Monday, 12 April 2021

The Laurentian Abyss

As news came out of Sudbury, Ontario today about the scalpel that Laurentian University was taking to its course offerings for students, I again find myself baffled how a university's finances can be bungled so poorly by people who are entrusted to ensure that the university thrives through its world-class academic offerings. And while there are professors, teaching assistants, and lab instructors who will likely find themselves looking for new work tomorrow, I also worry about the students who made up the athletic teams that Laurentian University boasted who will likely see extreme cuts as the school negotiates its way out of insolvency and their futures hang in the balance.

Before we get too deep into this story, let's jump back to the beginning of February when Laurentian University applied for creditor protection after court documents showed that "it would not have been able to continue operations through to the end of the month — and make payroll — without court intervention" as per this story filed by CBC. At the time, Dr. Robert Haché, President Laurentian University, posted an online letter to staff and students that promised the creditor protection steps would "not affect the day-to-day operation of the University or the student experience that defines Laurentian".

Here's a tip for administrators at all universities: underpromise and overdeliver. It's really not that hard.

Today, the university delivered crushing news to 100 professors who will lose their jobs because Laurentian University decided to cut 58 undergraduate programs and 11 graduate programs in order to shore up the offerings where the school claims enrolment was "historically low". It should be noted that 107 undergraduate programs and 33 grduate programs will remain open, but the cuts will affect 10% of the school's undergraduate population and 44 graduate students.

I'm not sure about this and I could be wrong here, but it certainly sounds like these cuts will "affect the day-to-day operation of the University" and "the student experience that defines Laurentian".

Here's where things get really ugly if you're Laurentian University: this could have been prevented and corrected long ago. In an article by Joe Friesen of the Globe and Mail on April 11, 2021, he writes of Laurentian University,
"It has debts of nearly $100-million from a building spree that didn’t produce enrolment gains and it ran deficits in the range of $2-million to $5-million a year for several years, according to its court filings. It also spent millions in grants earmarked for research to keep the lights on, owing in part to the practice of having just one bank account where incoming funds from various sources were mixed."
That, folks, is what we call "woeful mismanagement of finances" that saw a rather terrible expansion plan fail miserably as enrolment at Laurentian University sits at about 6000 students, the same number the school had in 2007. Throw on the mismanagement of grant funds and the cover-up of shortfalls in revenue via these grants, and Laurentian University was already on completely unsteady ground. Add on a wee pandemic such as COVID-19, and all hell broke loose at the school thanks to years of horrific mismanagement and complete ignorance.

The school is in debt to the tune of some $300 million with the school owing "three banks $91 million — Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank and Bank of Montreal", according to Kristin Rushowy of the Toronto Star. And, of course, rather than finding ways to generate income to pay down that debt while streamlining its operations, Laurentian University took the easy route and simply cut programs, citing small class sizes and enrolment numbers - something they pumped as a selling point in years past! - as one of the reasons for the cuts. Court documents showed that "[m]ore than half the university's courses have fewer than 15 students".

All of the above lead me to ask when the announcements come for the men's and women's hockey programs because, as we know, cutting the most expensive sport for the school is usually the low-hanging fruit that institutions like the University of North Dakota and the University of Lethbridge reach for first. It seems inevitable that hockey will be able to survive any further cuts due to the costs it runs, so I might as well start writing the eulogy now.

The Voyageurs women's team is made up primarily of women from Ontario, but there are some outliers like fourth-year defender Brynn O'Dwyer who calls Alberta home and first-year forward Chihiro Suzuki who calls Japan home. The 26 women have their futures hanging in limbo as the school looks to figure out its finances, and there's absolutely zero guarantee of any hockey future with virtually every U SPORTS program having filled roster sports for next season and some filling spots beyond next season. For some, they may have programs affected that will disrupt their majors, so they could be looking for a new school already.

The men's team is a little more varied. Again, most players call Ontario home, but there are players from all over on this team. They include forward Julian Makary of Nova Scotia, forward William Gignac who transferred to Laurentian from his hometown Concordia Stingers, defenceman Zach Wilkie from Illinois, defender Jarett Meyer from New York, forwards Xavier Couture, Paul-Antoine Deslauriers, and Gabriel Paquin from Quebec, goalie Nick Donofrio from Michigan, defender Haydn Hopkins from British Columbia, and defender Marc-Antoine Gagnon from Quebec. The key with all of those players is that all of them are in their third year of eligibility or less, and, like the women, there could be programs affected that these men are enrolled in which will no longer be offered.

Clearly, the promise of "the student experience that defines Laurentian" means something completely different to these students if they're forced to transfer because a program that affects their degrees is cut, the hockey teams are axed, or both.

What really chaps my behind is that one player who was planning on attending Laurentian University to play hockey next season as a member of the Voyageurs has already been affected. Marisa Freeman, a defender who was coming to the school out of the London Devilettes program in the PWHL, was planning on majoring in Sport and Physical Education while being enrolled in the Concurrent Education program. That Concurrent Education program? It was cut today in the sweeping cuts made by the school.

While I haven't spoken to Marisa, I would suspect this may change her thoughts on attending Laurentian University. Of course, if they cut the hockey programs in coming weeks, I would almost guarantee that she won't attending the school at any point in her academic or athletic careers whatsoever. For a school that is desperately needing students to enroll and spend money to generate revenue for the school, they sure seem to be pretty skilled at cutting off their noses to spite their faces by killing programs that incoming students want to take.

It happened at North Dakota when the state cut the school's budget dramatically, forcing the school to make the inexplicable decision to cut the highly-successful women's hockey program. It happened at Lethbridge when the province cut the school's provincial funding and the administration couldn't balance the budget, forcing the school to sweep both the men's and women's hockey programs off the board because it's apparently their fault the administration couldn't get their house in order. And it seems destined that history will repeat itself after another post-secondary institution failed to get its books balanced, forcing Laurentian University to make sweeping and drastic cuts that will likely hit the athletics department.

As much as I hate writing these articles, it's a reflection on the state of our post-secondary funding and the people who are tasked to ensure it remains viable and prosperous through good and bad times. It just sucks when those that are asked to do the job fail so horribly that it's 50-or-so student-athletes who play hockey who ultimately pay the price because its an expensive sport.

Don't hold your breath on this one, folks. It seems the end is near for Voyageurs hockey if Laurentian University is going to get itself sorted out. Those who put the school into this mess over the last number of years should be held accountable for this financial abyss into which Laurentian has fallen. The difference is that I know better than to hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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