THIS CANADA

Athabasca on their minds

A $32-million move has shaken the academic community

Wayne Skene March 23 1981
THIS CANADA

Athabasca on their minds

A $32-million move has shaken the academic community

Wayne Skene March 23 1981

Athabasca on their minds

THIS CANADA

A $32-million move has shaken the academic community

Wayne Skene

To Thomas Carlyle, the 19th-century historian and essayist, a true university was simply “a collection of books”; to Disraeli, it was “a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.” Clearly neither of them ever considered university life in Athabasca, Alta. No one had, for that matter, until a year ago when the Alberta government announced that Athabasca University—an Edmonton-based “distance” university, otherwise known as a degree-granting correspondence institution—would, by the end of 1984, move lock, stock and 150 faculty and staff to its namesake, Athabasca (pop. 1,850), 147 km north of Edmonton.

For a while, looking up from correcting 5,200 students’ papers in three scattered office buildings that constitute the Athabasca U., Edmonton campus, the faculty assumed the

Lougheed government was kidding. The university, after all, had always been something of an educational waif, having been created by the Social Credit government in the late 1960s and then surgically altered into a correspondence school by the Lougheed administration. But the nervous laughter died when, in January, a report that proved the move to the remote countryside would cost $32 million and would increase operating costs by a third was actually endorsed by the university’s governing council. “I think the decision took a long time to sink in because it was so irrational,” explains Alvin Finkel, president of the university’s faculty association. “People couldn’t believe it was happening.” Faculty members began to

predict the relocation would destroy the university. Several resigned while others bided their time, waited for sabbaticals or looked for other jobs. Somehow it all seemed gratuitous.

And suddenly government found its lap full with a media embarrassment that pits the “hell no” faculty against government and the townspeople of Athabasca. “We battled for it and won,” claims Athabasca’s Director of Preventative Social Services Mike Murphy. Murphy and his town committee even out-lobbied 22 other Alberta towns to “get” the university. “Athabasca was going to move anyway,” he says. “We just worked hardest.” It helps to understand that when Murphy peers into the future, he sees Athabasca becoming an Oxford of the northern Alberta parkland: punting on the Athabasca River, reciting Spencer and strolling hand in mitted hand across the sylvan campus, and so on.

But Athabasca, as it is now, is not the sort of place that fuels the fires of academia. The town has no substitute for the library and technical services now available at Edmonton’s University of Alberta. There are no large shopping centres, no French-immersion classes for children, no Citadel Theatre, no Oilers, Drillers or Eskimos. Housing in Athabasca is expensive and scarce. “It would be a great place for avid readers because that’s all there is to do at night,” says Larry Ferguson, the former head of Athabasca U.’s administrative studies program. Ferguson can see a huge adjustment problem between free-thinking university types and the “not very progressive” town people looming in the distance—a town vs. gown scenario.

For their own part, 1,850 visibly insulted Athabascans argue that their town, a 90-minute drive from Edmonton, has all the facilities — art and drama societies, $750,000 indoor swimming pool, parks and a new $600,000 performing arts complex — any cosmopolitan professor could ask for. “We’re nothicks,” says Murphy.

Why all this had to happen in the first place can be traced to what’s becoming typical Lougheed administration fashion. What little prior consulta-

tion there was over the details of the move took place between Advanced Education Minister James Horsman’s department and the university’s governing council. But it wasn’t the governing council that was to be relocated. “When Horsman told me about the move, I thought he was pulling my leg,” says Sam Smith, Athabasca’s ex-president. Smith threw in the towel a week after having the government’s fait accompli popped on him during a breakfast meeting with Horsman. Thirty minutes after breakfast, Horsman held a press conference and announced that Athabasca U. would be moving. Very, very diplomatic. But hard-man Horsman makes no apologies for the government’s decision, one in keeping with its heavy-handed policy of “balanced regional growth”—taking from Calgary and Edmonton and giving to the towns. The province’s lender of last resort, the Alberta Opportunity Company, was recently moved to Ponoka (pop. 4,873), while a branch of the environmental department was set up in Vegreville (pop. 4,825). The Hail and Crop Insurance Corporation moved to Lacombe (pop. 5,218). Last October, David King, the province’s minister of education, stunned 140 teachers and staff of Alberta’s largest school—the 22,000student Alberta Correspondence School (ACS)—by informing them that at a price of $8.5 million, ACS would be moved 90 km north from Edmonton to the community of Barrhead, (pop. 3,500). About 74 per cent of ACS’ instructors have said they won’t go.

Underneath all the theoretical babble about “balance,” the Lougheed administration appears to be playing checkers with people’s lives—and raining economic gifts on little towns—to shore up political weak spots. A strong anti-Conservative showing in Athabasca in the last federal election by Liberal Chuck Knights sparks the observation that “If the seat had gone Liberal, the government would have put nothing in that riding.” And funnily enough, the ACS move was announced after Liberal leader Nick Taylor came within 325 votes in a byelection of knocking off PC candidate Ken Kowalski. It all makes for a lot of cynics. “People who want ‘goodies,’ ” says Finkel, “should get together and arrange it so they elect a Tory but give enough votes to the Opposition to scare the government.” Meanwhile, intransigent faculty at both ACS and Athabasca are forced to explain, when asked what difference it makes where a correspondence school is located, that the cultural and intellectual interplay in a city makes for better teachers. Even Carlyle would have agreed that for the intellectual life, some parts of God’s country are better than others.