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Opinion: Universities are dying while businesses are being bailed out by government

Laurentian University professor Dr. Reuben Roth says not only does Ontario need to overhaul how it funds universities, but the CCAA process needs to be reformed or scrapped entirely for all the destruction it has caused to working people

It's been almost two weeks since the president of Laurentian University, Robert Haché, and his executive team used the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) did its damage to the city of Greater Sudbury, estimated at $100-150 million to start.

I'm a faculty member at the Workplace and Labour Studies Program, which was also extinguished, and I've had students approach me asking, “What about appealing to those who delivered us to this nightmare scenario?”

Let's quickly review what this whirlwind three-month process has brought to our door: one-third of full-time faculty terminated; more than half of the university's 132 programs (the figure used in the initial court documents) wiped out; Francophone and Indigenous programs built on a century of promises made over decades, decimated; students' academic plans shattered; more than 50 university staff jobs gone forever. 

Remember that all of this took place under the cover of court-imposed secrecy, during an historic pandemic, with a judge who is seemingly open to every request presented to him by the university.

My response to questions like these is that even the plight of Laurentian University students won't rend their hearts; these are corporate lawyers and judges. Sharpshooters like Laurentian's globally-renowned insolvency lawyer have made a quarter-century career out of using bankruptcy and insolvency legislation to disassemble companies and sell them off for pennies on the dollar.

They regularly gut workers' pensions, tear up their contracts and enrich their clients at the expense of employees who were never in positions of power.

It's their job and they're well-compensated for it. What's more, they've been destroying the lives of employees' families longer than most of my students have been alive.

Don't look to CCAA Justice Geoffrey Morawetz for sympathy. Don't expect anything from President Robert Haché in terms of remorse — he chose the CCAA as the vehicle to cut Laurentian in half, sending hundreds of people to the unemployment line, and threatening Sudbury's economic future.

Don't look to the banks who lend universities money, because Ontario provides only 24 per cent of university budgets, the lowest in Canada by far. University tuition in Quebec is half of what Ontario students pay, because that government does its job: they fund universities at adequate levels. 

Twenty-four per cent isn't even close to adequate. That's why tuition fees in Ontario are so high. 


Here's a life lesson: don't expect sympathy from those who are fully aware of the damage that they're doing to people, organizations and communities, and keep on doing it. 

The democratic solution is this: the governments we elect are beholden to serving the electorate — that's us. The Ontario provincial government has the jurisdiction and the responsibility — the mandate — to govern over its constitutionally-mandated responsibilities. The British North America Act (1867) handed education to the provinces, so this heaping mess falls onto the desk of Mr. Ross Romano, minister of Colleges and Universities in Ontario. That's who has to do his job or get out of the way. 

Look to the people who were elected to office, have the post-secondary education portfolio as their job, and are sitting on the funding that's been denied to Laurentian and other universities. There are at least four other Ontario universities on the brink, so the problem is system-wide.

Press the minister of Colleges and Universities to provide emergency funding. The federal government has a lesser role, but they can weigh in with funding, especially for programs aimed at Francophones, Indigenous communities and women. 

I know that a lot of people wonder why I don't particularly care whether we go after the board of governors or the past president, Dominique Giroux. It's simple: there's an investigation and a report already under way, and besides these people don't have any funding for Laurentian; it's a pointless exercise during an emergency. 

Here's what we need right now:

  • We need immediate emergency funding for Laurentian University. 
  • We need a guarantee of long-term funding. 
  • We need Haché replaced, because he's focused on making Laurentian smaller. He can't be trusted, even if he received emergency funding. 
  • We need a provincewide public inquiry looking at the causes for this unprecedented attack on all of our post-secondary institutions. Other universities and colleges are watching us and are in a panic over the provincial government's silence.

Air Canada's recent bailout by the federal government could bail out Laurentian 677 times, so we need to know where all levels of government stand when it comes to education. Universities are dying while businesses are being bailed out by government.

We need to demand decent levels of government funding for all Ontario universities, especially underfunded Northern Ontario universities, which collectively receive only 4.2 per cent of all Ontario university students. Even a one-percent boost, encouraged by subsidized residences and meal plans would have meant a guaranteed future for Laurentian, and would have avoided this current crisis.

Lastly, we need this law, the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act, scrapped or reformed. Whether you're in the public or private sector, it's been responsible for the destruction of working families' lives for decades.

Dr. Reuben Roth is an associate professor in the Workplace & Labour Studies program at Laurentian University.

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