Education

NWT appoints new leader to create polytechnic university


After less than a year, the Northwest Territories has replaced the man charged with transforming Aurora College into a new polytechnic university for the North.

Tom Weegar’s appointment was only announced in February 2019. On Tuesday, the NWT government announced he would be replaced by Andy Bevan, a senior manager within the same department.

“The Premier thanks Dr Weegar for his work in helping to advance the transformation of the college into a polytechnic university and wishes him well in his future endeavours,” read a statement from the NWT government.

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Weegar could not be immediately reached for comment. Whether he had chosen to leave or had his employment terminated was not clear.

The territory is working to turn Aurora College – characterized as a struggling institution in a 2018 independent report, though some associated with the college challenged this assessment – into a polytechnic university in the next few years.

Much rides on how that transition is managed.

The location of the university’s campuses, in particular where it may choose to headquarter itself, is a politically charged topic among community governments. Both Yellowknife and Fort Smith see the university’s creation as an opportunity for new infrastructure and economic impetus at the local level.

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More broadly, the success of the university is seen as critical to the NWT’s reputation in the education and research sectors, the employment outlook for many of its residents, and the territory’s broader economy.

Weegar arrived in February 2019 from Sir Sanford Fleming College in Ontario. He took up a dual role as both Aurora College’s president and the NWT government’s associate deputy minister for post-secondary renewal.

Prior to his appointment, then-education minister (now premier) Caroline Cochrane had declared: “We are looking for the best.”

Privately, staff involved in the transformation have described occasional friction between Weegar and his department regarding how the transition to a university might best be carried out, and the project’s priorities.

Other employees have complained of what they see as an attempt by bureaucrats to run a post-secondary institution, having earlier dismissed the college’s board.

Officials unclear

Bevan, Weegar’s replacement, was until now the territory’s assistant deputy minister for labour and income security.

In a statement, the NWT government credited Bevan with leading development of Skills 4 Success, a program designed to help people get the training and support they need to fill the territory’s in-demand jobs.

In the same statement, Premier Cochrane said Bevan was “the ideal choice to lead the next steps” in the college’s transformation.

Rumours of Weegar’s departure circulated throughout both Yellowknife and Fort Smith – Aurora College’s present headquarters – prior to Tuesday afternoon’s confirmation.

On Tuesday morning, a spokesperson for Premier Cochrane’s cabinet had said Weegar remained in post. A senior official at the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment professed to have no knowledge of any impending change.

A call to Weegar’s office earlier on Tuesday was answered by an assistant, who said Weegar was “away from the office” but could not give a date for his return.

In November, the NWT named eight Canadian institutions whose representatives would sit on an advisory panel for Aurora College’s transformation. The college is also in the middle of developing a strategic plan for the coming years.

Though no firm timeline has been established, Cochrane has in the past indicated she expects the university to be operational by around the year 2025. Its creation is one of her new government’s 22 stated priorities.

Tuesday’s leadership change is likely to spark questions in the legislature. Twenty-seven days of session begin on Wednesday, featuring daily question-and-answer sessions between ministers and regular MLAs alongside scrutiny of finance minister Caroline Wawzonek’s first budget.

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