Sometimes things fall apart and break when you really don’t want them to. Sometimes they are universities, and sometimes they are hearts — and sometimes they are both.
The drastic cuts at Laurentian University have left me feeling angry and sad at the same time. I have family ties to the university, so I have a history that takes me back to being a little girl playing hide and seek with my cousins in the Ben Avery Building back in the late '70s and early '80s. My uncles were Peter Ennis and Jeno Tihanyi. They were Olympic coaches, both, and so they helped to build up the athletics program at the university.
I have memories of watching Saturday night basketball games in the gym, and of the pot bangers making a ruckus, and then I have memories of watching my cousins swim in the pool. I remember two uncles who gave themselves to the betterment of Laurentian and its student athletes. Peter was the one who coined the term “Pride and Tradition.” Later on, in my 20s, I served on the Laurentian University Alumni Association Board of Directors.
So, how does this fit with what’s happening with Laurentian this year? To be honest, I find it hard to put the two images of the university — my past and present — together. It’s been a struggle inside my head and heart, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.
I have an Honours B.A. in English and History from Laurentian University. After that, I took an M.A. in English Literature from Carleton University, and later, a B.Ed. at Nipissing University. What I gained from my undergrad degree at Laurentian has served me well in my life. I am both a published writer and a 20-year veteran educator in the secondary English classroom. I have a diverse career, and a rich and varied life, because of the education I received at Laurentian.
But that’s just me. Today, I’m thinking about what this means to Greater Sudbury as a community, to have a university facing almost weekly amputations. The news is meted out in bits, as if that will make it any more palatable. It won’t. Sometimes you need a bandage to be pulled off all at once. Transparency is something you dread, but also wish for. Truth, rather than fiction, is the only way to face such news. The blows are better faced with honesty and truth, even if they cause pain at first.
What will be lost? Humanities courses teach you how to ask questions of the world around you, make you a more well-rounded person if — perhaps — you’re taking a science or business degree. Learning and studying in one’s own language and culture, as has been the case for Indigenous and francophone learners, has been critical for a cultural awakening in our community. Working with world renowned researchers and professors means that our young people gain crucial experience in fields they might not otherwise explore. The regreening program, of which Sudburians are so rightfully proud, is also a child of Laurentian.
We are situated in a place that has reinvented itself in terms of conservation and protection of natural ecosystems. I remember my parents bringing us back from camp on Sunday afternoons — driving from the West Arm of Nipissing back to Minnow Lake, past black rock cuts with not a lot of green on them. Those days — when the sulphur was thick in the air some mornings and painted the leaves so they were no longer green — were ones when you could regularly taste sulphur at the back of your throat and on your tongue. We’ve come a long way since then, since the late 1970s and early 1980s, and we’ve transformed our city into a hub for Northeastern Ontario. Laurentian University had a lot to do with that.
If you think that the university’s decimation — that its amputations — will not affect the city’s well-being economically, I think you’d be badly mistaken. How many students rent apartments and houses while they take their courses here? How many frequent restaurants and bars, or visit the shops around town and in the area malls? How many parents travel here to visit their kids while they’re here studying for four years? How many professionals have chosen to make Laurentian — and Sudbury — their home? How many hotels have had rooms booked by visitors who are linked to the university in some direct or indirect way? Then, too, how will Greater Sudbury attract and keep talent? What will draw new Sudburians if we don’t have a healthy university at the core of our city?
Now, with almost 200 people having lost their jobs, how will that affect the city’s economy? How do you retain — and also recruit — people to stay here in Sudbury if the university is so broken? I’m not sure people have yet thought through how many job losses — and not just professorial ones — will ripple outward from these initial cuts.
As I sit here writing this, I think of my two uncles, and of how much they gave up building Laurentian athletics, as well as the university itself. How many universities — anywhere in Canada — could boast two Olympic coaches? If they were here, I wonder what they’d say. They’d be very angry, I know, as they were both passionate about loving Laurentian. But, they were also men who knew how to build things, and maybe now is a time to rebuild in a new way. I have to hope that the people who care about Laurentian — and I mean really, really care about it — will have the foresight to carefully think through how this new entity will rise up. It must, I think, rise up — for the sake of Greater Sudbury, but also for the entire Northeastern part of the province.
Sometimes, things fall apart and are broken — both universities and hearts — and the crumbling pieces seem impossible to put back together again. It won’t be the same Laurentian — and that breaks my heart — but it needs to have some of the key parts put back in and mindfully tended to in the coming years. That much, I know, is true.
Kim Fahner is a writer and educator in Sudbury.