SUDBURY -- Lawyers for Laurentian University and unions representing faculty sparred Wednesday over the role of the province in the school's ongoing insolvency crisis.

D.J. Miller, of the firm Thornton Grout Finnigan, represented Laurentian at the hearing. She opened the court proceeding by laying out a stark picture of Laurentian's financial problems.

Miller said of LU's 132 programs, 83 per cent of students are enrolled in the top 50 programs. Of the 1,902 courses offered at the university, 162 have fewer than five students and 180 have between six and 10 students.

Laurentian's student-to-teacher ratio is 20-1, a ratio she said was not sustainable.

"Fundamentally, there are too many courses and programs taught by too many faculty for too few students," Miller said. "Laurentian is insolvent by any measure of the word."

It's essential the school have the power to "right-size" programs and faculty by cutting courses with low enrolment, she said.

"Nothing else matters if they can’t do that," Miller said.

Since 2011, domestic enrolment has declined by 22 per cent, numbers that haven't been offset by an increase in international students.

"International students tend to gravitate to larger cities," she said.

The school also has the fourth-lowest tuition fees in Ontario, an issue Miller said was exacerbated by a tuition reduction and freeze imposed by the province.

Completing the restructuring process by April 30 is key, she said, since students need to know what programs will be offered in September.

Laurentian needs to "make some hard decisions" quickly, Miller said, which is why they need the court-appointed, neutral mediator empowered to make decisions about cutting programs and staff outside of the collective agreement with the Laurentian University Faculty Association (LUFA).

Justice Sean Dunphy, of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, was appointed the mediator Feb. 5.

In his submissions on behalf of LUFA, lawyer Charlie Sinclair argued the university was trying "to gut the collective agreement."

Faculty 'have a target on their back'

"That is LUFA's chief concern," Sinclair said. "LUFA and its members have a target on their back."

Laurentian was trying to achieve major concessions it couldn't get at the bargaining table, he said. He argued faculty isn't responsible for the financial mess and it shouldn't be on them to fix it.

And this is an insolvency process unlike any other, Sinclair said, since it's not a private business but a publicly funded institution. Professors at the school have tenure and other rights that would be impacted if the collective agreement was suspended.

Murray Gold, a lawyer for the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, wondered why the province isn't represented as a party in the hearings. As the largest single funding source for the school, Gold said they should be part of the process.

"The province needs to participate," he said. "We have only one hand clapping … This is not a game of Where's Waldo. They need to take a position."

He received support from LUFA and other unions representing workers at LU. But Miller countered that the province was there – a representative of the Attorney General's office was on the Zoom hearing.

She argued the faculty unions were trying to make the process political by bringing provincial funding into the debate to try and "embarrass" the government.

"This is not a political process," Miller said. "This is about saving Laurentian University, not a forum for political debate."

After four hours of hearings, Ontario Supreme Court Chief Justice G.B. Morawetz, who heard the case, said he would begin work on his decision.