On the grounds of Laurentian University, close to the looming 11-storey Parker Building, stands a historic monument describing the university’s founding in 1960.
The monument describes how the “non-denominational, bilingual institution of higher learning was incorporated in 1960” following a petition from the University of Sudbury, the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Diocese of Algoma, supported by prominent citizens.
Higher education in Northern Ontario had its origins in Sacred Heart College, founded in 1913 by the Society of Jesus. That institution eventually became known as the University of Sudbury, and first executed its degree-granting powers in 1957.
“Such powers, except in theology, were suspended in 1960 when both the University of Sudbury (Roman Catholic) and the newly-incorporated Huntington University (United Church) federated with Laurentian University, which awarded its first degrees in 1961,” the monument says.
“In 1963, Thorneloe University (Anglican), incorporated in 1961, joined the federation.”
Such are the origins of the bilingual and tricultural Laurentian University, which marks its 63rd birthday this year, albeit battered, bruised and diminished following 22 months of insolvency restructuring.
Laurentian emerged from its unprecedented journey under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (or CCAA) with a structure that no longer resembles what’s described in that historic plaque.
The three federated universities operating on Laurentian’s campus — the aforementioned University of Sudbury, Huntington University and Thorneloe University — had previously offered courses counting toward Laurentian degrees.
But on April 1, 2021, as part of its insolvency restructuring, Laurentian gave notice it was terminating the federation agreement with these three institutions.
Although the “disclaimer” of the agreement was fought in court by Thorneloe University and the University of Sudbury, insolvency judges went on to approve Laurentian’s plan to terminate the federation agreement May 2, 2021.
With the severing of ties to the federated universities, Laurentian is now educating all of its students in-house.
Laurentian’s actions led to the cancellation of programs and the layoff of professors at all three of the formerly federated universities. The classrooms at University of Sudbury, Huntington University and Thorneloe University are currently mostly empty.
In an April 2021 court hearing, lawyers for Laurentian University argued that the termination of the federation agreement would allow LU to access a source of untapped revenue.
It says it transferred $7.7 million in 2020 to the three federated universities, which offer courses that count toward Laurentian degrees.
The university wished to keep these funds for itself by channelling the students taking courses at the three federated universities to Laurentian courses instead.
Sudbury.com reached out to Laurentian to ask if LU has realized any benefits from the termination of the federation agreement.
We received in response the following brief emailed statement from Laurentian’s new interim president, Sheila Embleton.
"There are many outcomes of all the significant changes over the last two years that are now so intertwined, making an evaluation of any individual decision quite difficult,” said Embleton.
“I can say that in these last three months of working with people at Laurentian University, there is much progress being made in rebuilding the university. In the next few weeks, we aim to announce more on the university's operations transformation and strategic planning processes, the upcoming budget cycle, filling key senior roles, and actively engaging in faculty and staff renewal. The future is bright in many ways."
As it has now been two years since Laurentian pulled the plug on the federation agreement, we recently spoke to each of these institutions to see how they’ve fared, and learn more about their plans for the future.
Université de Sudbury (University of Sudbury)
In the weeks before Laurentian University announced it was terminating the federation agreement, the University of Sudbury had already made an announcement of its own.
The University of Sudbury, or Université de Sudbury as it has now rebranded itself, announced plans to become an autonomous French-language university under the principle of governance “by and for” the Francophone community.
With its roots in the Catholic church, the Université de Sudbury later passed a resolution to become non-denominational and make French its official working language as it transformed into a French-language university.
As for its plan to establish a French-language university, the Université de Sudbury continues to work toward that goal.
The school hired a new president, Serge Miville, to oversee these changes in June 2021. Miville was one of the professors laid off by Laurentian during its insolvency restructuring.
The previous U of S president, Fr. John Meehan, got a new job at Trinity College at the University of Toronto.
Miville said it’s been helpful to have “a very clear goal” to work toward. “You know where you're heading,” he said. “You have a roadmap.”
A year ago, the Université de Sudbury received federal funding to prepare its application to the Ontario Post-secondary Education Quality Assessment Board (PEQAB) for an organizational assessment.
Through this apolitical process, experts will be “evaluating the University of Sudbury’s capacities as an institution,” Miville said in 2022.
In a recent interview with Sudbury.com, Miville said the PEQAB application was submitted to the province in January, and now they’re waiting for the province’s response.
He said right now, he can’t give a timeline for the French-language university project, as “the timelines actually do depend on what the government decides and how much they're willing to invest.”
Asked what will happen if the project doesn’t come to fruition, Miville said “that’s not on the radar … To me, it's mostly a question of time. I don't have that answer (from the province regarding the French-language university project). But I don't really have the sense that it's going to be a negative answer.”
There’s no doubt, though, that Laurentian’s decision to terminate the federation agreement greatly impacted Université de Sudbury.
The institution used to have between 90 and 100 professors, and served 1,700 students per school year. It currently has a skeleton crew of around 12 employees. Miville said the employees who were let go “received a generous severance.”
He said Université de Sudbury is renting its space out for purposes including the Robinson Superior Treaty hearings and language courses put on by Kenjgewin Teg.
Université de Sudbury’s 173-bed student residence, which had been closed for renovations during the pandemic (Miville said “quite a few millions” were put into the project), will be reopening in May.
Thanks to good financial governance by previous boards, Miville said the school has been able to pursue the French-language university project.
“Thankfully, we had sufficient funds set aside for a deluge, a rainy day,” he said. “And that's exactly what we're using it for right now. So it's helping with the residence, and it's helping with the university project.”
The current president of Thorneloe University, the Rev'd Canon John Gibaut, started his tenure at Thorneloe in June 2019, not long before the COVID-19 pandemic and then Laurentian’s insolvency.
But the troubles started for Thorneloe even before these disruptive events.
Gibaut said he arrived on campus under “odd circumstances.”
Laurentian changed the funding model for how it passed provincial money onto the federated universities, resulting in a financial crunch at Thorneloe, and the necessity to make what Gibaut describes as a “very painful” decision.
In May 2020, Thorneloe cut its theatre arts and motion picture arts programs.
It would be a foreshadowing of what was to come, as following Laurentian 2021 disclaimer of the federation agreement, Thorneloe discontinued most of its remaining programs, including women’s, gender and sexuality studies and ancient studies.
Gibaut said when he arrived at Thorneloe in 2019, there were about 40 full- and part-time employees at the institution, with 2,700 students studying there per year.
After the layoffs in 2020 and 2021, Thorneloe now has four full-time and three part-time employees, and has just 65 students. Gibaut said the former employees of Thorneloe were paid severance.
Thorneloe’s remaining students are studying theology.
The Anglican church-affiliated Thorneloe offers certificates for Anglican layreaders, as well as diplomas and bachelor’s degrees in theology. These programs are conferred directly by Thorneloe, so were unaffected by Laurentian’s actions.
Thorneloe’s current sources of income are its theology program, its 58-student residence and rentals of its theatre to community groups, Gibaut said.
In a court battle with Laurentian last fall over money Thorneloe said it was owed, a lawyer for Thorneloe said the educational institution was in a “slow death” scenario.
Gibaut said he regrets that “particular line” by Thorneloe’s lawyer.
“We are a going concern,” he said. “We’re a lot smaller than we were, that’s for sure. We’re almost at a balanced budget this year. Some of what makes it unbalanced are legal fees from the previous fiscal year.”
Asked how long Thorneloe can keep going with its current model, Gibaut said “we could go on for quite a long time. We're paying our bills, we're not insolvent, we're not in debt. The residence, the School of Theology, the theatre are income-generating.”
He said Thorneloe did some visioning last year about “what it would look like to be teaching university level courses in a brand new way,” but “we just couldn’t land on something. But I think a long-term hope is that we will one day return to offering courses and programs that meet the needs of the north, and of Sudbury in particular.”
While two of the federated universities operating on Laurentian University’s campus fought LU’s plans to terminate the federation agreement, a different approach was taken by Huntington University.
Huntington signed a transition agreement in April 2021 which, among other clauses, transferred the rights to its gerontology program to Laurentian University.
Besides gerontology, Huntington had been teaching communications studies and religious studies.
However, no programs or courses have been offered at Huntington for the past two years.
In 2021, Huntington employed 32 full-time and part-time faculty and staff, and served more than 2,500 students per school year. Today, Huntington employs 18 full-time and part-time staff. Its seven full-time faculty members were laid off.
“We took some solace in knowing that we were able to provide well-deserved severance packages,” said Mary-Liz Warwick, Huntington’s board of regents chair for the past decade.
(While Huntington University’s president since 2006 is Kevin McCormick, the university offered up Warwick as a spokesperson for this article instead).
Still, the result of Laurentian’s actions was “absolutely devastating,” she said.
Warwick said Huntington is currently in a state of transition, “not unlike any of the other universities on campus.”
Huntington also operates a number of other programs and organizations that don’t involve offering courses toward Laurentian degrees.
That includes the Canadian Finnish Institute, the Peruvian Canadian Institute and the Lougheed Teaching and Learning Centre (which fosters teaching best practices). Warwick confirmed these organizations are still in operation.
As for Huntington’s financial state, Warwick said it continues to generate revenue through the operation of its residence, which provided housing for more than 150 students in 2022-23.
“So our residence has remained open the entire time,” Warwick said. “So I can say that it was at full capacity for this academic year, and we're projecting full capacity for spring and summer. And we also have many invitations already being accepted for September 2023, which is great.”
Huntington “has reserves that we can draw from when and if needed,” but is not receiving “any government funding at this time,” Warwick said.
The institution has a few plans in the works that will allow it to return to its roots of teaching students at the university level, she said, although was not able to provide many specific details.
“We are exploring opportunities,” Warwick said, and that includes collaborating with external partners to develop degree-level programs.
One of these partnerships is with the Ontario Safety League to develop university-level training for the transportation sector, she said.
While not yet ready to release specific details, Warwick said Huntington has also signed an agreement with a private company in India, also potentially providing education for the transportation sector.
“And then we also are engaged in the development of a graduate-level program,” she said. “So this would again be in collaboration with an external partner, and that's in the area of mental health.”
Warwick said with the events of 2021, Huntington’s board made a conscious decision to “move forward.”
“So that's where we remain today,” she said. “At Huntington, our students are legacy, that's our priority. So our goal is to rebuild our institution. We want to ensure relevant program and course offerings, and make sure that they're in demand, listening to industry and seeing what the needs are. For all of us, it's really important that we carry on the Huntington tradition of 60-plus years.”
Heidi Ulrichsen is Sudbury.com’s associate content editor. She also covers education and the arts scene.