A university is not buildings; it is the sum of all the activities that go on in and around the campus; and much further. It is ultimately the interaction of learners and those who offer learning opportunities. It is the research and even the conversations between and amongst seemingly disparate parts that lead to surprises, discoveries, solutions, and understandings.
The removal of professors, staff, and the impact of cuts and closing, are beyond evaluation and reach well outside our geographic region. In ecology and environmental sciences, the closing of programs ends decades of awareness, sharing, and success in land, soil, and water research and restoration.
Laurentian, of course, is insolvent. To balance its books, it has cut almost 200 faculty and staff, and 69 programs.
Graeme Spiers taught in a range of departments.
“My research focus has been in chemical aspects of reclamation sciences, analytical chemistry, study of authigenic minerals in soils, water chemistry, mine site reclamation, with some work also in agricultural soils.”
Spiers was listed as chair, Environmental Monitoring, School of the Environment, member of Harquail School of Earth Sciences. He also taught in the Department of Biology.
Charles Ramcharan’s expertise is equally diverse.
“I'm an aquatic ecologist and I've worked on everything from algae to food web theory, to the recovery of lakes damaged by mining and smelting. I've also done a lot of work on invasive aquatic species (zebra mussels and Eurasian water milfoil), and my most cited paper is on that topic. The mathematical models used around the world to predict the distribution of zebra mussels are based on my original work.
"My other area of expertise is climate change and adaptation. I don't do research in this area, but I've explored this topic extensively through my courses at Laurentian. It's not something that any scientist can ignore.”
Peter Beckett has focused on plant and wetland ecology, and restoration ecology applied to highly disturbed land. He arrived here in 1976 after involvement with landscape improvement in the Lower Swansea Valley. This South Wales region was an attractive and productive zone until smelting, and resultant industrial pollution and chronic contamination, changed everything.
Smoke and waste tips from copper refining at the Clydach Inco (locally known as Mond) had a similarity to the Sudbury situation. Learning from this project made Canada, and Sudbury specifically, a natural next destination for Beckett: “The challenges of the devastated Sudbury landscape had an appeal.”
Beckett got involved right at the beginning of rehabilitation with the establishment of the Sudbury Reclamation (Regreening) Program in 1978.
“I have been involved with the Sudbury program since the beginning and helped in the transition from a mostly barren landscape to a green and pleasant land.”
His decades at Laurentian influenced thousands of students. Many went on to graduate work and teaching/applying this knowledge.
Beckett said this one program has a much greater influence than its original destination.
“The outcome of the regreening program is a new image for the City of Greater Sudbury that has helped to attract new business enterprises, tourists, a network of trails in regreened areas, other restoration activities such as the work of the Junction Creek Stewardship Committee and encouraged an increased respect for the environment.
“Over the years, as challenges have arisen providing opportunities for further research and scientific discoveries that continue to the present day leading to improvements in the regreening program with a gradual change from a land reclamation effort to a more comprehensive watershed approach. The example of the long-time sustainable landscape restoration efforts is being used as a model for the UN Decade on Ecological Restoration, 2021 – 2030.”
The program of revegetation was not an overnight victory. It was decades of effort. “Sudbury is recognized globally now as a regreening success model, with the regional program being an example of a community-driven program. Over the years there has been a series of M.Sc. and Ph.D. research projects documenting environmental remediation initiatives from mine sites, lake recovery, stream recovery,” Spiers said.
“The Sudbury Model has been used as a spark for research and for community initiatives in communities in northern Russia (Kola Peninsula and now in Norilsk). The research from Sudbury has been documented and presented by LU researchers at conferences across Canada, USA, South Africa, Europe, Australia, South America, and Asia.”
The exit of Spiers, Ramcharan and Beckett is a great loss to teaching and interacting with undergrads, in graduate research, for the community, and in global efforts in their combined expertise.
These are but three of a large cohort that has been cut from the teaching staff. Spiers speaks up on departmental capabilities and the larger picture: “The soil science courses are on hold at present, I think. The Sudbury Story is taught in one course, now online. Currently, there are essentially no plant courses left on the campus, a lack nearly as severe as no physics or mathematics departments. This is rank stupidity. LU is the only university on Planet Earth that has annihilated a department that was involved in Nobel Prize research.”
Closing departments and programs and cancelling courses are creating great turmoil. What about students?
Spiers continues: “For many students in the School of the Environment, the course and program cancellations are initially devastating. Some are, naturally, looking to migrate to other universities as the core of their chosen programs are currently gutted by people with no knowledge of what they are doing (or no concern).
"A university degree is not a (series of) course numbers to graduate, as programs are designed around providing specific knowledge domains for the student to use in life, in work or to build on at the graduate level. The students were unhappy with the continuous messaging that 'students are important and we care' as these messages lacked a feeling of honesty. I have heard of students who were planning to come to LU from high school next academic year who are currently heading east, west, south to other universities if accepted.”
What will Spiers do next? “As (Professor) Emeritus, I will be continuing to assist a series of M.Sc. and Ph.D. students with their research projects in earth sciences and biophysical sciences at Laurentian. I am also hoping to, post-COVID, perhaps continue the role of specialist scientist at Moscow State University with Soil Science Group and also teach an English-language graduate reclamation course. I will also work with colleagues in Peru in developing regional reclamation projects, and potentially being involved in teaching a course or two.”
Charles Ramcharan recently held his last departmental meeting. “When my work shuts down, Sudbury will lose knowledge about: a) barriers to full ecological recovery of mining-damaged lakes; b) increasing effects of urbanization on lakes such as nutrient overload, salinization, and hydrological changes; c) methods for the control of invasive aquatic plants.
“At the undergraduate level, my retirement means a loss of several key courses. Four courses were in aquatic ecology. Two of these had 25-30 students every term. One was an introductory course on human environmental impacts that covered everything from climate change to diet.
"One course was in experimental design and analysis, and it covered things like standard lab testing all the way to environmental effects monitoring across broad ecoregions. These courses didn't just satisfy curiosity, inform, and educate. They prepared students for careers.”
For graduate students, Ramcharan’s retirement means the loss of research capacity in hydrology, aquatic ecology, and restoration ecology.
“Along with two other professors, I'm working on a proposal to bring the Sudbury Story of environmental restoration to a faraway land that's been similarly devastated by mining — southern Peru. This is a large project with a budget of over a million dollars, and it's been put in jeopardy by Laurentian's bad decisions. All three of the principal investigators have either been fired or forced to retire.
“Believe it or not, we're among the luckier ones because we can still deliver results with this project, despite Laurentian's wounded state. Many other researchers doing equally important work are not as fortunate.” Ramcharan’s next objective is to grow his own company, Tunik Inc. “We're doing environmental consulting and we're also making novel instruments for measuring water quality. Our niche is automated environmental monitoring.”
But right now, Ramcharan is busy with a sizable pressing issue that really cannot be neglected.
“I'm one of the people who's taken on the task of helping students to adjust their course choices so that they can still get their desired degrees … The students' choices are to either choose from a greatly reduced set of courses, change programs entirely, or transfer to a different university. Most of the students are not finding this easy. The new course lists may not be relevant to their program, or they may have already taken many of the courses, or they may not have the prerequisites for the listed courses because the courses are (only) from units that survived the program cuts.
“I'm finding that few students have the option to change schools. They came to Laurentian for specific programs and they can't find an equivalent at another university. The bigger problem, however, is money. Sixty per cent of Laurentian's students come from first-generation families, where the students are the first that their families can afford to send to university. Many of these students said that their only option may be to quit school.”
How many students are affected? “My list of students only includes those who were taking either a major or a specialization in an affected program (no minor program students). The list has 990 names. Remember that I'm in the Faculty of Science, Engineering, and Architecture, which is the least affected of Laurentian's units. In the arts and humanities, it's much worse.
“One last thing that seems to have fallen off the radar — on my list of 990 affected students, 539 are graduate students. These Master's and Ph.D. students no longer have a home.
"The School of Graduate Studies is now just another function within the Office of Research Services. The Dean of Graduate Studies (Dr. David Lesbarrères) was terminated and the entire grad school is in disarray. Every day is crisis management when it comes to things like managing funding (salaries, research, travel), managing visas and work permits, scheduling defenses and comprehensive exams, and applying for scholarships and grants. The undergraduate students have several people like me who are working to help them adapt and continue. The forgotten graduate students have no one to look to for help.”
Peter Beckett did ‘elect’ to retire as part of the Laurentian. With the knowledge he had at the time, he had “the hope that younger faculty positions would be retained. (I) was not aware that all the undergraduate environmental programs in biology, earth sciences and School of the Environment were about to be discontinued.
"The Master’s Program in Biology and Ph.D. in Boreal Ecology continue and include environmental students. Some graduate students who have lost faculty supervisors are transferring to other universities and certainly, LU will be less appealing for graduate students wishing to understand environmental studies. The Vale Living with Lakes Centre continues but research in mine waste management and biomining may be lost as key people have been terminated.
“Many environmental courses have been lost including specific ones that deal with the mining industry – soils, restoration mine closure. It will now be ironic that students from (northeastern) Ontario will need to go to a couple of universities in southern Ontario to learn about mine and landscape restoration in Sudbury and then visit Sudbury on field trips.”
What will Beckett do next? “I will continue to work with a number of groups helping to improve environmental health and well-being in Sudbury – VETAC and the Sudbury Regreening Program, Junction Creek Stewardship Committee, Rainbow Routes Association. There is still much to do.
"Will continue to help graduate students associated with restoration ecology and wetland ecology. Continue to lead tours of the recovering Sudbury landscape for visiting scientists and scholars from around the world, as well as contribute to tours for local and visiting student groups. Maintain my international connections in China, Russia, Peru. The big loss will be teaching undergraduate students in my own local university.
“Many of the students in the environment are upset and depressed. Although efforts are underway to help existing students finish their degrees, there will be a limited number of courses and options. These are not that appealing to students and many are thinking of leaving and transferring to other universities. With the lost of a number of undergraduate environmental degrees, I suspect that potential new students are looking at programs in other universities and colleges. At the graduate level, there are fewer supervisors for environmental research.
“In the long term LU may once again offer an environmental program but in the meantime, the damage has been done and the reputation of LU as an environmental leader is highly tarnished.
“It is a travesty that as the UN Decade on Ecological Restoration begins and there is a worldwide movement to counter climate change, improve food security, conserve biodiversity and improve and restore degraded lands, Laurentian University shuns the opportunity and challenges at the undergraduate level.
"One can only hope that the centre of environmental restoration, the Vale Living with Lakes Centre, is a beacon of hope and is allowed to thrive to provide answers for the many upcoming environmental challenges.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.
Hugh Kruzel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star