The University College of the North is struggling to find aboriginal faculty who understand the north and are committed to staying in the community.
Academic sources claim there is internal turmoil and tension driving both non-aboriginals and non-northern aboriginal staff out of the fledgling institution based in The Pas and Thompson and a dozen scattered remote communities.
But UCN officials say the school will only succeed and serve the community if it develops teaching staff who come from the north and want to build their lives in the north.
"We've had (outside) individuals who, for whatever reason, couldn't align themselves with the mission and the mandate," interim UCN president Konrad Jonasson said. He acknowledged both professors and senior administrators from other areas have left.
"UCN should reflect the demographic of the area we serve -- we're in excess of 65 per cent of aboriginal ancestry" in the half of Manitoba UCN serves, Jonasson said.
The UCN workforce is 49 per cent aboriginal overall, he said.
As for teaching staff, "The faculty is at about 29 per cent, university and college both," with a lower percentage of aboriginal professors than of aboriginal college instructors, Jonasson said. "We have a long way to go."
Jonasson said UCN has a representative workforce policy that includes hiring visible minorities, physically challenged persons, and men and women in non-traditional roles.
One recent job search requiring a PhD in a specific field attracted four candidates, all from outside Canada -- what do they know of the north, and how long will they stay, Jonasson wondered.
"Were they here for the long term?
"You try and indoctrinate them in northern and aboriginal culture" as one option, he said, but, "We need to look at other strategies, such as grow your own," the interim president said.
UCN is considering hiring northern staff with master's degrees, and helping them obtain their PhD while they teach.
"By focusing on northern residents, by focusing on aboriginal residents, it's going to stabilize long term," he said.
The northern school has faced rapid turnover in senior administrators and university professors, and still does not have a president almost 19 months since forcing out president Denise Henning, an aboriginal woman from Oklahoma who reportedly clashed with elders and aboriginal staff over policies, and in particular, intensive mandatory aboriginal awareness sessions for all students.
"The atmosphere there is just so bad," said a source who asked to be identified as one of several deans and directors who've left since Henning's departure. "So many of us have left, forced out or fled."
The former senior administrator said there is open turmoil on the campuses between aboriginal educators and school governors on one side, and non-aboriginal and aboriginal educators who are not from the north on the other side.
"Denise held people accountable -- she didn't care where you were from," said the source. "They've done a remarkable job of pushing native people out, Denise being the prime example."
Henning was from Oklahoma, and other aboriginal educators from the U.S. or southern Ontario have also left, said the former senior administrator.
"They had an opportunity to create a unique institution that was miles ahead of anywhere else," the source said. "We hired some amazing aboriginal scholars -- they're Mohawk, they're Chippewa, they're not from Norway House or Easterville."
Acting assistant deputy minister of advanced education Gerald Farthing said staff turnover is not as drastic as some critics claim.
"There's been more turnover at UCN, maybe more than University of Manitoba, University of Winnipeg, but not out of line with the north," he said. "Right now, there is a full complement of staff, except for one position in arts."
Farthing said UCN is committed to diversity and to finding the best-qualified teaching staff, but does have a preferential hiring policy. All things being equal, an academic from northern Manitoba will get a job over someone from outside, he said.
"There is a preferred policy for aboriginal faculty. There is a tendency to hire people who are from the area," Farthing said.
Farthing said UCN is "having a little difficulty finding someone" to take the president's job. The chosen candidate from an extensive search ultimately turned down the school's offer.