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Opinion: The Laurentian mess stems from a major failure in leadership

Dr. Dieter Buse, an emeritus professor of history at LU, says from his POV the university’s financial quagmire resulted from successive boards of governors, made up of wealthy and influential Sudburians, and complicit senior administrators failing to assert their authority over a powerful CEO

While Sudbury is geographically very large, in terms of social influence it is quite small. If the supposed leadership of most public institutions is examined, the same names recur. 

‘Supposed’ is used to differentiate, as the Romans did, ‘auctoritas’ (authority) from ‘potestas (power). 

Some individuals are on boards of directors or governors to be seen but not heard, so while in theory they have authority, they do not exercise it. Yet they are the legitimizers of those with power. 

In many local institutions, the board chairs and top administrators exercise power and the rest usually go along. Was that the case at Laurentian University?

In Sudbury, it may be inadvisable to question those who exercise power because they are well positioned in terms of money and influence. Is that why no one seems to comment in the local media on individuals? Yet, we all know that decisions are not made by some anonymous force. They are made by people who may have also made many contributions and have reputations they do not want blemished. However, at the university, it seems someone gambled with many lives. 

Or did they simply miscalculate enrolment increases and hope for the best? Who did what and when in the Laurentian University mess needs some detailed explanation or other institutions could go the same route with much more public money wasted and, more importantly, more lives upheaved.

Is the long-time CEO at the university (2009-2017), Dominic Giroux, now head of the main hospital, employing the same style of leadership as he exercised at the university?

Since the reviewer for the provincial government, Alan Harrison, has stated that the university has run a deficit since 2014, the CEOs, the Vice-President Administration and the chairs of the board of governors at least since 2014 need to answer to all those citizens who provided money for endowments, to all those students who believed in good faith that they had degree programs, to the alumni whose degree value has been undercut, to support staff who did all the clerical work, to former faculty whose pensions may be reduced and to the faculty who are losing positions but contributed to scholarship not least because they wanted to foster the reputation of the institution.

The chairs of the Board of Governors have been Floyd Laughren (2010–2013), Michael Atkins (2013–2016), Jennifer Witty (2016–2019; like Giroux moved to employment at Health Sciences North), Claude Lacroix (2019–; on board since 2006). 

The CEOs have been Dominic Giroux (2009-2017), Pierre Zundel (2017-2019 interim) and now Robert Haché (2020-). The VPs Administration have been Carol McAulay (till December 2017) and Lorella Hayes (2018-). These persons worked with the Finance and Audit Committees of the Board which legitimized their accounts and reports.

Since, at present, none of those persons seems willing to comment in depth on how to explain the situation and their role in creating it, some public information needs to be underscored. 

As noted above the provincial reviewer, Alan Harrison, revealed that the university has been in deficit — that is, has not had a balanced budget — since 2014. 

Yet, Michael Atkins declared, in Northern Ontario Business on completing time as chair of LU board, May 30, 2016, we “balanced our budgets.” 

Similarly, in 2017 on its website Laurentian announced it had balanced its budget for the seventh consecutive year, and VP Administration Carol McAulay stated, “It was apparent throughout the process that we are all invested in the long-term sustainability of our university.”

If those claims were accurate, these individuals should have known of the deficits, or were they misleading others and the public? 

The claim was reiterated in the same news release by the then board chair. “These are exciting times at Laurentian. This year's balanced budget puts us in a position to build on that successful track-record as we finalize our 2018-2023 Strategic Plan," Jennifer Witty. 

The president or CEO, Dominic Giroux, as is well known, shifted to Health Sciences North. That institution stated in a Dec. 31, 2017, statement, “Under Giroux’s leadership since April 2009, Laurentian [University] initiated the construction of five new buildings and major renovations totalling $206 million, secured $80 million in private gifts and $64 million in government infrastructure investments.” 

No hint exists from where the operational funds for the new buildings were to come and were huge debts not incurred that were not covered by donations?

When Giroux became head of HSN, he expressed his views on the university as follows. 

“I love and will always be passionate about Laurentian. We have so much to be proud of, and so much to be excited about as we look out into the future with an outstanding team in place … This was the most difficult decision I have ever made — leaving an organization I love, for two others that I know I will as well.” 

Later it emerged Giroux was given a private hiring deal that if he were to leave HSN and return to Laurentian, he would do so as a full professor, with the added perk of a sabbatical. However, the board of governors or its executive had no right to make that deal; only the university senate could do so. 

Not only did the board not have the right to make Giroux a full professor, he technically was not qualified for the job. Under the university system, Giroux's MBA would only qualify him to be a lecturer or assistant professor, the lowest rungs on the faculty ladder.

The Faculty filed a grievance and won, so the private deal was rescinded.

Not rescinded was the large double salary at HSN and the research institute attached to it, publicly defended by Laughren who had become chair of the board at HSN after leaving the university.

Is the style of leadership at HSN similar as at the university: Emphasis on new buildings and tweeting about the administration’s successes?

Do people need to be reminded that faculty and students at universities do not decide to build a series of buildings without funds for operating them, and do not decide whether restricted funds, including from granting agencies, can be used for operations nor how many special posts are added in the administration? 

Faculty salaries are negotiated with the board. And faculty and students do not have the authority to run deficits, among other responsibilities that rests with the board and top administrators. 

The responsibility for the current situation lies clearly with the latter, for making poor decisions over the past decade that will affect not only those directly involved in the university, but Sudbury for years to come.

To end on a positive note: Many board members of our institutions work hard and dedicate much personal time to directing and overseeing them. Hopefully, they will advocate for solutions to the present mess at the university, a place with a proven record by faculty and students and with great potential to provide education to the region. 

If leaders “love” Laurentian and want its long term “sustainability” as they claim, now is the time to initiate action, say by setting up a fund to help in the transition, or lobbying the provincial government for a review of the tuition system, or helping recruit students.

The above is written not to assign blame, but to begin to define responsibility. The group which misled to the present situation is larger than the individuals named and goes back further in time, but hopefully these questions will start the community on the road to reflection on what it wants in a university as well as how it should be led.

Dr. Dieter K. Buse is Emeritus Professor of History, Laurentian University; co-author of Untold: Northeastern Ontario’s Military Past, 2 vols (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 prize for best non-fiction book on Northern Ontario (2011).