Almost four months into the insolvency saga at Laurentian University, exactly how the Sudbury, Ont., school dug itself into a financial hole remains fuzzy.
But now finally speaking publicly, President Robert Haché is laying some of the blame on those who came before him.
“There are a lot of things over the last 10 or even 15 years that contributed to taking the university to where it was,” he told students on a Zoom call last week.
Laurentian’s restructuring under the insolvency process allows it to stay operating while dealing with its financial situation, but dozens of programs and staff have been cut.
Dominic Giroux, Laurentian’s president from 2009 to 2017 and now president of Sudbury’s hospital Health Sciences North, isn’t saying much about the university’s financial situation.
But he is deflecting some blame back at Haché.
“I think there’s been a lot of things that have changed at Laurentian University and in the post-secondary sector over the last four years,” said Giroux.
“It’s a heartbreaking situation for sure. But I think that’s the extent to which I can comment at this time.”
Giroux also wrote a letter to the provincial government, along with three former Laurentian board chairs, that said the loss of international students from Saudi Arabia in 2018, the province’s tuition freeze in 2019 and the pandemic in 2020 is what sunk the school financially.
Judith Woodsworth, Laurentian president from 2002 to 2008, says she was “astonished” to hear how the university was being “dismembered.”
But she knows how the budget of a post-secondary institution can be a “delicate balance.” She said the board instructed her to increase enrolment and revenue at Laurentian when she was first hired.
“I’m not surprised there’s a bit of a blame game,” said Woodsworth.
“I like to think that I never ran a deficit and I wouldn’t have run a deficit, and I wouldn’t have taken on a lot of debt to build buildings, but I’m not going to blame the people that came after me either.”
Even further back, former university president Jean Watters remembers “zero-base” budgeting at Laurentian when he was president between 1998 and 2001, and how his board was tight on spending.
“Sometimes you have to make the tough decisions. It surprises me it was allowed to go on for so long.”
Ken Coates, a professor of public policy at the University of Saskatchewan and author of Campus Confidential: 100 Startling Things You Don’t Know About Canadian Universities, says many smaller universities in Canada are facing similar financial troubles.
“It’s not a surprise this happened at some university, but we are surprised it happened at Laurentian right now, only because we don’t know the background, you don’t know what’s actually going around with the movement of monies between different budgets,” he said.
Coates isn’t surprised that Laurentian has been tight lipped about what exactly led to the $90-million debt.
“I’m not surprised in the sense that if I was the president of Laurentian I’d be spending the last four months desperately trying to keep the university afloat, keep it going in the right direction and rebuild confidence in the institution, and it’s hard to do that in the middle of a post-mortem,” he said.
“Bad enough as the situation is right now, it can get worse if you’re not careful. The time should be spent getting the university going forward not pointing fingers, there will be a time for that.”