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‘Stranded’ Thorneloe students not happy with LU’s solutions to let them finish their degrees

Caroline Kan-Hai, who just finished her first year in the motion picture arts program, said she fears she’ll be left with a ‘Mickey Mouse degree’

A woman studying motion picture arts in Sudbury said she feels she will only get a “degree on paper” and will lack proper training after Thorneloe University stopped offering her program this spring.

Laurentian University said it would ensure students enrolled in motion picture arts, as well as theatre arts — another program being cut by Thorneloe — would be able to finish out their degrees through equivalent courses in other LU departments and other post-secondary institutions. 

Caroline Kan-Hai, who just finished her first year in the Thorneloe program, is among the students behind a petition signed by nearly 2,000 people to date.

The petition that demands the motion picture arts professors be reinstated and that students receive a proper education.

In May, Thorneloe University announced its motion picture arts and theatre arts programs would no longer operate after the end of this past school year.

Along with Huntington University and the University of Sudbury, Thorneloe University is a federated university with Laurentian University. 

Thorneloe is located on the Laurentian University campus, and its students are issued Laurentian degrees.

Thorneloe told Sudbury.com in May there are about 25 students enrolled as majors in the two programs. There are two full-time professors and about nine sessional instructors who are losing their jobs, according to the university’s faculty union.

Kan-Hai said she doesn’t feel the Laurentian's plan for the students to finish their programs is adequate. In fact, she said in an email to Sudbury.com she and her peers fear they will graduate with “Mickey Mouse degrees.”

They are asking for Laurentian to keep on at least a few qualified instructors so they can take the proper courses for at least the current students to finish out their degrees.

“What Laurentian is doing is they’re actually offering their so-called ‘course equivalents,’ she said.

“They’ve been telling the media that their equivalents are adequate to the education and our curriculum, our fundamental courses which we originally had, and it’s, in fact, not true.”

Laurentian University president Robert Haché was not made available for an interview with Sudbury.com on the topic this week. However, the university issued a written statement.

“Laurentian recognizes that the Theatre Arts and Motion Picture Arts program closures at Thorneloe University is the cause of much stress for affected students,” said the statement from the university.

“We know how difficult it would have been for Thorneloe to make the decision to close these programs. We remain committed to providing all affected students with every possible opportunity to earn a Laurentian degree.

“We have developed creative solutions to support these students, including equivalent courses in other departments; letters of permission to take equivalent courses in other institutions; the addition of some courses where equivalents couldn't be found; new innovative partnerships with local theatre and arts organizations; and the availability of existing French courses which will exceptionally be offered bilingually.”

Kan-Hai said her degree is all about learning how to make a film, but in some cases, Laurentian is offering film appreciation courses as course equivalents for her program.

In other cases, students can take filmmaking courses from other post-secondary institutions, but through online studies.

Putting aside the fact that most post-secondary courses are being offered online this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kan-Hai said that’s just not what students are paying for.

Online courses “really can’t substitute for the real hands-on thing,” she said. “I have three years left. Imagine I’m supposed to come out of school knowing how to operate different equipment and make films.

“Imagine coming out of it, and I only really have one year of that, and the rest of my three years is substituted by these other courses.”

She points out that this type of substitution wouldn’t be acceptable if it were a medical or engineering degree at stake.

Kan-Hai said the closest school with an equivalent program is Ryerson University, but living costs in downtown Toronto are out of reach for many students. 

For their part, the theatre students are being offered courses offered by Laurentian’s Francophone Theatre program.

Laurentian administrators seem unwilling to budge from their current plan, Kan-Hai said. So beyond the petition, she said students have written to Ross Romano, province’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.

There has been some back and forth between Laurentian and Thorneloe over what’s happened with the two programs in question. 

Thorneloe said it had to make the program cuts because it has been operating in a deficit position since June of last year for the first time in its history.

The reasons behind the deficit, Thorneloe said, include the province’s decision to mandate a 10-per-cent tuition cut and changes by Laurentian in the way it funds federated universities that has resulted in a reduction in funding.

In May, Laurentian University’s Senate met on the cut of the two Thorneloe programs. Because Thorneloe is issuing Laurentian degrees, it’s the Senate’s view Thorneloe didn’t have the jurisdiction to discontinue the programs.

It passed a resolution reiterating that the programs be continued until 2026, when they will be reviewed.

Another resolution would have the Senate enter into negotiations with Laurentian to have the programs and staff at all federated universities brought into its faculties of arts and health.

But Thorneloe said while it recognizes the Senate’s jurisdiction, it can’t afford to staff the two programs, and as such, its decision stands.

Meanwhile, Laurentian came out with its plan for current students in the two programs to finish out their degree with equivalent courses. 

Intake for the two programs has been closed — a situation the Laurentian University Faculty Association (LUFA) takes issue with, saying it goes against the rules because the university’s Senate hasn’t suspended the programs. 

All of this is happening as Laurentian University is facing its own financial crunch due to COVID-19 and government budget cuts.

LUFA, which represents faculty members at both Laurentian and the federated universities on its campus, including the two full-time professors impacted by Thorneloe’s decision, has proposed some solutions.

It is asking the university’s board of governors to reverse its funding reduction for federated universities, a “cash grab” LUFA said is what caused the “abrupt cessation” of the two Thorneloe programs in the first place and students “stranded.”

LUFA also asks that the university begin negotiations with the federated universities to transfer their programs gradually to Laurentian University.

In an interview with Sudbury.com, LUFA secretary-treasurer Jean-Charles Cachon said in terms of the Thorneloe programs, the best case scenario would be Laurentian adopting and fully reinstating the programs — including hiring back their two professors.

He said something similar happened in 2005 when Huntington University — another federated university — cancelled its music program, and the program was taken on by Laurentian.

While Laurentian says it’s cash-strapped, Cachon said he doesn’t buy it, since the university is still funding building renovations.

“It’s not a question of money, it’s really a question of political will on theatre arts and motion picture arts —are they important in Northern Ontario?” he said.

“My opinion, and that of most people behind that program, believe that it’s important because it’s one of the fastest developing sectors in the economy of Sudbury, North Bay and quite a few communities around Northern Ontario.”

Citing the Thorneloe program cuts as an example, Sudbury NDP MPP Jamie West said in a press release he has written to the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, calling for emergency financial support for Sudbury’s colleges and universities.

“We simply cannot leave students, universities and colleges — and the communities they support — to fend for themselves,” wrote West. 

“Cuts to the universities and colleges in my riding will have a painful ripple effect on our community and our economic recovery. I am asking you to step in now and invest in our colleges and universities to prevent further negative impacts to students and our local economy.”