In a stinging news release issued late on Monday, Fort Smith’s mayor declared her town had “lost confidence” in the NWT government’s ability to create a new polytechnic university.
Lynn Napier said the firing of Tom Weegar, Aurora College’s president until last week, showed the territory had “wasted a considerable amount of time and taxpayers’ money.”
She said the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment now lacked “the credibility or capability to manage this initiative effectively.”
Napier made the remarks in a news release calling for an independent board of governors to be reinstated at Aurora College and an independent commissioner appointed to lead its transformation into a university.
RJ Simpson, the territory’s education minister, has insisted he will not “repeat the mistakes of the past” – and will ensure the university’s arm’s-length separation from the NWT government – despite promoting a government bureaucrat, Andy Bevan, to replace Weegar.
But the Town of Fort Smith dismissed Simpson’s optimism, stating: “The Department of Education does not demonstrate an understanding of how a competent post-secondary institution functions, under a board, and at arm’s length from government interference.”
Aurora College’s board of governors was dismissed in 2017 and a government-appointed administrator installed in its place.
In January, Fort Smith’s town council debated calling on the NWT Association of Communities to push for the reinstatement of various “local health authorities and public boards,” Aurora College’s board among them.
On Monday, the Town of Fort Smith said those motions would now be sent to the association’s annual meeting, in Inuvik later this month, in the hope of securing support from other communities.
Minister ‘open to discussions’
The NWT government has in the past pledged to eventually reinstate a board of governors for the college or university, though it hasn’t indicated precisely how that will happen.
Documents published by the territory suggest, once an implementation plan for the transformation to a university is complete, the education department “will work with the institution’s leadership to determine the most appropriate method(s) to recruit appropriately skilled board members.”
That implementation plan is due for completion by this summer.
Asked by Cabin Radio last week if he would listen to Fort Smith’s request for an independent board of governors, Simpson replied: “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.”
“The Town of Fort Smith has lost confidence in the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment’s ability to manage the transformation of post-secondary education in the Northwest Territories,” said Napier in the news release.
“Last week it became clear that [the department] does not have the credibility or capability to manage this initiative effectively. Over the past few years, there has been a revolving door of college presidents, education ministers, strategic planning processes, and reviews. There has been no progress, and there appears to be no real plan in place to achieve the goal of a polytechnic university.”
Not fired, fired, I asked for him to be fired
Simpson endured a torrid week following the departure of Weegar, first claiming the college president had chosen to leave before, a day later, admitting Weegar had in fact been fired. Simpson said at the time he had been misled by an all-staff email.
Finally, on Friday, Simpson appeared to suggest he had in fact been in on Weegar’s firing all along, calling into question how he could have stated with certainty, two days earlier, that Weegar departed of his own accord.
“Media reporting yesterday gave the impression that I was not consulted by the premier on the decision to terminate the employment of [Weegar]. I want to state clearly that this was not the case,” Simpson told the legislature on Friday.
“The fact is, over the last number of months, I have had a number of discussions with the premier’s office regarding the management of Aurora College and the Aurora College transformation team.
“Two weeks ago, I approached the premier and expressed my belief that a change needed to happen, and it needed to happen sooner than later.
“While I was not personally involved in the negotiations that took place following that discussion, nor was I aware of the final details of the arrangements, I was certainly aware of the ultimate outcome and support the premier in her decision.”
Sarah Pruys contributed reporting.