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Laurentian University
The university has helped the francophone community in Sudbury and Northern Ontario blossom over the last 50 years. Image: Laurentian University website

Special advisor named to help Sudbury-based university with financial troubles

Laurentian University has applied for protection from its creditors, announced the Sudbury-based institution on Feb.1. The same day, the Government of Ontario announced it had appointed a special advisor to help Laurentian return to financial solvability. 

“It is deeply concerning that Laurentian University has found itself in a situation where such drastic and immediate action is needed to ensure its long-term sustainability,” wrote Ross Romano, Ontario’s minister of colleges and universities, in a press release.

“In response, the government has appointed Dr. Alan Harrison as a special advisor to advise me on options to support Laurentian’s path to return to financial sustainability, and ultimately drive Laurentian’s long-term competitiveness and success.”

On Feb. 2, the Financial Post reported that Laurentian University owed TD, RBC and BMO more than $91 million according to legal documents filed by the university. The same day, the Toronto Star reported that it did not have the financial resources to pay its staff next month.

Laurentian’s president Robert Haché explained that numerous factors contributed to the university becoming “insolvent.”

“A number of developments over the past decade have put an increased strain on the operational and financial health of the University,” wrote Haché in a statement

“These strains include a combination of factors such as historical recurring deficits, declining demographics in Northern Ontario, the closure of our Barrie campus in 2019 and the domestic tuition reduction and freeze that was implemented in 2019 and most recently various costs and revenue impacts due to the global pandemic.”

“Despite our best efforts over the last year, Laurentian is insolvent. This is a problem that can and will be addressed if all stakeholders work together to implement a vision for Laurentian that includes more financially sustainable operations.”

The president assured current students that daily operation should not be impacted by the financial troubles.

“It will not affect the day-to-day operation of the University or the student experience that defines Laurentian. All decisions that are made will continue to be made in the ordinary course, and will be done in the best interests of those who rely on us to provide a top-quality education,” said Haché. 

In an interview with the Fulcrum, Laurentian University General Student Association (LUGSA) vice-president education Malek Abou-Rabia revealed the university had been suspending enrollment to new programs, including his own. Still, he reiterated the institution’s financial struggles are not impacting current students. 

“Laurentian University has been suspending programs for quite some time, even my degree, which is entrepreneurship and international management, has already been suspended for six months,” he said. “But, we’re still given the opportunity to graduate.” 

“Since my program has been suspended, I’ve experienced no changes, no major obstacles, and I think that students will continue to see that which is good.”

As an advocate for students’ academic rights in his role with the LUGSA, Abou-Rabia now focuses on ensuring that all students graduate on time with no delays.

“We want to make sure that everyone is able to complete the degree in which they signed up for with the highest possible quality of education without delay, without obstacles.”

A Franco-Ontarian institution 

Besides the University of Ottawa, Laurentian University is the only other bilingual post-secondary institution in Ontario and gives Franco-Ontarians from Northern Ontario a chance to study near home.

In the Greater Sudbury Region, about 40 per cent of the population speaks French and about 25 per cent identify French as their mother tongue

“Over the past fifty years, Laurentian University’s major contribution to the Franco-Ontarian community in Northern Ontario has been to elevate the level of education of young people with French as their mother tongue by enabling them to obtain a university education,” wrote Julie Boissonneault, a tenured professor at the university’s department of francophone studies, in an email to the Fulcrum.

As a result, this has given the local francophone community’s economy a chance to blossom and develop.

“This has made it possible to increase the number of French-speaking professionals, all disciplines combined (whether they are teachers, lawyers, economists, political scientists, linguists — in my case —, businessmen and women, health specialists, people working in the media, etc.),” wrote Boissoneault.

According to U of O human kinetics professor Christine Dallaire, most students will go to college and university close to where their parents live. Having a francophone option means they can stay close to home and don’t have to leave the region. 

“Students tend to stay in the region where they study, when students leave to go study somewhere else they don’t come back. Having the university in the region is like having an industry or jobs in the region, kids don’t have to leave.” 

“[Laurentian University] has far reaching benefits. It keeps young people in the region, stimulates the local economy, leads to the development of new innovative enterprises and creates jobs in the region — the university feeds the community.”

Dallaire who is originally from Val-Rita, a small village outside Kapuskasing about six hours north of the university, used Northern Ontario’s healthcare system as a direct example of the institution’s impact on the community. 

“I am almost certain that the reason Sudbury became an important health care hub — because people from Northern Ontario used to go to Toronto or Ottawa to get care — is related to programs such as nursing and medicine at the university.”

Boissonneault also wrote about the impact Laurentian’s partnerships and collaborations within Sudbury’s and Northern Ontario’s Franco-Ontarian community have had.

“Laurentian has forged close ties with many institutions (for example by offering professional training or by establishing collaborations and partnerships).”

“Just think of the cultural organizations that were created by French-speaking students at the university in the 1970s (in particular the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario and the publishing house Prise de Parole, the first French-language in Ontario) and which today gives the Place des Arts which is currently under construction in downtown Sudbury.”

“All these organizations — which would not have seen the light of day without Laurentian — are very active at the regional level, but also at the provincial and Canadian levels, and they have spinoffs for the region. These benefits are both economic (think of tourism) and social (think of the well-being of citizens),” she explained. 

This is what the Regroupement Étudiant Franco-Ontarien (RÉFO), a group representing Franco-Ontarian students rights, hopes the government will remember when it comes time to enact drastic changes at the university. 

“We are worried about the social and economic repercussions that could result from the potential closure of certain programs and / or the reduction in the offer of courses in French at Laurentian University,” wrote the group in a statement. 

“We invite the entire university community to think about avenues that could ensure that the return to financial equilibrium does not come at the cost of [Laurentian’s] offer to French-speaking students.”

“We will be following developments in the Laurentian University file with great attention.”