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Silence from the north

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The University College of the North has decided the best way to handle its decision to show president Denise Henning the door is to pull up the drawbridge, hunker down behind the castle walls, and not talk to anyone.

We reported late last month that UCN would not extend Henning’s five-year contract when it expires June 30. She’d wanted another term, and it’s pretty standard to give postsecondary presidents two terms, if they wish to stay.

Here's today’s story on what led up to that decision.

Contrast UCN to Concordia University in Montreal, which has just bought out its second president in mid-contract in three years. Yesterday’s on-lline roundup of Canadian postsecondary news in Academica’s Top Ten summarised several media outlets which reported that Concordia’s board of governors has now written an open letter about why it booted the latest president, going public after the Quebec government came down on the board’s collective head and told it to get transparent.

At UCN, Advanced Education Minister Diane McGifford is taking a hands-off approach, falling back on the rationale that UCN is an autonomous body which runs its own operations.

I talked to Henning just before Christmas. She was surprised and disappointed, said it was up to UCN to talk about why it didn’t renew her contract, and said she’d be on the job until her contract runs out this upcoming June 30.

UCN now says that Henning isn’t giving interviews and no longer speaks for the university. She’s already landed on her feet, taking the president’s job at Northwest Community College in northern B.C. on March 1. Northwest won’t say when Henning submitted her resume.

Meanwhile, she has to be replaced at UCN.

Aboriginal academics with PhDs, decades of experience, and the qualities needed in a contemporary postsecondary president — an era in which fundraising and being the school’s face to government and the business and broader communities seem at least as important as pedagogy — let alone the desire to move from teaching and research into administration, are in rather short supply. Henning fit all those criteria, and UCN didn’t want to keep her.

UCN does not absolutely need to hire another aboriginal president, of course, but you have to assume an aboriginal president would be its preferred option.

Many people who fit the job description would be members of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) or its American equivalent. How many are going to mail their resumes off to The Pas, without having any idea of what happened to Henning?

The faculty alleges that threats to academic freedom are an integral part of the problems on the main campuses in The Pas and Thompson, and the dozen regional centres scattered across the north.

That would indeed be troubling to prospective candidates, given that it’s less than six years since CAUT threatened to censure the fledgling combined college and university over concerns with governance, academic freedom, and tenure.

It’s a pretty long list of people who don’t want to talk about what’s happening.

The governing council is chaired by Lorne Keeper, who’s executive director of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre. He hasn’t returned calls to his direct line or responded to interview requests made through channels at UCN. The governing council has not posted its minutes on-line since its May of 2010 session.

Instructor Gary Melko chairs the learning council, the academic body that’s the senate equivalent, and which is accusing the governing council of violating academic freedom. Melko won’t grant interviews, and referred inquiries to UCN’s communications director. However, the learning council did issue a statement on Wednesday.

Misipawistik Cree Nation Chief Ovide Mercedi, no stranger to national politics, is UCN’s chancellor. He hasn’t responded to an interview request.

UCN says that John Martin, the school’s elder in residence, will not speak to the media.

McGifford, of course, will not discuss internal matters at UCN, and neither, it turns out, will the chair and the executive director of the government-appointed council on postsecondary education (COPSE).

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and area MP Nikki Ashton did not respond to interview requests. They might have had something to say about why it’s vital for UCN to succeed.

One person who did speak was The Pas Mayor Al McLauchlan, who talked about the impact that the situation was having on the community, given that UCN is not only his town’s third-largest employer, but one that has grown substantially under Henning, and is slated to enjoy a major expansion, as is the Thompson campus. McLauchlan had to be very careful, given that he also teaches at UCN, but he had the gumption to speak.

It’s not just finding a president, it’s attracting faculty as the university side of UCN grows. Next year is when COPSE has directed that UCN will open a faculty of education, taking over from the Brandon University Northern Teacher Education Program. The recent contentious grievance process in which BUNTEP faculty fought for their seniority rights when they return to BU suggest that few of those current faculty will be rushing to move north and seek jobs with UCN.

What should be setting off alarm bells for a lot of people is that college instructors and the far fewer in number university professors at UCN are represented by the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union, which says it’s not hearing about problems at UCN.

The professors have instead been turning for advice to CAUT, even though they’re not members.

Northern Manitobans say the situation desperately needs someone of stature to call everyone together and work this out.

But who?

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