Pipestone Flyer file photo.

An open letter to supporters of rural post-secondary education

As former MLA’s for the Wetaskiwin Camrose constituency, we are all proud of the quality of life which we and all residents of this area enjoy. That is due, in no small part, to the strong health and educational infrastructure we have here and hope to retain.

To do so, it has become apparent to us that we must have a discussion about the role of the Augustana Faculty of the University of Alberta (“U of A”), and all post-secondary campuses in rural Alberta. They are critical elements of our post-secondary system. We take them for granted and fail to support them at the risk of our rural communities and, frankly, Alberta’s future prosperity.

This discussion is timely because in the 2019 McKinnon Report on Alberta’s Finances, it was recommended that Government of Alberta should “consult with stakeholders to set the overall future direction and goals of our post secondary system along with appropriate governance models.” And now, the Government has just announced an in-depth review of all elements of the post-secondary system, to be completed in the next few months. So, where does Augustana fit in?

Opened in 1911, Augustana is the province’s second oldest post-secondary institution, after only the U of A. It was formerly owned and operated by the Camrose Lutheran College Corporation (CLCC”), which was and is owned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. In 2003/04, the CLCC entered into a three party Merger Agreement with the U of A and the Government to merge Augustana with the U of A, and make it a Faculty and Camrose campus of the U of A. It is the commitments made in that Merger Agreement which we wish to draw to the reader’s attention.

The Merger was strongly supported by Government as well as surrounding rural municipalities including the County of Camrose and the City of Camrose, for obvious reasons. The existence of a rural campus of a large, world class university served the purpose of making undergraduate, post-secondary education more accessible while at the same time training people for work and service in rural Alberta. And so, the Merger was a “win-win-win” for all three of the signatory parties.

Historically, Augustana has been a first stop for rural high school graduates as they embarked on their post- secondary careers. One of the best and latest examples of our many successful alumni is Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.

In a recent interview in the U of A’s e- Circle magazine, Dr. Hinshaw, from Sylvan Lake and a member of a third generation farm family, spoke about Augustana giving her a broad liberal arts education along with her majors in chemistry and biology. “It really was a fantastic experience, very formative,” she said. “I had the opportunity to take courses in religion, drama, music and sports, and was on their cross- country ski team. I made great friends, mentors and teachers who really emphasized well-roundedness and being a whole person.”

The Government is facing numerous serious financial challenges and, not surprisingly, those challenges have trickled down to universities and to each of us and our communities. It makes sense for Government to see how things could be done better, and more efficiently. However, we feel strongly that for the sake of our children and grandchildren and that of rural Alberta, our essential infrastructure must be protected. With the passage of time, institutional memory can fade and people who were in place at the time of the Merger in 2003/04 may no longer be there. It is critical that policy makers understand what the Merger Agreement said and “why” it was so important.

The Merger Agreement limits the U of A (acting reasonably) to modifying “Augustana Programs and CCE Programs” in content, form or delivery for three reasons only:

a) to complement the University’s existing programs and systems;

b) to meet community needs, and

c) to enhance the financial viability of the Augustana Faculty.

Schedule 1 to the Merger Agreement makes it quite clear that the intent of the Government (a party to the Agreement) was to:

a) ensure the continuation of an important rural-based Post- secondary Campus;

b) ensure that a degree-granting Post-secondary campus is “maintained in Camrose”, and

c) ensure “the long-term financial and operational stability of Augustana”.

Our belief is that to maintain a strong University, we must give students a holistic experience which includes not only academics but also culture and sport. If the goal is to bring young people to our communities and make them want to stay here after they have completed their studies, then these elements are essential. Using hockey as an example, perhaps that is why some 15 graduating Vikings’ hockey alumni have put down roots in Camrose in the last eight years and many more have chosen to settle in other rural communities around the province.

Perhaps that is also the reason why most of the graduates of the just recently terminated Rehabilitation Medicine Program have, since its location in Camrose, gone on to work in rural Alberta. And what is more, it is not just about keeping rural kids in rural Alberta. Augustana and its programs have also attracted urban students who loved rural Alberta so much that they stayed. What better rural development tool is there than that?

In summary, we are very bullish on rural Alberta and what rural campuses like Augustana have to offer. We hope CLC/Augustana alumni and residents of this region will take this opportunity for input and make their voices heard. There is a role for all of us to encourage the Premier, the Minister of Advanced Education and your MLA, as well as U of A policy

makers, to honor the legal and moral commitments made at the time of the Merger and to motivate the University of Alberta to find ways to help Augustana meet its mandate, and to preserve and even expand its offerings in rural Alberta.

This is not a question of politics or ideology. Rather, it is about a common vision for our rural communities. If we are serious about rural economic development and encouraging our young people to receive an education and make a life in rural Alberta, institutions like Augustana must not only survive, they must grow and flourish.

-Former MLAs Ken Rostad, LeRoy Johnson, Verlyn Olson, and Bruce Hinkley

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