North

More academic freedom proposed for N.W.T.'s Aurora College in government's latest report

A proposed governance model for the future of Aurora College says that when it becomes a university, the school should be arm's-length from the government and have academic freedom.

Proposal says future polytechnic university will have arm's-length board

A discussion paper, released by the N.W.T. Department of Education, Culture and Employment on Thursday, suggests that as a university, Aurora College should have both an academic senate and a separate board of governors with both people from the school and the wider community. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

A proposed governance model for the future of Aurora College says that when it becomes a university, the school should be arm's-length from the government and have academic freedom. 

The discussion paper, released by the N.W.T. Department of Education, Culture and Employment on Thursday, suggests that as a university, Aurora College should have both an academic senate made up of people from the school, and a separate board of governors with both people from the school and the wider community.  

In the existing Aurora College Act, the school is usually run by only a board of governors — but that board was dissolved in 2017. In the act, all board members, including a faculty and student representative, are appointed by the education minister and can be removed if the minister deems it necessary. 

The territorial government has been working on turning the college into a polytechnic university for years.

In the paper, the proposed board would handle finances and operations, and legal duties to the organization, as well as be in charge of hiring top administrators. The academic senate would be in charge of things like class sizes, research policies, and responding to conduct like plagiarism.

Any sort of broader communications from the departments have been pretty meagre.- Mike Couvrette, Fort Smith councillor

The report states that Aurora College could start by having an academic council that could become a senate when it became a polytechnic university. Although it's not finalized, the paper says the senate will mostly be comprised of faculty, students and academic leaders.

'Scholars are the ones making scholarly decisions': expert

Shannon Dea, a philosophy professor at the University of Waterloo and a columnist on academic freedom, says this kind of dual system of governance is an ideal way to run public universities, and a model seen in other institutions in the South. 

"Scholars are the ones making the scholarly decisions," she said.

"The function of the university is to pursue truth and knowledge and understanding and learning, not necessarily to perform political functions. And those two things get tangled up if you don't have well-entrenched academic freedom." 

Fort Smith Coun. Michael Couvrette said the discussion paper was made public on Thursday with no notice to him. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

The proposed changes would also make the president appointed by the board of governors instead of the territory's minister in charge of education.

According to the vision in the discussion paper, the new 12-member board would include members "elected" from faculty, staff and students, as well as eight members from the territory's public who are appointed by the territory's education minister.

The discussion paper says that under the proposed vision, at least five board members must be residents of the territory and a minimum of three must be Indigenous.

Dea said that's a feature that represents how unique the Northwest Territories' post-secondary program is.

"That's something you don't always see at other universities," she said.

Administrator will stay in charge for now 

This independent board won't be starting its work soon, though.

In 2017 the N.W.T. government dissolved Aurora College's board of governors and replaced it with an administrator.

The discussion paper says that until the territorial government is done updating the bylaws for the board and deciding on a framework for what will make board members effective, the administrator will stay in charge of the college and respond directly to the minister.

"Having a single administrator who receives direction from the minister has maintained stability and continuity while changes to the college are considered and implemented," the paper states.

Pam Coulter, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, would not say when the department anticipated those changes to be made. She wrote in an email that an "implementation plan," slated for release this fall, would provide more concrete timelines.

Fort Smith residents out of loop, says councillor

The school's transition to a polytechnic university leaves many in Fort Smith, where the school is currently headquartered, worried that the university will have its main campus in Yellowknife.

The concerns became a focus point for candidates in the Fort Smith region during territorial elections. And communications around the transition has left one local leader feeling out of the loop.

Fort Smith Coun. Mike Couvrette said the discussion paper landed on Thursday with no notice to him. 

"I know our mayor's had a few conversations with [Education Minister R.J. Simpson] but any sort of broader communications from the departments have been pretty meagre," he said. 

Minister Simpson was not made available for comment on the day that his department's report was released to the public.

Coulter, the government spokesperson, wrote that "local governments in campus communities receive information in advance of it being made public."

Her response also noted the discussion paper is intended to "provide ... the opportunity to provide input."

A press release from the territorial government says people have until Sept. 14 to give the territorial government feedback on the report. 

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