‘I felt like a lost soul’: A visit to decimated Laurentian U finds faculty, students paying a steep price as the school drowns in debt

SUDBURY—When Randy Dirszowsky first learned of financial troubles at Laurentian University, he wasn’t worried that the environmental science program he had helped launch almost a decade ago would be cut. Enrolment was strong, and growing; it was popular among students and, given the global focus on climate change, more than relevant, with some renowned researchers in the university’s ranks. It was a key part of the university’s strategic plan. Sudbury itself is successfully re-greening its land and watersheds to help repair the damage done by mining, and with 330 lakes within its limits, losing such studies seemed inconceivable. Laurentian basked in the worldwide acclaim of the program, regularly promoting it in ads.But last spring, when the knife fell on the northern Ontario university — when years of financial troubles came to a head and the school became the first such institution in Canada to turn to the courts for creditor protection — what followed was a blunt and brutal round of cuts unprecedented in the sector.The school of the environment was axed, and so were others that left faculty, students and the community aghast — math, physics, and a highly sought-after (and almost fully government funded) midwifery program. Some French and Indigenous programming was affected, with an unknown future. The pool programs were shut down, ending a well-regarded swim team that produced Olympian Alex Baumann, and leading 40 of 50 varsity athletes to flee for other schools this fall. At the end of the purge, some 130 faculty members were let go, as well as about 30 support staff. They still have no clue what, if any, severance they will receive.Dirszowsky suddenly found himself without the environmental restoration research he loved, meaningful contact with the students he mentored, a job he enjoyed and expected to retire from, and the prestige of being an academic.“I’m 58 and I wasn’t planning to retire until 65 ... there’s some career left in me,” he said during an interview in the new and neatly arranged workshop in the garage of his Sudbury home. “But what do you do now?”The impact on students and Sudbury in general has been brutal, he said, and many professors who lost their jobs are now at a loss for what to do — himself included.“I’m tied to Sudbury; my family is here, my extended family is here, I like it here — I’ve been here 17 years,” he said. “I built this house … But there are obviously no more professor jobs. Even at this stage in your career, you can’t get a professor job anyway.”Unless he can somehow return to Laurentian — unlikely — “my academic career is probably over,” he said. “I have no idea what I’m going to do.” Early retirement? Possible, but given family obligations, unlikely. Start a business? Work as a consultant? All possibilities. “There’s such a huge list of things I could do,” he added. “It’s like being in high school again and I need a guidance counsellor.”Mature student Logan Wierzbicki, 37, faced similar uncertainty. He made a close connection with Dirszowsky after returning to school. Now, in his third year, he is able to finish an environmental science degree but some 50 of the courses in the program he could have chosen from are gone.Instead, he said he’s taking more general credits that lack the depth of what he had been learning about environmental restoration. “As it sunk in and became more permanent, I felt like a lost soul again,” said Wierzbicki, a new father whose wife is established in her career. Moving to another university isn’t feasible. “I felt like I was going to graduate with something so special.”After his first year, he’d started going out on Ramsey Lake with Dirszowsky, collecting underwater soil samples, which got him thinking of pursuing a master’s.“The feeling now is like I’m starting from scratch,” he said in an interview on campus after classes resumed this month. “It feels like I’m starting year one again. I don’t know anyone, I don’t know any professors. They are all being great and accommodating, but it’s not the same course.”The situation has been “devastating, and left this big empty hole,” he added. “I waited until the end of August to register, waiting for the fantasy that this (cut) would be reversed.”When Laurentian’s financial woes came to light last February and it applied to the courts for help restructuring, the city reeled. Then came the mass firings. Everyone in the area seemed to be affected one way or another, said Nadia Verrelli, a political science professor who lost her job when the program was eliminated. Laurentian had $321 million in debt, with loans of $107 million plus $214 million in other debts and money owing to creditors and employees. The future is still unclear, as the creditor process was recently extended to the end of January.“The community is still upset about it. Everyone has an attachment to Laurentian, everyone has a story,” said Verrelli, who ran in the recent federal election under the NDP banner, but came second to

‘I felt like a lost soul’: A visit to decimated Laurentian U finds faculty, students paying a steep price as the school drowns in debt

SUDBURY—When Randy Dirszowsky first learned of financial troubles at Laurentian University, he wasn’t worried that the environmental science program he had helped launch almost a decade ago would be cut.

Enrolment was strong, and growing; it was popular among students and, given the global focus on climate change, more than relevant, with some renowned researchers in the university’s ranks. It was a key part of the university’s strategic plan. Sudbury itself is successfully re-greening its land and watersheds to help repair the damage done by mining, and with 330 lakes within its limits, losing such studies seemed inconceivable. Laurentian basked in the worldwide acclaim of the program, regularly promoting it in ads.

But last spring, when the knife fell on the northern Ontario university — when years of financial troubles came to a head and the school became the first such institution in Canada to turn to the courts for creditor protection — what followed was a blunt and brutal round of cuts unprecedented in the sector.

The school of the environment was axed, and so were others that left faculty, students and the community aghast — math, physics, and a highly sought-after (and almost fully government funded) midwifery program. Some French and Indigenous programming was affected, with an unknown future.

The pool programs were shut down, ending a well-regarded swim team that produced Olympian Alex Baumann, and leading 40 of 50 varsity athletes to flee for other schools this fall.

At the end of the purge, some 130 faculty members were let go, as well as about 30 support staff. They still have no clue what, if any, severance they will receive.

Dirszowsky suddenly found himself without the environmental restoration research he loved, meaningful contact with the students he mentored, a job he enjoyed and expected to retire from, and the prestige of being an academic.

“I’m 58 and I wasn’t planning to retire until 65 ... there’s some career left in me,” he said during an interview in the new and neatly arranged workshop in the garage of his Sudbury home. “But what do you do now?”

The impact on students and Sudbury in general has been brutal, he said, and many professors who lost their jobs are now at a loss for what to do — himself included.

“I’m tied to Sudbury; my family is here, my extended family is here, I like it here — I’ve been here 17 years,” he said. “I built this house … But there are obviously no more professor jobs. Even at this stage in your career, you can’t get a professor job anyway.”

Unless he can somehow return to Laurentian — unlikely — “my academic career is probably over,” he said. “I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

Early retirement? Possible, but given family obligations, unlikely. Start a business? Work as a consultant? All possibilities. “There’s such a huge list of things I could do,” he added. “It’s like being in high school again and I need a guidance counsellor.”

Mature student Logan Wierzbicki, 37, faced similar uncertainty. He made a close connection with Dirszowsky after returning to school. Now, in his third year, he is able to finish an environmental science degree but some 50 of the courses in the program he could have chosen from are gone.

Instead, he said he’s taking more general credits that lack the depth of what he had been learning about environmental restoration.

“As it sunk in and became more permanent, I felt like a lost soul again,” said Wierzbicki, a new father whose wife is established in her career. Moving to another university isn’t feasible. “I felt like I was going to graduate with something so special.”

After his first year, he’d started going out on Ramsey Lake with Dirszowsky, collecting underwater soil samples, which got him thinking of pursuing a master’s.

“The feeling now is like I’m starting from scratch,” he said in an interview on campus after classes resumed this month. “It feels like I’m starting year one again. I don’t know anyone, I don’t know any professors. They are all being great and accommodating, but it’s not the same course.”

The situation has been “devastating, and left this big empty hole,” he added. “I waited until the end of August to register, waiting for the fantasy that this (cut) would be reversed.”


When Laurentian’s financial woes came to light last February and it applied to the courts for help restructuring, the city reeled. Then came the mass firings. Everyone in the area seemed to be affected one way or another, said Nadia Verrelli, a political science professor who lost her job when the program was eliminated.

Laurentian had $321 million in debt, with loans of $107 million plus $214 million in other debts and money owing to creditors and employees. The future is still unclear, as the creditor process was recently extended to the end of January.

“The community is still upset about it. Everyone has an attachment to Laurentian, everyone has a story,” said Verrelli, who ran in the recent federal election under the NDP banner, but came second to the Liberals in the Sudbury riding.

Despite losing her position, she has agreed to oversee the thesis work of three former students as an emeritus professor, unpaid.

In total, 70 undergraduate and graduate programs — including the physics department where a faculty member earned a Nobel prize just six years ago — were lost, affecting about 10 per cent of undergraduates. Some of the programs had low enrolment, but others like environmental science did not, adding to the confusion. Some 140 programs remain, and enrolment is around 7,500.

The news arrived with a wallop as students and professors were struggling with the pandemic, and upcoming final exams. Some have said that prevented protests and any mobilization to fight the cuts. Everyone did what they could, said Wierzbicki, but nothing changed.

“It was an uproar of angry citizens,” said Wierzbicki, born and raised in Sudbury. “There was so much support from the public and anyone you knew couldn’t understand how this was even possible. There were lots of letters and awareness, but it was just futile.

“Now it feels like it’s getting swept under the rug.”

Graduate student Jay Patel said initially, students weren’t sure what was going on, but around exam time last April when the firings and program cuts happened, “lots of emotions were going around … students were frightened.”

His big worry is the loss of international students — Laurentian lagged already — unsure whether Sudbury is a good place for them to land.

Some will choose another school, said Patel, 25, who came from India and is completing his master’s in computational science. “Internationally, I see a lot of it — the number of students decreasing.”

Jean-Charles Cachon, now a professor emeritus, said he wants an investigation into how millions in research funds were used to cover operating costs.

Cachon, originally from Paris, was at Laurentian 38 years and created a French program in business management. He was involved in the union, and had an inkling of the dark times ahead when it couldn’t get answers to financial questions.

He had already asked his son, studying at the University of Toronto, to find cheaper accommodations.

“You kind of feel numb,” he said. “It’s still hard to realize at this point — actually, a few months later. It’s very eerie and there were so many of us. We had 408 full-time members, and the last month were I did the count was for July, and in July — 230.”

With 178 lost positions, that’s more than 43 per cent of faculty, he added.

The university ran deficits for years, expanded its campus, closed a Barrie campus and struggled with a provincial tuition decrease and then COVID-19. Professor salaries were also cited as an issue.

Anyway, he added, the professors who remain have now taken a five per cent wage cut, followed by a freeze and furlough days. It galls him that senior administrators and the board remain — “those very people who put us in this situation are still there.”

He spent the summer helping colleagues navigate the crisis and look to future possibilities, and is still doing some research and working for the French government in Sudbury.

Laurentian president Robert Haché said because of the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act process still in court, the school is “somewhat limited in what we can share publicly” but said without the CCAA, “we would have been forced to close our doors ... the people of northern Ontario deserve better.”

He said “the past several months have been extremely difficult for our students, our faculty and staff, and the community at-large. We’ve had to make painful decisions that, while necessary to ensure the sustainability of the institution, have impacted a lot of people.”

The school did cut prestigious Canada Research Chairs, funded by the federal government, prompting much confusion. Nathan Basiliko, one of the few remaining such chairs, said research at the Vale Living with Lakes Centre where he is based has been affected by the loss of environmental science programs, and he called the atmosphere at Laurentian “toxic.”

“There has to be some transparency,” he said. “There has to be some explanation.”

Mature student Allison Desormeaux — who has spent 11 years working toward an honours degree in labour studies, one course at a time, and had to take a three-year program instead — said she can’t fathom how Laurentian fell into such straits that it was close to missing payroll.

“This could have been handled a lot better,” she said. “But I try to stay away from blaming people … I think everybody needs to take responsibility … Where was the board of governors during all of this?”

There is talk among faculty that once the court process ends, the university will have to rebuild. Otherwise, given heavy losses in the arts, they wonder if Laurentian will become more of a polytechnic.

“This is not sustainable, what they’ve done is crazy and they should never have done it that way,” added Cachon. “It won’t last the way it is now.”

Dirszowsky hopes someone proposes a new environmental program in the coming months.

“When the lawyers are gone and the accountants are gone … you would still think, logically, when the university has to go back to running properly like a university — maybe more efficiently than it used to, because there were issues. At that point, if someone proposed a new program or course and it made sense, of course they would say ‘let’s have a program in environmental science,’ ” he said. “It’s ridiculous not to.”

But what happens at the end of the creditor process is still a mystery.

“We don’t necessarily know what the university will look like next year,” said Ernst Gerhardt. The English professor said the changes have meant less specialized supports for students.

While no one in his area was terminated, in his 16 years the English program has gone from 13 professors to five, given a freeze on hires.

Gerhardt came from the University of Alberta with his wife and then one-year-old, and used to work in a bustling building. Now, “to come and see the empty offices was very difficult.”

He spent the summer helping students shut out of communication studies transition to English. Some opted to leave Sudbury and “that does make me worried. That’s been a problem in the North that people do leave and they don’t tend to come back. It’s a broader, regional problem that Laurentian has done this.”

Gerhardt thinks the English program was spared because it restructured and streamlined a few years ago. But he’s not sure.

Friends and neighbours lost jobs, and he sees them struggle.He describes remaining professors as having “survivor’s guilt.”

“I live on a street where there are a lot of professors and I think within two blocks of me there are probably five professors who lost their jobs … how do you talk to your neighbour who lost their job, when you’ve kept yours, and you don’t even know why?

“For some of them, they don’t want to talk. We just pass each other and nod now ... others I’ve taken gifts over and sat down and chatted with them. It’s not been as hard as if I lost my job,” he emphasized, “but it’s been challenging.”

Professor Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, another Canada Research Chair, said everyone is “traumatized” and the university has done little to help faculty.

And while students were happy to return to campus in September after the COVID lockdowns of last year, French student leader Camille Duhaime called it “bittersweet … (because) walk down the halls and there’s empty offices everywhere, there are books in the hallways that people left.”

The 21-year-old doesn’t blame the university for eliminating some programs, as some had just handful of students. But she is concerned about the loss of so many offerings in the humanities.

Her sister, studying environmental science, transferred to Carleton University as did some of those professors.

“Students are still very stressed and affected by it, but in the end, we have to learn to adapt,” said Duhaime, who was taking law and politics until the latter was eliminated. “We have to keep moving forward — a lot of students have that mentality, especially with COVID happening, we are used to circumstances beyond our control.”

A spokesperson for post-secondary Minister Jill Dunlop said in a statement that the government understands that “students, their families and all those affected in Sudbury are anxious to learn more about the next steps for Laurentian University. We share their concerns” and have hired a special adviser.

“Our focus has always been on ensuring that current Laurentian University students can continue their studies without interruption, and that there will be a long-term sustainable solution to providing postsecondary education in Sudbury,” wrote Scott Clark.

Haché said the university will be “focused on the needs of the north and the communities we serve,” but said “make no mistake: We know we have much to do to regain trust, rekindle pride, and rebuild a sense of belonging.”

For more than 60 years, he added “Laurentian University has been one of the jewels of our region. Sometimes, it is true, a gem loses some of its lustre, but with a clear vision, hard work and determination, it can shine again with all its brilliance.”

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

Source : Toronto Star More   

What's Your Reaction?

like
0
dislike
0
love
0
funny
0
angry
0
sad
0
wow
0

Next Article

Video shows group of people trying to enter Eaton Centre without masks after anti-vaccine rally

Toronto police have arrested and charged a man and a woman with assault in relation to an incident at the Eaton Centre following an anti-vaccine protest Saturday.Police say the two individuals were among a group of people who clashed with the mall’s security staff.In a video posted on social media by lawyer Caryma Sa’d, protesters can be seen trying to enter the mall without a mask, in violation of public health measures.Police said an Eaton Centre security guard was assaulted during the incident, adding that no protesters or mall staff were injured.“Crew officers from 51 and 52 division attended the incident,” Toronto police spokesperson Ed Parks told the Star, adding that police mounted units were on standby.Sa’d felt the police response was “in stark contrast to other forms of police action that we’ve seen in Toronto this summer, most notably with respect to encampments. I witnessed people assaulting police officers and security guards with seemingly little to no repercussions.”The incident took place after a planned anti-vaccine demonstration in Yonge-Dundas Square which saw known COVID-19 conspiracy theorist Christopher Saccoccia use statements to encourage people to “band together” and disobey masking laws, Sa’d said over the phone.“He made several statements where it’s clear that he was inciting people to band together in what he termed united non-compliance, to disobey mask mandates and vaccine mandates,” she said.Toronto police refused to comment on Saccoccia’s, or anyone else’s involvement, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation.Michael Leaf, 29, of Thornhill, and Vanessa Carvalho, 23, of Brampton, were each charged with one count of assault. They are scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 15.The Star reached out to Cadillac Fairview, owner of the Eaton Centre, for comment, and is awaiting a response.The City of Toronto held a number of mobile vaccine clinics at several malls on Saturday and Sunday, including at Eaton Centre, Sherway Gardens and Yorkdale Mall, among others.People could receive either first or second doses at these pop-up sites.With files from the Canadian Press.Akrit Michael is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Reach him via email: amichael@thestar.ca

Video shows group of people trying to enter Eaton Centre without masks after anti-vaccine rally

Toronto police have arrested and charged a man and a woman with assault in relation to an incident at the Eaton Centre following an anti-vaccine protest Saturday.

Police say the two individuals were among a group of people who clashed with the mall’s security staff.

In a video posted on social media by lawyer Caryma Sa’d, protesters can be seen trying to enter the mall without a mask, in violation of public health measures.

Police said an Eaton Centre security guard was assaulted during the incident, adding that no protesters or mall staff were injured.

“Crew officers from 51 and 52 division attended the incident,” Toronto police spokesperson Ed Parks told the Star, adding that police mounted units were on standby.

Sa’d felt the police response was “in stark contrast to other forms of police action that we’ve seen in Toronto this summer, most notably with respect to encampments. I witnessed people assaulting police officers and security guards with seemingly little to no repercussions.”

The incident took place after a planned anti-vaccine demonstration in Yonge-Dundas Square which saw known COVID-19 conspiracy theorist Christopher Saccoccia use statements to encourage people to “band together” and disobey masking laws, Sa’d said over the phone.

“He made several statements where it’s clear that he was inciting people to band together in what he termed united non-compliance, to disobey mask mandates and vaccine mandates,” she said.

Toronto police refused to comment on Saccoccia’s, or anyone else’s involvement, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation.

Michael Leaf, 29, of Thornhill, and Vanessa Carvalho, 23, of Brampton, were each charged with one count of assault. They are scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 15.

The Star reached out to Cadillac Fairview, owner of the Eaton Centre, for comment, and is awaiting a response.

The City of Toronto held a number of mobile vaccine clinics at several malls on Saturday and Sunday, including at Eaton Centre, Sherway Gardens and Yorkdale Mall, among others.

People could receive either first or second doses at these pop-up sites.

With files from the Canadian Press.

Akrit Michael is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Reach him via email: amichael@thestar.ca

Source : Toronto Star More   

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.