The Town of Fort Smith has demanded a public meeting with the territory’s education minister regarding the prospect of replacing Aurora College with a polytechnic university, a town councillor said.

A major report by an Edmonton consultancy firm, published on Wednesday, said Aurora College in its present form was “an institution of last choice” for students and should be dropped in favour of an entirely new polytechnic university by 2024.

The report called for the new university’s base to be Yellowknife, rather than Fort Smith, where Aurora College is presently headquartered. Consultants MNP said students were disinclined to choose Fort Smith as housing quality was poor, social life limited, and part-time employment opportunities difficult to find.

Advertisement. Story continues below

Though the territorial government has yet to formally respond, education minister Caroline Cochrane heartily endorsed the report on Wednesday, telling reporters she was ‘ecstatic’ and the document represented “one of the best reviews we’ve done.”

However, posting to Facebook, Fort Smith town councillor Kevin Smith said the report’s recommendations “would mean a loss of at minimum 30-40 jobs for Fort Smith – which would devastate our community.”

Smith added: “While it is clear there need to be substantial changes at the college, these recommendations are poorly conceived. It is time for community leadership to get together and fight against losing the headquarters.”

A public meeting hosted by the Town of Fort Smith will take place at 7pm on Tuesday, June 5.

Ministerial delays?

In a letter to Cabin Radio, a former chair of Aurora College’s board of governors vigorously disputed several assertions contained within the consultants’ report and the education minister’s subsequent comments.

Sydney O’Sullivan, who spent six years on the board including three as chair, took issue with the report’s characterization of the board as ineffective. O’Sullivan suggested unnecessary delays on the part of ministers increasingly tied the board’s hands over time.

“The board of governors was an effective, functioning board, although previous board members would certainly agree there were problems,” O’Sullivan wrote.

“All board members, including those to be renewed for a second term, had to be approved by Cabinet. Such approvals were commonly not received in time for one of the three face-to-face meetings a year.

“Concerns over quorum were always present. By the time the board was replaced by an administrator, there were four members left and two waiting for approval.”

O’Sullivan said the territory’s education officials repeatedly asked the college to postpone attempts to develop and implement a strategic plan, most recently in February 2017; and she challenged Cochrane’s assertion on Wednesday that a single, strong leader was required.

“Nobody would dispute the importance of appropriate, well-chosen senior staff. But perhaps a better place to start would be with the concept of leadership itself,” O’Sullivan wrote.

“Today, the idea of the single leader has long since been replaced with the view that a structured, shared leadership model is more appropriate and workable. At a minimum this would require identifying the leadership roles and expected contributions of related agencies or people required for college success.

“For example, does Cabinet have a leadership role in ensuring the college board is fully approved in a timely manner? Does Cabinet have a role in promoting partnerships with the Aurora Research Institute over contracts with southern institutions? Does the Department of Education, Culture and Employment have a role in publicly supporting college activities in program reviews, in collaboratively creating specific accountability requirements and in supporting student recruitment?”

Paul McAdams, a former instructor at Aurora College, responded to town councillor Smith’s comments online by saying: “The college, in the eyes of the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, has always been a child that they control financially but try to ignore as much as possible. There has never been any real commitment to building the college.”

Awkward position

While the report does recommend making Yellowknife the headquarters of a new institution, it also calls for Fort Smith to retain a specialized campus.

Asked on Wednesday to address the potential consequences for Fort Smith, Cochrane told reporters: “It’s not centralization. I think a lot of people are worried about that.

“It’s about developing centres of excellence, looking at programs that are in each of the communities. What is the specialization within each community and how do we grow on those?

“The City of Yellowknife, Fort Smith, and Inuvik will be vital to this.”

The report and the territory’s response to it – to be published this fall – place justice minister Louis Sebert in an awkward position.

Sebert, a former Fort Smith lawyer, is the MLA for the Thebacha region which encompasses the town, but also serves in Cabinet and would be expected to form a united front with fellow ministers if Cabinet decides to press ahead with the plan outlined in the report.

Cochrane earlier said she would seek a “whole-of-government” response to the report, working with regular MLAs through a standing committee to achieve unanimous support for some or all of the report’s proposed measures.

An extended interview with the education minister will be broadcast on Cabin Radio from 9am on Wednesday, June 6.