North

N.W.T.'s outgoing Aurora College president says job termination came 'out of the blue'

After former Aurora College president Tom Weegar was replaced this week by an insider from the territorial government, he's questioning the changes and the government control of the education system.

Tom Weegar says he felt isolated and alone as he promoted new ideas

Tom Weegar was named president of Aurora College and associate deputy minister of post-secondary renewal on Feb. 22, 2019. On Feb. 4, The N.W.T. government announced in a news release Weegar had been replaced. (Walter Strong/CBC)

The former president of Aurora College is speaking out after losing his job.

Tom Weegar said he got a letter of termination "out of the blue" from the N.W.T legislature's cabinet secretary, Martin Goldney, saying he had lost the confidence of Premier Caroline Cochrane.

When he asked why, he said, he was told that there wasn't an answer and that the terms of his position included the possibility to be removed "without cause."

The N.W.T. government announced in a news release Tuesday that Tom Weegar was no longer president of the college or the associate deputy minister of post-secondary renewal.

A nationwide search by a Toronto headhunting firm identified Weegar as the best candidate for the job last year.

When Cochrane — who was minister of education when Weegar was hired — was asked about his departure in the legislature on Wednesday by MLA Julie Green, the premier said she would not discuss personnel issues.

"I think that's inappropriate in the house. What I can say though, is that we are on track that we are doing the best that we can to make sure that our polytechnic goes forward," she said.

"Sometimes you make leadership changes that we don't have notice of," Cochrane added. "So to jump to say that we're showing [Weegar] the door might not be the terms that I would use."

Earlier in the day, Education Minister R.J. Simpson told Cabin Radio that Weeger wanted "to step away to pursue other opportunities." Neither Cochrane nor Simpson suggested that Weegar had been terminated without cause.

No issues raised with performance, Weegar says

Weegar said he believes it's "highly likely" that there was "some level of sort of sabotage happening behind the scenes" leading to his dismissal.

"It's unusual for a premier or even a board chair to come up to a president of the college … or an associate deputy minister and say, 'you're gone,'" he said. "Usually there's a conversation leading up. There's an expression of concerns.... [There was] none of that."

Weegar said he was surprised he was never notified of concerns about his approach, adding that he thought things were "going well."

However, he also noted that there had been tension and differences of opinion when he was president — conflicts that had gone on to impact his health. 

WATCH: Thomas Weegar talks about how he lost his job "out of the blue."

Former Aurora College president Thomas Weegar says news of losing his job "came out of the blue," and he wasn't given answers. 6:38

Watch the uncut interview on the CBC North Facebook page.

Weegar came to the Northwest Territories after executive roles at colleges in Saskatchewan and Ontario.

He said it was unusually hard to get Aurora College's administration to support his ideas, like a vision for a senior-level director of Indigenous education, or introducing university-style courses in psychology or history to the school.

"I was feeling...out front, and, 'I'm the only one out here,'" he said. 

Though surprised by his termination, he said he was ultimately relieved.

"I encountered a real strong resistance to change," he said. "I didn't understand it."

Andy Bevan, formerly assistant deputy minister of labour and income security, will now take on both Weegar's roles as college president and associate deputy minister on a permanent basis.

Weegar said he respects his successor, but he's concerned about how having a bureaucrat run the college may affect the college's autonomy — crucial, he said, to developing a respected university.

"That points to the fact that it's just a government controlled initiative. We have to get out of that … and we were on track to do that," he said. "The concern is, what kind of leadership and autonomy … do you want to provide to this institution? Is it educational leadership or is it a government?" 

Aurora College's Fort Smith N.W.T. campus. Fort Smith mayor Lynn Napier wants the school to be run by an academic leader. (Mario De Ciccio Radio-Canada/CBC)

'I don't think it's prudent:' Fort Smith mayor

In the town of Fort Smith, home to Aurora College's flagship campus, Mayor Lynn Napier said she hopes Weegar will later be replaced by an academic, instead of a bureaucrat.

"It is certainly surprising to us.... You need to have people who are experienced in post-secondary education," Napier said. "You're putting the bureaucrats in charge of the college, in charge of the transition, which is what we were trying to get away from."

Napier, who was on the college's board of governors before it was dissolved in 2017, said decisions around how to run the college need to be made by people who have that particular expertise.

"The college needs to be independent or at the very least arm's length from the department," she said. "They had somebody like Dr. Weegar who was experienced in the transformation of post-secondary institutions replaced by somebody who does not have that experience. And I don't think it's prudent."

Napier said it seems like a "difficult position to be put in" to hold both the college president and associate deputy minister roles, and that those should be two different positions.

In the legislature Wednesday, Cochrane said the government may consider adding a second person to tackle the job. She said that decision would be discussed six to 12 months from now.

With files by Loren McGinnis and Priscilla Hwang

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