Education, Culture and Employment Minister RJ Simpson wasn’t originally aware that former Aurora College President Tom Weegar was fired.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Simpson said he heard of the departure late last week. He wasn’t aware of the circumstances of Weegar’s dismissal.
“I wasn’t sitting in those conversations so I didn’t know if it was an outright firing. I didn’t know if maybe both parties said to each other, ‘you know what, I think it is time to go our separate ways,'” he said.
He saw a mass email from Weegar to Aurora College staff that stated he was voluntarily stepping away – a point Simpson reiterated in an interview with Cabin Radio Wednesday.
“Obviously, stories change and it came out that it was termination,” he said, adding he was only aware that the position ended and he wasn’t concerned if it was mutual or a firing.
It didn’t come as surprise, Simpson continued.
“I wasn’t shocked about what happened,” he said.
When asked why that was, he declined to answer, saying it was a human resources (HR) matter and the position serves at the pleasure of the premier.
Academic freedom concerns raised
Weegar has called the government’s original account incorrect and raised further concern that his firing — the third at Aurora College recent years — could jeopardize the institution’s academic freedom.
His firing has raised over worries over the academic freedom of NWT’s chief post-secondary institution.
On Tuesday, the Northwest Territories government announced his departure as deputy minister of Education, Culture and Employment, post-secondary education renewal, on Tuesday. His replacement is Andy Bevan, who had served as the department’s assistant deputy minister, labour and income security.
At Assembly Wednesday, Cochrane said in six to 12 months the government will consider splitting these roles between two hires. She also reiterated the government’s commitment to academic freedom by 2025. Weegar has recently cast doubt over whether that target was still realistic.
While post-secondary universities are funded by the government — and expected to be transparent and accountable with the government — they must also be independent, according to Weegar.
“Does the government want to go down that road right now? They made a decision on their own,” he said. “And I’m not sure they’re making the right decision. My question is who do you want to lead this process, an educational leader or a government bureaucrat?”
He said the Northwest Territories has chosen the government side, which “gives him pause for concern.”
Minister questioned over academic freedom
At Assembly Wednesday, Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green said if the Weegar’s eventual replacement came from within the education department, it may be detrimental to academic freedom.
“At the very least, there continues to be the perception the college and the department continue to work hand-in-glove,” she told fellow MLAs.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson stood in the House and followed up with more questions about academic freedom.
Minister Simpson affirmed that the College’s 2018 foundational review outlined the importance of academic freedom.
“At a point in the future, when we’re ready to have a completely arm’s length institution, we will proceed as such with a board of governors, with a senate and with a president,” he said.
Johnson pressed further, saying Aurora College didn’t meet an internationally accepted standard of academic freedom, to which Simpson responded it isn’t yet a university conducting research, so those standards don’t apply.
However, he assured Johnson that the government wouldn’t “repeat the mistakes of the past” and promised it would be an independent institution.
Northwest Territories government needs to support autonomy, Yk councillor says
Responding to Weegar’s concerns, Coun. Julian Morse, a prominent supporter of the post-secondary transformation in Yellowknife, said the foundational review clearly outlined the need for institutional autonomy.
“One of the biggest recommendations, and one of the biggest problems with Aurora College — and you’ll hear this from Aurora College staff, you’ll hear this from people outside the process — is that it not being independent of government has been the biggest thing holding it back,” he said.
Its legitimacy as an institution hangs on having real autonomy from government, according to Morse.
“It is not at this point, by definition, a true college. It is really a government department,” he said, pointing to Yukon College as an example of a standalone school.
He said he would like answers from the government on whether it is committed to making it a true polytechnic or keeping it a department.
However, Morse said, it will be important to give the government the benefit of the doubt to communicate what the change means.
“What does this mean? Tom’s right to a certain extent, if it’s going to be an academic institution, they are typically led by an academic,” he said. “Is this an interim solution? That’s the question that’s in my mind.”