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Opinion: Laurentian University president says no option but insolvency, former prof begs to differ

‘This assertion avoids the failures of the previous boards of governors and administrative leaders and is misleading, both as history and as responsible public accounting’

In eight months little dust has settled in the momentous whirlwind that has hit Laurentian University as it tries to crawl out of the financial hole created by 10 years of financial irresponsibility.

The quandary remains: We all want a strong Laurentian, but do we want another technical college with little or no research capacity in arts and social sciences, creating experts with limited analytical social research skills and narrow cultural outlooks? This seems to be the option Laurentian president Robert Haché and the board of governors has chosen, with little community input.

Recently, Haché repeated that he had no option but to declare insolvency in February 2021 and initiate court proceedings to arbitrarily reduce faculty, staff and programs. This assertion avoids the failures of the previous boards of governors and administrative leaders and is misleading, both as history and as responsible public accounting.

The options before declaring insolvency were many. Haché and the board could have dealt reasonably with the associations and unions involved by illustrating the financial situation in-depth and together searching for solutions (as was done at the University of Ottawa). 

He could have notified the wider community of Northeastern Ontario of the seriousness of the situation, especially the thousands of alumni, and asked for help. He could have consulted local leaders to pressure the banks to forgive or extend some loans. It is common knowledge that bank profits are exorbitant, and certainly some of that came from here. 

Haché also could have taken the provincial government’s offer in December 2020 of $22 million and opened the books. So, even if he inherited a difficult situation, one has to conclude that he cannot claim “no option.”

Since then, Haché has been closing more doors to stabilizing and re-establishing a real university serving the North. 

He has hired Leo Pagnutti, a financial consultant from the Toronto firm of Ernst and Young (the same firm as is monitoring the insolvency proceedings), to help guide the university on efficiency and governance. 

Haché is supposedly an experienced university administrator and certainly he could have asked Pagnutti, who has been on the Dean’s Advisory council, for advice, which Pagnutti, as an alumni, might have offered — just as thousands of citizens volunteer many hours for free to help our public institutions function. 

A question this choice raises is: Will the proposals Pagnutti makes about streamlining the university be made public? The question is significant because if many of the administrative processes that need streamlining were put in place under former president Dominic Giroux, the answer may have implications for our hospital, which Giroux now leads, and which is carrying some $27 million or so in debt.

Haché had options regarding French-language services and Indigenous programs, and I will let those groups and those more informed defend their interests, but surely the present divisiveness and struggles for students (between the University of Sudbury and Laurentian) speaks to the lack of wisdom in Haché’s past choices. 

At present he has many options, including asking the government to release the Harrison report with details on the source of the university’s financial collapse. I and others have asked the ministry to release it, but after a long time, only received a curt reply that it was confidential. Yet, Haché earlier referred to Harrison’s preliminary findings as confirming the need to go the insolvency route. Why are reports prepared by taxpayers’ money not made public? Mr. Harrison was paid $300,000 a year when he worked as an administrator at Queens University, and undoubtedly does not come cheap as a consultant, probably paid in the same range as Pagnutti, $650 an hour or about $50,000 per month.

Another option for Haché is that he could let the Auditor General see the university’s documentation in depth, so that that office could make a timeline of indebtedness and actual deficits since 2010. 

As well, Haché could ask the Ford government to reveal why Giroux with former board chairs Floyd Laughren, Michael Atkins and Jennifer Witty wrote the long list of excuses (combined with some explanations) to a deputy minister (Shelly Tapp) instead of to the Sudbury community. That deputy minister has refused to reveal whether she asked Giroux for an accounting and why she gave the former leaders an opportunity to sneak out their self-serving version of history. Again, why do we as citizens pay for bureaucrats who will not answer questions posed about their public actions?

Another option Haché has is to clarify the state of the university’s endowment funds, which according to the monitor’s third report of April 2021 stood at $61 million and as of August at S63 million. Is that held in trust for its intended purposes or is it available to creditors? The monitor refused my request for clarity.

So far,. the main option Haché did chose, the insolvency process, has cost the university nearly $10 million, with most of it going to Toronto lawyers, Toronto creditors, Toronto monitors and a court system run by persons who know little about the local community or its needs. The process is expected to cost at least another $10 million. 

An important option remains: Haché could present publicly what he sees Laurentian being in five years. He broke trust with the hundreds involved in finalizing the university’s strategic plan, started by Giroux for 2018-2023, but has not revealed with what he plans to replace it, aside from cutbacks.

He might also outline how he and the board will restore Laurentian’s reputation. The annual Maclean's ranking, which many administrators and faculty struggled to improve, now puts Laurentian at the bottom of Canadian universities.

Yes, options were, and still are, many. They require acting in response to wider community interests instead of a few sectors and not using a secret court process to cover the failings of those on an unrepresentative board of governors and the shortcomings of previous administrators, which is being continued by the present regime.

Dr. Dieter K. Buse is emeritus professor of history at Laurentian University and co-author of “Untold: Northeastern Ontario’s Military Past” (two volumes, Latitude 46; 2018, 2019), which won the Ontario Historical Society prize for best regional study published in the last three years, and of “Come on Over: Northeastern Ontario”, which won the prize for best non-fiction book on Northern Ontario (2011). He co-edited “Modern Germany: An Encyclopedia of History, People and Culture, 1871-1990”, which attained “Best reference work, 1998.”