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Queen's principal says 'no risk' university will close, but fears remain

Queen's University is facing a $48-million budget deficit, raising concerns about cuts and academic impacts. (Michelle Allan/CBC - image credit)
Queen's University is facing a $48-million budget deficit, raising concerns about cuts and academic impacts. (Michelle Allan/CBC - image credit)

After months of anxiety about the future of Queen's University, a statement from principal Patrick Deane on Friday reassured worried staff and students that the institution is not facing imminent financial collapse.

"Let me be very clear that there is no risk that Queen's in any foreseeable future will close its doors," Deane said in the statement.

The principal acknowledged the unusual nature of his statement, but wrote it was necessary to "set the record straight."

His message followed weeks of meetings and debate about the university's budget, which proposes cuts meant to tackle a $48-million deficit, according to school officials.

Fears spiked during a town hall meeting in December when, as student newspaper The Queen's Journal reported, provost Matthew Evans said he was "concerned about the survival of this institution," adding: "Unless we sort this out, we will go under."

Mary Louise Adams, a professor with the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, said she was at the meeting and those comments "caused chaos," as well as national headlines.

She's part of a group made up of staff, students and faculty called the Queen's Coalition Against Austerity (QCAA), which has been raising questions about the budget and pushing back against cuts.

'Serious damage control'

Adams said the principal's statement on Friday left the group feeling relieved.

She described Deane's statement as "serious damage control," adding the harm caused by the provost's comments is "visible and significant" based on comments from students considering Queen's, as well as from potential donors and alumni.

CBC News requested interviews with Evans and Deane, but was told by a Queen's spokesperson the university would not be providing any comment beyond the principal's statement.

In it, Deane did not directly refer to the provost's words. He did say administrators had been meeting with the school community and intended to be frank about the budget, but "unfortunately, certain comments have been used to unfairly depict the situation."

Queen's Principal Patrick Deane speaks during a donation announcement at the university on Nov. 2, 2023.
Queen's Principal Patrick Deane speaks during a donation announcement at the university on Nov. 2, 2023.

According to a statement issued Friday by Queen's principal Patrick Deane, government underfunding is one reason for the financial shortfall. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

In the face of "limited resources," Queen's must carefully look at balancing its academic goals with long-term sustainability, Deane's statement reads.

He pointed to "chronic underfunding" from the government and caps on enrolment among the challenges that have strained the university's resources.

A July budget update shared on the Queen's website offers a bit more detail. The university said the provincial government's 10 per cent cut to tuition for Ontario students, along with a tuition freeze, had cost Queen's $179.4 million.

Since then, updates shared by the university show a hiring freeze, along with reductions to faculty and shared services budgets, have cut the projected deficit from $62 million to $48 million.

However, the updates also made it clear that continuing to rely on financial reserves to cover the shortfall is unsustainable, and addressing the problem requires "significant efforts from faculties and departments across the university."

A warning for other universities

Adams said she appreciated the "measured tones" in Deane's message and his certainty that the university will continue.

QCAA remains concerned about cuts that would lead to job losses for part-time and contract faculty members who do much of the teaching at the university, she said.

 A clocktower is shown at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. on Nov. 2, 2023.
A clocktower is shown at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. on Nov. 2, 2023.

Staff and students at Queen's remain concerned about how cuts will impact the institution. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The group continues to argue Queen's could be using some of its investment income and other financial resources to address the deficit.

"Hopefully, things will calm down a little bit, and we can just start actually having some really good community discussions about ... what does or does not need to happen going into the future," she said.

Adams also warned other universities in Ontario to get ready for a similar financial crunch, saying they're facing the same budgetary pressures, but most lack the same "cushion" as Queen's.

"If it's not happening there, now, it's going to happen," she said.