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Remarks about students avoiding Fort Smith ‘were unpresidential’

A file photo of Fort Smith
A file photo of Fort Smith. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Fort Smith’s deputy mayor has criticized Aurora College’s president for comments made about the town at a meeting last week

The town’s council and other community leaders had invited college president Glenda Vardy Dell to discuss the college’s future, its transformation into a polytechnic university, and the role the town plays as one of three major campuses.

At the meeting, Vardy Dell asked those present “why students from the Beaufort Delta don’t want to come to Fort Smith.”

“Facilities are excellent. We bring high school students … down to see the facilities, so the students see it. But at the end of the day, they don’t want to come,” she said.

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“I don’t have an answer. And I think maybe you can help me with that answer.”

Following initial reporting of that meeting, deputy mayor Jay MacDonald was critical of the suggestion that students don’t want to come to Fort Smith.

“The unsubstantiated comment about students not wanting to come to Fort Smith … was quite unpresidential, in my opinion,” MacDonald said.

“Our community leadership have been collaborating together, talking and working on areas of common interest for Fort Smith and how we can make the community better. That was our reason behind meeting with the college: we want to know how the transition into the polytechnic is going to impact our community – what the benefits are, how it’s going to change programming.

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“What we want to do is build relationships with the college, and so that comment really didn’t further that.”

Approached for comment on Thursday afternoon, Aurora College had not responded by Tuesday morning.

MacDonald said the town “loves its college,” businesses offer students discounts, and the college forms a big part of the Fort Smith economy.

Acknowledging concern about low numbers at the Fort Smith campus, the deputy mayor pointed to factors beyond the town’s appeal.

“I think Covid was certainly a factor, but I don’t think that there’s a clear direction right now on where the polytechnic is going or what programming is going to be available as we move forward,” he said.

“I think the college is a little bit lost in the wind right now. I don’t know that they’re totally focused and I think that really impacts the the numbers in the programs.”

He said the meeting with Vardy Dell had been set up in part to express some of those concerns and ensure Fort Smith has a voice in helping to change that.

“President Vardy Dell is a seasoned bureaucrat and very good at sidestepping the question or talking around the question. She really did a good job of running the clock, I’ll give her credit for that. She said a lot at our meeting, but didn’t actually say a lot,” said MacDonald.

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“We’re really interested in continuing that engagement with the college, ensuring that we’re getting the ability to participate in how Thebacha campus develops as a polytechnic comes online.”

The town is now expected to seek a similar meeting with Aurora College’s newly appointed board of governors.

“We hope that we can successfully bring Thebacha campus back to the vibrant culture it once was,” MacDonald concluded.