Laurentian University in Sudbury says it’s facing significant financial challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders there are projecting a roughly $15 million shortfall for the 2020-21 fiscal year.
Pre-COVID-19, Laurentian was already addressing a $9 million shortfall, which largely stemmed from reduced domestic tuition fees and provincial funding levels.
“If we don’t take action, the combination of a potential enrolment drop, our pre-existing financial challenges and new impacts of COVID-19 could be the tipping point that threatens the financial viability of the university,” said Robert Haché, Laurentian University president and vice-chancellor.
The university says it’s holding a town hall to share information with community members and to “call on them to share bold new ideas.”
Meanwhile, they say they have already taken a number of steps to cut costs, including:
- Suspension of new employment hiring
- Deferral or elimination of numerous vacant positions
- Reduction in casual, part time and limited term contracts
- Suspension of all non-essential operating expenses
“These difficult decisions were not made on the basis of performance, but rather, on the basis of our financial challenges,” said Lorella Hayes, vice president of administration.
“We thank our colleagues and workforce for their immense contributions to the University. All these employees performed important and valuable work — we hope to be able to offer them work again in the future.”
Haché said the university “will continue to put students first in everything we do,” adding the vast majority of its students are on track to complete the term on time, and the university is committed to continuing its program offerings in the spring and fall terms.
Laurentian suspended in-person activities at the beginning of March, and has since transitioned from in-person to remote learning.
Student association concerned about cuts
The recent news caught the president of Laurentian’s Student General Association by surprise.
“I really underestimated how losing a month of revenue for residence and food plans and auxillary … would stack up,” Eric Chappell said.
“Moving forward, we have some real concerns on what needs to be cut and how they need to adjust their finances. I think that this will only be a beginning of a much harder conversation.”
Chappell said cuts to student services will be an issue, as some “are easier to cut than other areas in the university [where there are] fixed expenses.”
“So we need to stay very active and be working with the university to make sure that they aren’t cutting those areas, even though they’re easier,” he said.
“I’m not even sure — if we were in a perfect financial situation — if there wouldn’t be a completely new realization of what fall is going to look like, from a student service perspective. We have services that are based on campus. We have ones that we need to ramp up that are [delivered] via distance.”
Chappell noted there are services that don’t make sense when few students are on campus.
“We have a closed gym right now. That service is probably not going to be returning in a COVID-19 world in the short term.”
Campus groups, such as Pride, should still function even though students aren’t on the property, he said. But those details are still up in the air.
As for course offerings, Chappell said he’s concerned.
“That’s a really complicated one. I’m not sure how big the impact is going to be there at this point.”
Haché said the university hopes to be back in face-to-face mode as much as possible.
“We will [do so] through whatever modality that we’re able to offer. We will be there for our students.”
Fall student enrolment up in the air
As the university looks ahead to fall enrolment, Haché said they “don’t have any any good information or data on what’s going to happen.”
“Although I will say we are absolutely committed to offer our full suite of programming in September, on time.”
He also noted Laurentian is trying to ensure that its permanent workforce remains in place.
“We’re really going through all of our expenses with a fine tooth comb and reducing any nonessential expense that we have at the university.”
‘There will be some impact’
And that includes reducing maintenance expenses.
“We’re doing what is essentially critical to the health and safety of the institution. There’s a whole list of things that that we can not do for the moment or defer to later, given the low level of activity on the campus.”
Haché said he couldn’t say for sure how part-time and contract staff would be affected.
As contracts expire, “we’re looking at whether or not they will be renewed … there will be some impact, it’s unavoidable. But at the end of the day, everything that we’re trying to do is to maintain as much employment as we can for the institution….to preserve as much as we can for our students.”
The university’s agreement with its teaching faculty expires at the end of June this year.
“But we’re committed to negotiating in good faith with our labour partners and coming up with the most satisfactory arrangement that we can for our faculty and for the university,” Haché said.
Laurentian University Faculty Association president Fabrice Colin said the timing for negotiations is far from ideal.
“We are in discussions right now with administration on the best way to move the negotiations forward,” he said.
Colin noted the pandemic has brought to light some challenging decisions.
“But these decisions must be made with the full consultation of those affected, including faculty members. Unfortunately, in this case, administration failed to provide us with the necessary financial details prior to [making] this to this announcement.”
The association had requested full financial information from the university a few days ago to so it could bring its members up to speed on the current situation. But they are still waiting for those details.
“We’re asking them to be transparent about the finances and the predicted impact of COVID,” he said.
“Faculty members are concerned about the impact on programs and students.”
Future cuts to departments, schools and the library could be problematic, seeing as they have already been under-resourced in the past several years,” Colin said.
“That’s why we are asking for hard data, the current reliable numbers and information, and not any kind of projections or assumptions.”