North

'We're starting on a basis of strength': New Aurora College president talks future

Tom Weegar was appointed by the government of the N.W.T. to lead the transformation of Aurora College into a polytechnic university. He says it will be several years in the making.

Tom Weegar says the transformation of Aurora College into a polytechnic university will be years in the making

Tom Weegar, Aurora College president and associate deputy minister of post-secondary education renewal in the N.W.T., says it will take five or six years before Aurora College is ready to operate as a polytechnic university. (Submitted by the Government of the Northwest Territories)

School will be out for summer soon, but for Tom Weegar, it's going to stay front of mind for many years to come.

It's Weegar's job to help bring a state-of-the-art polytechnic university to the Northwest Territories.

Last year, the territorial government agreed with the recommendations of a foundational review of Aurora College that said the school, with campuses in Inuvik, Yellowknife and Fort Smith, should be transformed into a polytechnic university.

In February, following that report, Weegar was appointed associate deputy minister of post-secondary education renewal, and president of Aurora College.

Weegar comes to the North from Ontario, where he was academic vice-president of Sir Sanford Fleming College. Before that, he was president of Cumberland College in Saskatchewan.

Weegar has held executive positions at post-secondary institutions for more than 20 years.

"We're starting on a basis of strength," Weegar said of Aurora College's distributed campus and community learning centre system.

That system of campuses across the North is not something he expects to see changed.

"We're … going to develop a polytechnic institution that is based territory-wide," he said. "This isn't about a particular community or city, it's about the entire territory."

But the Yellowknife campus, he says, is "bursting at the seams."

"We need to envision a new learning facility in Yellowknife whatever that starts to look like."

A recent projection pegged the cost of a campus in Yellowknife at about $80 million. Cost isn't something Weegar said he's ready to talk about, but he said the campus he envisions includes new buildings, a residence, and opportunities for partnerships with other northern education institutions such as the Dechinta program, and local literacy and francophone organizations.

He expects at least 50 per cent of funding for the new campus could come from outside territorial funding, through philanthropic and corporate sponsors.

The Yellowknife campus of Aurora College is bursting at the seams, Weegar said. (Walter Strong/CBC)

New program review underway

Weegar said Aurora College has strong programs, and is a ready foundation for a multi-campus operation.

"We have a nursing program that is nationally ranked. It's one of the best programs in the country," he said.

Weegar added that the natural resource technology program in Fort Smith attracts students from outside the territory.

"We know when we put high quality niche programming in place in the future it will attract students," Weegar said.

But some programs have been suspended and their futures held in question; notably the social work program and a teacher education program.

Weegar said a new comprehensive review of all programming at the college is underway, including the suspended programs.

"We're about 80 per cent finished," he said.

The purpose of the review, which will include data collected during a previous review, is to determine whether a program is required in the North, and if there are jobs available for graduates of any given program.

What that means, exactly, for the suspended social work program and teacher education programs, Weegar said it's too soon to say.

"I don't want to presuppose or prejudge the outcome of a good review," he said. "I mean, one of the outcomes possible is this tells us that there's just no jobs."

It will be five or six years before the college is ready to offer four year degrees under a polytechnic university banner. But consultations with communities and Indigenous governments on what the future will look like, and what programs will be offered, will begin soon.

"We're gonna engage in a strategic planning exercise this fall," Weegar said.

"This allows us to start to define what this new animal is going to look like what we shall become."

Written by Walter Strong, based on an interview by Loren McGinnis

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