will still be around in another 60 years.
“There are some truly wonderful people; there’s some truly wonderful programs at Laurentian University,” he said.
When asked about the positives of the past year, which saw Laurentian move its programs almost entirely online due to the pandemic, Haché said that would be the resilience of the university community.
He said he’s impressed with how people have changed the way they do things “on a dime.”
“If we were having this conversation last year, the word pandemic would not have come up in a million years, and yet, here we are,” he said. “People are responding wonderfully.”