The NWT government was forced to replace Aurora College’s president as he decided to leave, the territory’s education minister said on Wednesday, pledging no disruption to the process of creating a polytechnic university.
Education minister RJ Simpson told Cabin Radio Tom Weegar, the outgoing head of the college, had wanted “to step away to pursue other opportunities.” (Weegar later flatly contradicted Simpson’s account.)
On Tuesday, the territory said Andy Bevan would be promoted to replace Weegar.
Critics have characterized the change as the introduction of a bureaucrat to a key role in the university’s transformation previously occupied by an educator.
Simpson, however, said Bevan was the right choice for the job.
“This isn’t a one-man operation. We have an entire transformation team that still has all of that institutional knowledge and we have a number of people within the college who are also working on the transformation,” the minister said. “So I don’t think this is going to slow us down.”
Simpson did, however, acknowledge concerns about how the eventual university will become an arm’s-length institution, especially with an NWT government bureaucrat now leading the project.
Saying he had heard concerns about the college’s autonomy while serving as a regular MLA in the past four years, Simpson pledged he would “not repeat the mistakes of the past” when it came to his department’s relationship with the institution.
“A lot of people who were with the college [expressed views] about that relationship and how it affected the college,” Simpson said.
“Those are things that I’m not going to let happen again.
“We’re going to ensure that what we develop is an arm’s-length institution that is not in any way hindered by the department. It’s going to be aided by the department, if anything, and it’s going to be a good working relationship, but I’m very alive to those concerns.”
Listen to RJ Simpson’s full interview in the Lunchtime News podcast.
At the time of publication, Weegar had yet to publicly comment on his departure from Aurora College’s presidency. (He subsequently did so, saying he had been fired.)
In terms of Simpson’s department’s broader work, the minister said several announcements in the coming days would set out proposals to improve the territory’s standard of education.
Simpson’s predecessor as education minister, Caroline Cochrane – now the premier – said before October’s election that the department she oversaw was still “failing our children” and education standards in the territory were “not OK.”
On Thursday, a report from the Office of the Auditor General into early childhood to Grade 12 education in the NWT will be made public. The Department of Education, Culture, and Employment has said it will publish its own internal reports on the subject.
The territorial government is also set to publish its mandate for the next four years, listing items the government intends to achieve while in office.
“In the next few days, we’re going to make public some of the directions that we’re going to be taking,” said Simpson.
This interview was recorded on February 5, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: You haven’t been in the education post for long. In your time so far, what areas have you identified where rapid progress might be made?
RJ Simpson: It hasn’t been that long that I’ve been in the job, but I have been meeting with a lot of different people from around the territory. And, you know, it’s an exciting time right now because there really is a groundswell of support for improving our education system. I hear it from the communities, I hear it from the regional centres and here in Yellowknife. And so it’s an exciting time. As you know, there’s going to be an audit, or a report coming from the Office of the Auditor General that is going to be tabled. We also have our own internal reports that we’re going to be making public, and those two documents talk a lot about the things that we can do moving forward. And so in the next few days, you know, we’re going to make public some of the directions that we’re going to be taking.
The Auditor General’s report: we can’t talk about the detail of it yet, not least because I don’t know it. (You do.) Give me a sense of how it feels to have an Auditor General’s report land on your lap as a minister two months in. Is that helpful, or is it a little daunting when you read a report like that?
No, I really appreciate having the report. When I first heard about it, I was excited actually. I sat on the committee that reviewed these reports in the last assembly, and I see how useful they are. So I see this as a launching pad that we can use to make improvements. And so it’s great having it at the very beginning of the term.
Moving on to Aurora College. We know that Tom Weegar is not in the post any more. That’ll be Andy Bevan, who’s been promoted from within to be the president and the associate deputy minister of post-secondary renewal. Why was that change made, what happened?
Tom has said that he wants to step away to pursue other opportunities.
How do you think that affects the transition in terms of losing a leader within a year like that?
Well, I appreciate all the work that Tom did. And I personally learned a lot from him. He brought a lot of expertise from the world of academia. And, you know, I think that will serve us well going forward. But this isn’t a one-man operation. We have an entire transition team or transformation team that still has all of that institutional knowledge and we have a number of people within the college who are also working on the transformation. So I don’t think this is going to slow us down. And, you know, again, I want to thank Tom for everything he’s done over the past year.
Appreciating it’s not a one-person job, at the time that the Northwest Territories was initially seeking to hire somebody to do that job, Caroline Cochrane said the territory needed “the best of the best” from the world of academia. Now we have somebody promoted from within who doesn’t appear to be from that same world of academia. How is that going to affect the way that operation is run, that potential loss of knowledge from that world of academia?
Well, like I said, Tom imparted a lot of knowledge onto the team and people have been working on this transformation for the last year. And we also have people within the college. There are people from that world working on this, so I’m not concerned that there’s going to be a loss of momentum and I have full confidence in Andy’s abilities. He and I, prior to this becoming an opportunity for him, had a number of conversations about the college and I think that he is going to continue with this transformation in a way that really lives up to the spirit of what we’re trying to do.
We had one politician – with some involvement in this over the past few years – get in touch to express incredulity at what they said was the removing of the one person in the room with knowledge of the world of post secondary education. Are you expecting to have to address a few concerns here?
Any time there’s change, people have concerns. I know that the public administrator is reaching out to the college to speak with the staff. But, like I said, I’m not concerned about the direction that we’re going. We do have a relationship with the academic advisory council, now, which offers expertise from across the country. That’s something we’ve set up and we can still tap into. So it’s not like we’re completely devoid of any of those connections. I think that’s a positive and going to be a very helpful body going forward.
How often has that met so far?
There has been the one meeting so far. But I think the important thing is that we now have those relationships. And, you know, I think there can be connections independent of the entire group – we have connections with each of those institutions.
What are the next steps going to be now you have somebody new to bed into this?
I think the good thing about Andy’s appointment is that he’s relatively up to speed on what’s been going on. So I don’t think we’ve lost any momentum there. But there are strategic planning sessions going on right now. We’re reaching out to Indigenous governments to figure out how we need to work together to ensure that the structure that we build from the ground up is responsive to the people it’s serving. In the summer, we are going to be releasing an implementation plan; from that is going to flow a strategic plan, a capital needs assessment, a regional needs assessment. And that’s all happening within the year. So there’s a lot happening after the session. There’s a lot happening now, but the public is really going to see the plan for the next few years after this session.
The Town of Fort Smith looks like it will call on the NWT Association of Communities to pass a motion asking for the board of governors of Aurora College to be reinstated in its old form. How open would you and your department be to some sort of discussion about whether that’s a possibility?
I’m always open to discussions, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. So it’d be hard to speak to a hypothetical.
Have you heard, before, concerns among staff at Aurora College that bureaucrats are leading this transformation and not educators?
I haven’t heard that directly from any staff at Aurora College. I’ve heard from a lot of staff who are participating in this transformation and I understand that there are concerns because of the history of the college and ECE’s relationship. But again, that’s where I think that people’s fears can be allayed. I don’t think people need to be concerned because I’ve had those conversations, actually, with Andy himself over the past few months. You know, when I was a regular member, I spoke a lot about the college and I spoke about ECE’s relationship with the college. And after I made those public comments, a lot of people who were with the college and who had been with the college in the past reached out to me, and I had conversations with them about that relationship and how it affected the college. Those are things that I’m not going to let happen again. We’re going to ensure that what we develop is an arm’s-length institution that is not in any way hindered by the department. It’s going to be aided by the department, if anything, and it’s going to be a good working relationship, but I’m very alive to those concerns. And I’m not going to repeat the mistakes of the past.
How are you going to ensure it’s an arm’s-length institution? Because critics of that would say, well hang on, the new president of Aurora College is someone just promoted from within the institution, who has a very close relationship with the institution. How will you ensure that there is an arm’s-length distance there?
We need to work on the structures that we’re putting in place. We need to look at the act, we need to look at all these different elements. I’m going to be keeping an eye on it. I’m going to have regular meetings with the new president and associate deputy minister and this is going to be at the forefront of those conversations. I made it very clear to him, and he’s well aware of my view on this, that that’s the way we need to go. While we develop this university, we can put those organizational structures, those policies, those procedures in place to ensure that we have that arm’s-length institution when we come out of this.
We’re about to head into a lot of discussion of the budget. Caroline Cochrane, some of her last words as education minister were essentially that the education system is in crisis in the Northwest Territories. What do you think we might see in the budget to help address that?
I think that what we need to look for is the mandate, which is going to be tabled in the next few days, sometime this week or next, and that will talk about what we’re going to do to address the education system in the Northwest Territories.
I’m sure you already know what’s in the mandate, what will you do?
I don’t want to presuppose the tabling of that document by the premier and cabinet.
If we look toward the end of 2020, where do you expect the Aurora College project to be? What do you expect to be completed by then?
By the end of the year we’re going to have an implementation plan released, we’re going to have a three-year strategic plan, we’re going to have completed the regional needs assessment and the capital needs assessment. So we’re going to have a very good idea of what the future is going to hold. You know, right now we’re aware of things that should be done or probably should be done. We’re going to ensure that we do our due diligence and get the proper information to make sure that we’re on the right path. So that’s what 2020 holds for the college.
With things like those needs assessments completed, will communities have a little more certainty about what their future role will look like? Because the government up till now has been quite open in trying not to close off any eventualities. But at some point, that will have to happen.
I want to make sure that we do this right. So I want to make sure that we are gathering all the information, we’re doing all the appropriate program reviews. we’re assessing the infrastructure we have in all the communities and making the right decisions so that we have a healthy polytechnic university at the end of this. That’s my concern. I understand that communities have some fears related to possible changes. But I was just down in Fort Smith touring the college there, and it’s a beautiful facility. I mean, I couldn’t imagine that facility ever being closed down. It’s an amazing piece of infrastructure. And there’s a lot of institutional knowledge there. I don’t think that anyone needs to be afraid of what’s going to happen. The plan here is to grow this university into something that we can all be proud of, something that’s going to provide enhanced economic opportunities in each of the communities, and world-class education to our residents, as well as fulfil our market needs by helping educate some of the positions that we desperately need in the territory.