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Patricia Mills: There is a way we can leverage our collective might to save Laurentian University

Former chancellor of Huntington University calls on city hall to lead the charge to prevent the sell-off of university assets
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Patricia Mills.

There is a solution to further dismantling Laurentian University (LU).

In the past two months, we have witnessed the unbelievable disintegration of our university and its affiliated partners, resulting in mass layoffs, program closures, loss of critical language and cultural programming and landmark research that put us on the map for environmental foresight.

It has been extremely painful to watch.

There is blame to be found and investigations to be had, which will weed out the who, what, and when, but in the meantime, we need to come together to save what we can and return some form of respect and accountability to the North’s largest, most diverse educational institution. 

It can be done. But time is running out.

Unless the entire CCAA (Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act) process is lifted by government intervention (which is highly unlikely) the university must act in accordance with the business principles the CCAA is designed to accommodate, which is basically a game of chicken between stakeholders. To that extent, the university is now forced to sell assets.

This is another disaster that will have long-term negative effects on our university and our city — to sell its physical or intellectual assets will further diminish its role and future prospects. However, they have no choice given the process (CCAA) they have chosen.

The only opportunity to preserve assets for the university is for us to buy them.

While city council has offered its economic development department to help fired professors and university staff to find jobs, its core purpose should be to spearhead the resistance to further dismantle the university and provide a base for future prosperity. 

This is, after all, an institution that brings in more than $100 million to the local economy. That’s a lot of money. We can’t passively sit by and watch this happen without some thought, some plan, some intervention. We just can’t.

Letter-writing won’t cut it.

Let’s change the paradigm. Let’s step outside of our current drama and just do some economic calculations.

If the economic development department was talking to a client in Toronto who promised to protect or bring in at least 100 jobs, all of which paid more than $100,000 a year, represented a diversification from our mining economy, promised to attract tens of thousands of people to our city for education and tourism and offered up no meaningful pollution, what would you pay for that opportunity?

The answer is you would pay a lot and if you’re smart, you would share that expense with the province and the federal government probably by only paying 25 per cent of the capital cost. 

We need strong leadership and advocacy, and a plan that takes us forward, together. The way forward may be different, but it doesn’t have to be dismal or dire. 

The City of Greater Sudbury should be demanding a seat at the table with the province and federal government, and we should be buying these critical assets before they are sold to third parties.

Failing to do so will diminish Laurentian’s capacity to grow and prosper in the future. The assets should be leased back to the university for its use, perhaps in exchange for more solid representation on the board or for more collaboration with the private sector. Maybe its future holds an Innovation Park, or the North’s World Trade Centre among other possibilities.

Often municipal, provincial and federal governments invest together in infrastructure projects from roads and sewers to various one-time initiatives. There is no more important infrastructure at stake in Sudbury today than its university.

The city must lead this initiative. They won’t do it unless we encourage them to do so. We just spent $80-million for Maley Drive split three ways. Surely the university is worth more than that for our future?

My bias is very transparent: my daughter Meerna was one of the first graduates of the Masters’ of Science Communication at Laurentian University. She is now a Science Knowledge Officer for Natural Resources Canada in Ottawa. She was hired straight out of her program — the first of its kind in the country — based on its unique expertise.

Two cherished nieces from southern Ontario have been accepted into Laurentian University for the fall — one in education (French) and one in social work. My sister and her husband want to sell their home in southern Ontario, move to Sudbury to be here with their daughters and retire here. Those plans, however, are now on hold due to the uncertainty and negativity surrounding the future of Laurentian University.

The city needs growth, young people, students and retirees. We need innovation, smart minds and optimistic opportunities. We need to support and help our university in any way we can.

The future of our university is in our hands. So let’s get to work.

Patricia Mills is the retired publisher of Northern Ontario Business and the first female chancellor of Huntington University.