Fired Aurora College boss: GNWT ‘resisted’ new Indigenous post
Tom Weegar, the ousted Aurora College president, said he encountered “an incredible amount of resistance” as he tried to create a new position overseeing Indigenous education.
Weegar was fired at the end of January, less than a year after being hired following a nationwide search for a leader capable of transforming the NWT’s Aurora College into a thriving polytechnic university. A letter dismissing Weegar states he was terminated without cause.
In an extensive interview with Cabin Radio, Weegar said he had not once spent time one-on-one with education minister RJ Simpson since October’s election. In his one meeting with Premier Caroline Cochrane since the election, Weegar said, the premier praised him for his work and pledged to support him. He was let go two months later.
Cochrane has said the NWT government will no longer comment on Weegar’s departure, calling it a personnel issue.
Asked if he was planning legal action against the territory over his departure, Weegar declined to comment. Documents seen by Cabin Radio suggest he is receiving one year’s salary in severance, having served in the role for 10 months.
Weegar said the resistance to change from bureaucrats and administrative colleagues, as he attempted to transform Aurora College, “blew me away.”
Building on comments first made to the CBC, he described trying to hire a director of Indigenous education for the college. “Every other college I worked at had one,” he said.
“I rely heavily on engaging with Indigenous communities,” he said. “I said to myself, I really need this leadership position in place to guide me.
“I really had to push for it. And then, when I finally got the position to a place where we were ready to post for it, my colleagues wanted it to be more of a middle-management position. I said no, absolutely not. It has to be a senior leadership position.
“As I brought in educational leaders to my admin team from outside, they tended to be much more positive around change. One of them said to me, ‘Tom, what’s the resistance around this position?’
“I said, ‘I don’t know.’ But the resistance was there. I think maybe part of it comes down to workload but it’s more than that, you know? I just really don’t know.”
In the fall, following expressions of concern about the way in which Indigenous groups were being included in Aurora College’s transformation, the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment had declined an interview request to discuss the issue in detail.
At the time, the department said in a statement that staff were working “to ensure engagements with Indigenous governments, community governments, and industry take place at the appropriate points throughout the transformation process.”
NWT responds on Indigenous position
In a new statement on Thursday, Andy Bevan – the NWT government manager promoted to succeed Weegar as Aurora College president – did not confirm the college would now hire an Indigenous education director, yet suggested creating the position would bring significant benefits.
“A position such as a Director, Indigenous Education will further strengthen the institution at this critical phase of the transformation process,” Bevan wrote by email. “A dynamic position such as this will bring added value to the extensive work and engagements that are already under way.
“While colleges in the south may have specific models used for Indigenous community engagement, it should be recognized that our reality in the NWT gives much more prominence to Indigenous community issues and engagement,” Bevan continued. “Models for engagement imported from the south should always be considered carefully for their suitability to our circumstances in the NWT.
“Aurora College will continue to engage with Indigenous governments at multiple stages in the transformation process to ensure we establish a polytechnic university that reflects the people it serves.”
Weegar, criticizing the NWT government for his having been “yanked out” of the position, urged the swift separation of Aurora College’s transformation from territorial politics.
At the same time, he described the circumstances of his departure – in which Simpson, the minister, revised his version of what had occurred three times in three days – as “a zoo.”
“Regrettably, the folks now leading the charge have no experience in a community college,” said Weegar of the remaining transformation team. “None of them have any experience at all working with a college board or working with the chair of a board or interacting with a board.
“So it really is being led by [the department] and I think that’s a dangerous place. That, by itself, will really slow the process down.”
New Yellowknife campus needed
Back in town this week following a Florida vacation after his firing, Weegar on Wednesday visited faculty members at Aurora College’s Yellowknife campus. He says he remains on good terms with staff. (Cabin Radio understands Bevan is planning to meet the same faculty members on Friday as he begins his new role.)
Asked how persistent glycol issues at the college’s current Yellowknife campus – reported earlier this week – should be addressed, Weegar said the conditions were “not acceptable” for students and staff.
Providing an insight into how the transformation might move forward in building a new campus for Yellowknife, he added: “We know, and we’ve known for quite some time, that we need a new campus building in Yellowknife. That doesn’t mean we’re planning to centralize the polytechnic in Yellowknife. It simply means we need a new campus here.
“We’ve got a nice new campus down in Fort Smith, we’ve got a nice new campus up in Inuvik, it’s Yellowknife’s time.
“What that new facility looks like and where it’s to be located, nobody really knows yet. But we do need that.”
Below, read a full transcript of Tom Weegar’s interview. You can also listen to the interview on the Lunchtime News podcast.
This interview was recorded on February 19, 2020. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: How do you feel about the way your exit panned out?
Tom Weegar: I guess the one word I would use is really one of surprise that it came just sort-of out of the blue without any indication beforehand, and no indication afterwards as to what took place and why the change is being made. It’s not uncommon for a president of a college to be approached by a board chair and say, ‘We want to see a change of direction a little bit. We want to see some changes, more concerns are being raised.’ Those happen, periodically, and I’m certainly not going to claim to be the perfect educational leader – but nothing of that, you know? So surprise is the one word that I tend to use in terms of what’s taken place.
Why do you think you were fired, knowing what you know now?
I don’t have a particular reason. My suspicion is somebody came forward and either spoke to the minister or spoke to the premier and had some concerns. I have no idea what those concerns are. It’s unusual, very unusual, that a premier would make a change of leadership around a year into the process. Very unusual. So, you know, that’s all I can really surmise at this point.
How often had you sat down and met with the premier and the education minister since the election?
The premier? Once since the election, and that was to have her say: ‘We like the work you’re doing. We’re going to continue with your work, you’re going to continue in your role.’ That was… if it wasn’t the last week of October, the first 10 days of November sort of thing. With the minister, I haven’t tended to meet regularly with him. Whereas with my former minister, who’s now our premier, I met with her fairly regularly – every second week kind of thing – with the current minister that hasn’t taken place, so I really haven’t met with him on a regular basis.
Did you meet with him at all?
Well, when I had met with him, it was with a group of my colleagues from ECE together. So that wasn’t a one-on-one, it was usually a group of four or five of us together, talking about a number of issues of pertinence to ECE. So again, I didn’t really have a regular meeting schedule with him.
Was there a detectable change in tone, change in philosophy, when the new government came in?
The premier liked what you were doing in November, you say. When did that change? How did you find out that had changed?
Well, I don’t think there was a change. I didn’t detect a change, you know? When I had my meeting with the cabinet secretary on the morning of January 30, he sat me down – and as I went into the room, I knew exactly what the meeting was about. There was another HR person there and there was a folder on the table. So I knew what it was about, but I had no idea why. And I asked the question: ‘Can you tell me what the reasons were? Why the change?’ And the response I got was: ‘Tom, you know we serve at the discretion of the minister and we can be let go at any time, both you and I.’
I want to talk more about the act of transforming the college itself. You have said you encountered an unexpected level of resistance in trying to initiate some change. Senior managers often encounter some sort of resistance when they’re trying to implement change. Was there something different about what you felt you were facing?
So throughout my career, I’ve been involved in change initiatives in a number of circumstances and a number of times. In fact, I’ve often characterized myself as a change agent. I enjoy going through processes of change. I like to engage staff and students in the change process. And I’m good at it. I’ve done a lot of significant change, whether it’s indigenizing the college, whether it’s strategic enrollment management – a number of very, very significant change processes. I’ve never encountered the level of resistance that I’ve encountered at Aurora College. And that’s a pretty strong statement, but that is the case.
That level of resistance has not come from faculty and staff. You know, faculty and staff, by and large – as I talk with them, as I pass ideas by them – are nodding their heads. are saying, ‘Yeah, that’s cool. I like the idea. Let’s talk about it, let’s try it, let’s see what we can do with it.’ So that change has not come from the the faculty and staff by any means. We have a very strong faculty and staff at the college. I’ve been very, very pleased with their level of engagement, with their level of professionalism. You know, we have a number of doctorates that are teaching for us, we’ve got some really fabulous instructional staff and staff at the college.
I note that you’re still referring to it as ‘we.’ When you say it’s not the staff – I’m sure it’s not the students, either – you mean the bureaucracy, then?
Yeah, the bureaucracy. This was quite surprising to me, my admin colleagues were fairly change-resistant as well. That kind-of blew me away.
Can you give an example of what kind of ideas we’re facing resistance? What that resistance looked like?
Yeah, you know, trying to get a director of Indigenous education in place. We didn’t have one when I arrived here. I knew we needed one because every other college I worked at had one – I rely heavily on engaging with Indigenous communities, getting an Elders-in-residence initiative in place, getting an Indigenous Advisory Council – and we didn’t have one. And I said to myself, I really need this leadership position in place to guide me, to help me get these initiatives happening. I wanted to get an Indigenous Advisory Council in place and this educational leadership position, the director of indigenous education, would help me with that.
Well, I received an incredible amount of resistance to either the need for the position or getting the position in place. I really had to push for it. And then, when I finally got the position to a place where we were ready to post for it, my colleagues wanted it to be more of a middle-management position. I said no, absolutely not. It has to be a senior leadership position. My ultimate dream was to have it as a vice-president of Indigenous education, which many colleges have done.
As I brought in educational leaders to my admin team from outside, they tended to be much more positive around change. One of them said to me, ‘Tom, what’s the resistance around this position?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ But the resistance was there. I think maybe part of it comes down to workload but it’s more than that, you know? I just really don’t know.
You were brought in as an agent of change to lead the transformation of the college into a polytechnic university. Did you feel like you were calling the shots?
Yeah, I think, by and large. People sometimes will ask me, ‘Tom, we’ve heard that there was sometimes disagreement.’ And my response to that is absolutely. I work in a context where there is disagreement. I love that. We want to have disagreement.
We work in a post-secondary environment where there should be a clash and contestation of ideas and values periodically. Those values and ideas kind-of come together and they explode, you know, sometimes, but the key piece for me is that as we have these contestations of ideas, we do so respectfully. At some point we may agree to disagree and walk out of the room saying we haven’t reached common ground. But I would rather work in an environment where we have that contestation of values and ideas than one where we’re all sycophants agreeing just to agree and be homogeneously of the same mind. We’ve had this contestation periodically, and I’m OK with that. Because sometimes those contestations change my perspective and allow me to step back and say, ‘Oh, right. I hadn’t thought about that. Let me think about that a little bit more, and we’ll move forward in a different way.’
I would say I was calling the shots. I don’t think anybody was pulling the rug out from under me. I was working with my colleagues to try to get the change happening. Encountering resistance, yes. But also keeping pushing, you know? Sometimes change is slow, especially initially. And then once it starts to happen, that snowball starts to grow and it gets happening more and more in a greater way. Pretty soon a lot of successes are coming under our belts and away we go. I was looking forward to having more of that happen.
At the time that you left, how close did you feel the NWT was to converging on a single vision for what that university was going to end up being?
I would say we were reasonably close. I mean, we had a good sense as to getting an implementation plan in place and a sequence of steps and a timeline for the next two years. The government had a good sense of that and was accepting of that. So I would say that there wasn’t a difference of opinion between the GNWT and Aurora College or the transformation team. I don’t think that really took place.
It sounds as though a vision was emerging. Do you think achieving that vision in the timeline provided – five, maybe six years – can be done in the political environment Aurora College’s president is probably now perceived to operate in?
I would say no.
Because we’re back to a place where ECE is seeing itself as leading the charge. That’s a dangerous place to be. When I arrived here, the transformation process was really thought to be an ECE process. I started asking questions and saying, ‘Where’s the college in this? How is the college being involved? How are faculty and staff being involved?’ We started going to a whiteboard and drawing out what the process was going to look like, the organizational schematic, developing what I would refer to as a shared leadership approach.
Well, we’re really back to a process now where it’s largely ECE-driven.
Regrettably, the folks now leading the charge have no experience in a community college. None of them have any experience at all working with a college board or working with the chair of a board or interacting with a board. None of them have any experience with policy government and the John Carver model of policy governance that is so important to colleges in terms of keeping board strategic versus operational. So it really is being led by ECE and I think that’s a dangerous place. That, by itself, will really slow the process down.
The GNWT has since said it will soon review whether your old position should in fact be two positions, separating Aurora College’s president on one hand and leading the polytechnic transformation on the other. Do you think there’s some merit to making it two roles?
I do, actually. That’s a piece of the puzzle.
What’s interesting about that idea is it’s one I was actually moving towards myself at any rate. I’d been told by my colleagues: ‘Tom, this is a workload issue. We’ve just got so much on our plates, you’ve got a number of ideas that you want to bring on, and we just can’t do it right now.’ And I was told: ‘If you want to do those ideas, you’ve got to take something else off the plates around the transformation piece.’ Knowing full well that’s not of interest to me. So my response to that was going to be: ‘OK, well, how about if I hire a new VP? A new VP of transformation that can start making some of these things happen?’ Regrettably, I never got to that. That was my idea. If it’s a workload issue, let’s hire another VP and let’s get it done, let’s make some things happen.
The things I wanted to happen? I wanted to get an education council at the college – our college doesn’t have one, we’re one of the few colleges in the country that doesn’t have one. And I wanted to get a university studies program, a series of first and second-year courses for folks in town. I was told there’s no time, we can’t do it. So I started saying, ‘Let’s hire some people to make these things happen.’ Again, I just never really got to that.
So I think that’s a piece of it. The other piece that I would say is vitally important is we need to remove the transformation from the political process. The government has just stepped in and yanked out the president and made a change, in a very potentially dysfunctional way that is going to slow the polytechnic process down significantly. They at some point need to extract it from the political process. How they do that or when they do that remains to be discussed, I believe, but that’s critical.
What would your words of advice be to those from Canada’s education community that might consider applying to work on this project for the NWT?
I would say it’s an exciting adventure with exciting potential. Go in eyes wide open and be ready for the bumpy road that the political piece involves. Have a strong sense and a strong determination to work closely with faculty and staff because that is critical. If we’re going to make this successful and we’re going to make it a world-class institution it has to be done with faculty and staff at Aurora College, not separate from them. Be willing to take that kind of shared leadership approach, working closely and in collaboration with faculty and staff, and be ready that it’ll be a bumpy road.
Now, while you’re here, I want to get your thoughts on another issue to do with the college: the smell of glycol at the college’s Yellowknife campus. What do you think could and should be done to address something like that?
The issue becomes more critical during peak cold periods, you know, when it’s getting down -35C, -40C. The heating system, which is old and antiquated, at Northern United Place has to be turned on strong to keep the place warm. That’s when the the issue becomes really apparent. That’s what’s happened over the last I would say six weeks, eight weeks or so, leading up to Christmas and into the new year.
It’s not acceptable, though, is it, really? We’re trying to build a new university here, but a lot of students are saying they can’t even study at the current one.
No, that isn’t acceptable. It’s a learning environment that from the perspective of students is substandard. And we know, and we’ve known for quite some time, that we need a new campus building in Yellowknife. That doesn’t mean we’re planning to centralize the polytechnic in Yellowknife. It simply means we need a new campus here.
You know, we’ve got a nice new campus down in Fort Smith, we’ve got a nice new campus up in Inuvik, it’s Yellowknife’s time. Our current facilities are so full that we’ve had to use other facilities in town for classroom space, for staff and office space. We just need a new facility.
What that new facility looks like and where it’s to be located, nobody really knows yet. But we do need that and that will, of course, solve the glycol issue for us – or some warmer weather will solve the issue for us as well. Hopefully, at least for the time being as we go into some warming weather into the spring, the glycol piece will be behind us at least until next winter.
Have you washed your hands of the situation now? You’re on a 12-month severance package as part of this. Is there any further action between you and the GNWT over your departure?
I can’t really comment on that right now. I keep involved with my colleagues, you know, faculty and staff
I more meant legally, for example.
I can’t comment.
The communication of your departure was handled in what many people consider to be a relatively shambolic way. There were different stories from the minister each day. One interpretation of that is that there may initially have been an agreement between you and the GNWT to say: ‘Tom, we have fired you but we’re going to say, for everybody’s dignity, that Tom has decided to do something else.’ And then that agreement broke down. What actually happened?
So they gave me the news on Thursday morning, and then offered me an opportunity to send a message out to staff. I took that opportunity mostly because I said to myself, you know, if I’m not creating the narrative, if I’m not telling the story of my departure, somebody else at the GNWT is. I really didn’t want that. So, you know, I put together a quick message that – because we hadn’t worked out the specifics of my severance at that point – said: ‘I’m stepping back from educational leadership for the time being. Effective immediately I’m no longer the president or the associate deputy minister.’ I really wanted to control the narrative and control what was said. And that’s the message that was sent out to faculty and staff a day later, I believe.
What did you think, watching the minister’s statements over the ensuing days?
Yeah, it was a bit of a zoo. When I heard some of the statements in the legislature, my immediate thought to myself was: ‘That’s not true. That’s not how it happened. That’s not what I said.’ There were a number of times when I said to myself, ‘That’s not right.’ Some of that was the impetus for me to step up and say, ‘I need to start putting my voice out there and speaking my truth,’ if you will. That resulted in a TV interview with CBC North and has resulted in me speaking out more forthrightly about what’s taking place.
Do you regret taking the job?
No. Because it is exciting. It is an exciting initiative. It was starting to burn me out. The two positions that I was holding were starting to really kill me. And I wasn’t liking my work any more, right? Which really concerned me because, throughout my career, I’ve always loved my work. I’ve often said to myself, when I get up in the morning and my feet hit the floor, I’m looking forward to getting to work. Well, this wasn’t happening any more. The load of the work was really serious.
But I love the transformation. I love the route that we’re on. I love the manner in which we were starting to bring in faculty and staff. I was very frustrated with the level of resistance I was getting. But slowly we were starting to work on that resistance, you know? And starting to change it. So, you know, I’m happy I took the position and it worked out OK. I’m disappointed I was let go.