In the early 2010s, a small group of friends and peers came together to discuss the possibility of starting a free college, which they named The Ottawa School of Business and Economics. The goal was to make higher education available to people who, for financial or distance reasons, might otherwise not have access. Initially, the courses would be delivered online, and only a small fee of $50 to $100 would be charged for assignment review and exam costs. Over time, new technologies became available, which allowed those functions to be automated, so the final objective became to provide higher education to local, national, and international students absolutely free of charge. The plan was ambitious, and our hope was to advance our free services to include degree programs and in-class courses in future years.
Since we believed this type of endeavour required approval from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, we registered the institution with the Government of Ontario, and obtained their written permission to offer each of our programs. Our subsequent verbal communications with the Ministry suggested that we were “authorized” to offer our programs. In recent communications with the Ministry we realized we had mistakenly used the words “authorized” and “accredited,” which was our error. As soon as we became aware of this, we took immediate corrective action and removed this language from our website. It should be noted that neither the terms “authorized” nor “accredited” would add value to our free services for the people they are aimed at – professionals who were seeking to expand their knowledge in a particular field, or those who wished to improve and/or refresh their knowledge of a specific field.
As part of the initial work we developed a faculty member page template which was shared with everyone who expressed interest in participating. Faculty and staff members provided the required information and consented to have their information added to the website. Our Web development company designed, developed and populated the website with that information, and also provided stock photos. A mailbox was rented so that the school could receive conventional mail from students. The institution logo was inspired from the main building of the Academy of Athens.
The school’s website was completed in 2013, and we set a start date of 2014 for courses and other services to begin. We deliberately decided not to advertise our institution so that we would have a chance to test our infrastructure with a small number of students and prepare all the materials needed, as we anticipated eventually having a high demand for our service. We offered stand-alone courses, workshops, and career support services until late 2017. There was a lot of work to be done, and this work was being done by volunteers, all of whom had other full-time commitments and responsibilities.
In December 2017, we wrote to the Ottawa Citizen, requesting an interview, to formally introduce our charitable and free services to the public. We did not hear back from them until about six months later, when Tom Spears from the Citizen contacted me the day I was leaving on vacation for several weeks with my family, and insisted on having a few short questions answered by email. What followed were three articles about the school and its volunteer executives, which came out when most of them were themselves on vacation.
Rather than write an article to introduce our college, Spears wrote articles which were not flattering and did little to speak to our vision. After the first article was published on June 15, 2018, some of the faculty members contacted us to request their names be removed from the website. The relevant pages were taken offline to update them. Spears’ second article mentioned the pages being down, but its publication coincided with those pages being fully restored. Prior to the publication of each article, Spears emailed us with questions. Those emails, as could be anticipated, were received days after the articles were published.
We created The Ottawa School of Business and Economics with the hope of being able to provide a highly valued service – higher education – for free, as most of us had benefited from access to free postsecondary education. We never sought profit from this operation, and, as such, never charged anyone for the services they received. On the contrary, our free service was a labour of love, which required thousands of hours of work and significant personal financial resources from team members. Unfortunately the negative publicity we received from Ottawa Citizen and Spears derailed the project. Some former members of the project now see it as a liability, bad feelings have arisen, and others have lost paid employment as a result of these irresponsible articles. For these reasons, we have seen no other option than to terminate the project.
Massoud Khazabi, Ph.D.
Ottawa School of Business and Economics