‘We are losing dreams’: Professors and students at Laurentian University try to make sense of cuts

Fourteen women who run the country’s only bilingual midwifery program. They and the program — gone.A professor, who founded French business studies, with 38 years on the job. Fired.A lecturer, eight months pregnant and about to go on leave has now lost her job, and extra maternity pay.From professors with nowhere to teach to graduate students worried about their research, to incoming students whose degree program has vanished, the cuts announced last week by Laurentian University are nothing they could have anticipated — and nothing less than devastating. “It’s heartbreaking,” said graduate student Lianne Girard, who researches watershed contamination and has a project on the go in Peru in partnership with government and academics there. “We are not just losing programs, we are losing opportunities. We are losing dreams and we are losing hope and trust in the system. This is horrible for the university, horrible for Sudbury, northern Ontario, for the Francophones, for the Indigenous communities.”Laurentian, the first public university in the country to apply for creditor protection, has begun the restructuring process and on “black Monday,” some 110 academic positions were axed, along with 69 degree programs — a number of them serving the Francophone community — and staff jobs, too.The programs include: midwifery, just one of six in the country; environmental science; mining engineering (in French), in a resource-rich part of the province; and physics, with its famous Neutrino lab and the department where a faculty member earned a Nobel Prize in 2015. Affected students are being offered “comparable” programs, though in many cases, what’s offered has little to do with what they lost, critics say.All current and incoming midwifery students are being scattered to Ryerson and McMaster universities, the only other options in the province, and in English-only programs.At this point, professors are at a loss to explain why certain programs were cut — although lower enrolment is certainly a factor. But for midwifery, it is allocated just 30 spots but attracts 300 applicants and is funded directly by the Ontario government, so it costs Laurentian little.“They’ve been calling it ‘black Monday,’ but it’s been black Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,” midwifery professor Crestina Beites said. “There’s going to be a huge economic impact on Sudbury ... the majority of our graduates practise in the north” and already wait lists for the services of midwives.“What is going to happen when all the students are shuttled to Ryerson and McMaster?”Professors — who were fired by group Zoom calls, which Baites called “a shameful, savage process” — have few answers for students who are worried about what comes next.“We couldn’t really ask questions from anyone at Laurentian” during the virtual sessions, added Beites, a mother of three. Academics will not receive any severance they are entitled to under their collective agreement but have been told they can get in line as one of Laurentian’s many creditors. “How do you transition a 12-year career you’ve had at one university, into what?” she added. “And in Sudbury? Where are we going to go? And how are we going to get new jobs” in the middle of a pandemic?For the professors who remain, they’ll see a five per cent wage cut, followed by a pay freeze, as well as a week of furlough.The dark days at Laurentian have been brought up in the Ontario legislature, and were the subject of an emergency debate in Ottawa Thursday night. Laurentian’s financial woes have been years in the making, with court documents showing $321 million in debt, including loans of about $107 million. It also has $214 million in other debts and obligations to creditors and employees.“Earth to Liberal cabinet … Laurentian is on fire,” thundered New Democrat MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay) during the Thursday debate.New Democrat MPP Jamie West (Sudbury) said last week that the government and post-secondary minister “stood by and did nothing to protect Laurentian University from massive cuts.”Fabrice Colin, president of Laurentian’s faculty association, was blunt about the axed departments: “It’s a disaster basically. These are core programs that are expected to be offered at any university.”MPP David Piccini, parliamentary assistant to post-secondary minister Ross Romano, said “we understand the very personal and difficult situation that many students, faculty and staff are in right now. Let me be clear … that the courses of 90 per cent of students at Laurentian have not been affected. For the 10 per cent who have, we are ensuring that they have a pathway to graduation.”Romano also announced Thursday that the province is looking to grant independent university status to the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and Université de Hearst.For Laurentian, the impact of the losses go well beyond campus. Experts have estimated a hit to the local economy of $100 million or more given the hit to wages, spending and stude

‘We are losing dreams’: Professors and students at Laurentian University try to make sense of cuts

Fourteen women who run the country’s only bilingual midwifery program. They and the program — gone.

A professor, who founded French business studies, with 38 years on the job. Fired.

A lecturer, eight months pregnant and about to go on leave has now lost her job, and extra maternity pay.

From professors with nowhere to teach to graduate students worried about their research, to incoming students whose degree program has vanished, the cuts announced last week by Laurentian University are nothing they could have anticipated — and nothing less than devastating.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said graduate student Lianne Girard, who researches watershed contamination and has a project on the go in Peru in partnership with government and academics there.

“We are not just losing programs, we are losing opportunities. We are losing dreams and we are losing hope and trust in the system. This is horrible for the university, horrible for Sudbury, northern Ontario, for the Francophones, for the Indigenous communities.”

Laurentian, the first public university in the country to apply for creditor protection, has begun the restructuring process and on “black Monday,” some 110 academic positions were axed, along with 69 degree programs — a number of them serving the Francophone community — and staff jobs, too.

The programs include: midwifery, just one of six in the country; environmental science; mining engineering (in French), in a resource-rich part of the province; and physics, with its famous Neutrino lab and the department where a faculty member earned a Nobel Prize in 2015.

Affected students are being offered “comparable” programs, though in many cases, what’s offered has little to do with what they lost, critics say.

All current and incoming midwifery students are being scattered to Ryerson and McMaster universities, the only other options in the province, and in English-only programs.

At this point, professors are at a loss to explain why certain programs were cut — although lower enrolment is certainly a factor. But for midwifery, it is allocated just 30 spots but attracts 300 applicants and is funded directly by the Ontario government, so it costs Laurentian little.

“They’ve been calling it ‘black Monday,’ but it’s been black Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,” midwifery professor Crestina Beites said. “There’s going to be a huge economic impact on Sudbury ... the majority of our graduates practise in the north” and already wait lists for the services of midwives.

“What is going to happen when all the students are shuttled to Ryerson and McMaster?”

Professors — who were fired by group Zoom calls, which Baites called “a shameful, savage process” — have few answers for students who are worried about what comes next.

“We couldn’t really ask questions from anyone at Laurentian” during the virtual sessions, added Beites, a mother of three.

Academics will not receive any severance they are entitled to under their collective agreement but have been told they can get in line as one of Laurentian’s many creditors.

“How do you transition a 12-year career you’ve had at one university, into what?” she added. “And in Sudbury? Where are we going to go? And how are we going to get new jobs” in the middle of a pandemic?

For the professors who remain, they’ll see a five per cent wage cut, followed by a pay freeze, as well as a week of furlough.

The dark days at Laurentian have been brought up in the Ontario legislature, and were the subject of an emergency debate in Ottawa Thursday night.

Laurentian’s financial woes have been years in the making, with court documents showing $321 million in debt, including loans of about $107 million. It also has $214 million in other debts and obligations to creditors and employees.

“Earth to Liberal cabinet … Laurentian is on fire,” thundered New Democrat MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay) during the Thursday debate.

New Democrat MPP Jamie West (Sudbury) said last week that the government and post-secondary minister “stood by and did nothing to protect Laurentian University from massive cuts.”

Fabrice Colin, president of Laurentian’s faculty association, was blunt about the axed departments: “It’s a disaster basically. These are core programs that are expected to be offered at any university.”

MPP David Piccini, parliamentary assistant to post-secondary minister Ross Romano, said “we understand the very personal and difficult situation that many students, faculty and staff are in right now. Let me be clear … that the courses of 90 per cent of students at Laurentian have not been affected. For the 10 per cent who have, we are ensuring that they have a pathway to graduation.”

Romano also announced Thursday that the province is looking to grant independent university status to the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and Université de Hearst.

For Laurentian, the impact of the losses go well beyond campus. Experts have estimated a hit to the local economy of $100 million or more given the hit to wages, spending and student enrolment.

“When you add that all up, I wouldn’t be surprised if the total direct and indirect impact, reduced spending, is any less than $100 million and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it between $100 and $150 million, mostly concentrated in the Sudbury area” said Livio Di Matteo, economics professor at Lakehead University, estimating a “substantial” 2 to 3 per cent hit to the local GDP.

“It’s rather ironic,” he added. “For years places like Sudbury and Thunder Bay had to deal with mine closures and mill closures and then spent a decade or two diversifying into the knowledge economy and a lot of that involved expanding university programming and recruiting students to go there.

“It’s really interesting that, all of a sudden, you have the same kind of thing happening to a university.”

Laurentian political science professor Nadia Verrelli, who has also been laid off, noted that the federal government recently bailed out Air Canada with $6 billion, and in the past both federal and provincial governments have helped the auto sector.

“Six billion — that’s a lot of Laurentians,” added Di Matteo.

An April 15 letter Laurentian President Robert Haché said the cuts show “a number of major milestones in the first phase of Laurentian’s (creditor protection) process have been completed. While the steps taken have been difficult and impact many in the community, they were necessary to ensure the survival of the university.”

Going forward, “Laurentian will be focusing on its strengths. In addition to continuing with 38 undergraduate French-language programs and five graduate French-language programs, Laurentian has a total (English and French) of 107 undergraduate programs and 33 graduate programs” and will continue to serve Indigenous communities as part of its unique tri-cultural mandate, he said.

“While we understand that the termination of the Laurentian Federation has left some students with questions regarding their academic path, solutions are being worked on.”

For Sudbury mom Tanya Swearengen, that means her daughter will start an education degree in junior/intermediate this fall instead of focusing on primary students, after her first choice was axed.

“When she found out, she was crying so hard she couldn’t even talk she was so upset,” said Swearengen. “She thought she wasn’t going to university this fall.”

Doctoral student Léa Fieschi-Méric said her thesis supervisor has been let go, and “I have no idea what is going to happen next. We have absolutely no answers.”

She came from France to study at Laurentian because of her thesis supervisor’s reputation and expertise in boreal ecology.

Fieschi-Méric has a number of DNA samples for sequencing taken from animals at the London zoo in the United Kingdom, which her lab has a research partnership with. But the samples have not been paid for, given Laurentian was mixing research grants in with general revenues and using those funds for operating costs, and the money is now lost.

“I have samples in the freezer that I have been working on for a year now,” added Fieschi-Méric. “Now, that lab is closed. What is going to happen to those freezers? They are saying ‘we are there for the students and this is going to be Laurentian 2.0.’ It’s pretending.”

Valérie Raymond, a master lecturer in the French studies department, is starting maternity leave later this month. She expected her leave “would still be respected; all the documents have been signed months ago” but was told she would no longer receive the six-month top-up provided in the collective agreement — even though she is going on leave before her job is terminated.

“I feel absolutely betrayed by a university that I have dedicated so many years to,” she said. “And I absolutely love what I do — or did ... I don’t think this new Laurentian can stay like this. They need to rethink a lot of the decisions that were made.”

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

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