Yukon University’s new president says he’s excited to help shape the direction the school takes as it evolves from its previous college status — including addressing issues raised by a faculty member about systemic racism within the institution.
“Yukon University, first of all, it’s new, there’s a lot of development to do so that’s a really attractive thing,” Mike DeGagné told the News in an interview July 9.
“… (I’m) really attracted to all the potentials that are here with moving from a college to a university.”
DeGagné, who’s currently self-isolating at a residence on campus typically used to house a visiting researcher, took the reins at YukonU on July 2.
An Indigenous person from Animakee Wa Zhing 37 First Nation in northwestern Ontario, he most recently served as president at Nipissing University, which he described as a smaller institution with a northern and First Nations influence which he also described as a “really nice fit.”
Some of his goals as president for YukonU, he said, include making sure there’s education for Yukoners that’s relevant to local needs and contexts.
He added that there were also “some real special areas” the university could focus on, including northern studies and the environment, but that building local capacity was key.
“An institution of this size in the Yukon has a real regional impact and we have to develop our own knowledge here and that’s what moving to a university is all about, is developing new knowledge,” he said.
DeGagné confirmed that he had also spoken to Lianne Charlie, a faculty member with the university’s Indigenous governance program.
Charlie, who’s of Tagé Cho Hudän (Big River People) heritage, penned an open letter to university leadership last month calling on them to undertake four key measures “to the elimination of racism, discrimination, and oppression at YukonU.”
The measures include acknowledging the role post-secondary institutions play in holding up systemic racism, oppression and discrimination that disproportionally impacts Black, Indigenous and racialized people, as well as collecting data on how many higher-level positions are held by those groups.
Officials told Charlie in reply letters that they would wait until DeGagné’s arrival before making any decisions or changes.
DeGagné and Charlie spoke on July 8.
DeGagné told the News it was a “nice conversation,” and that he saw Charlie’s letter as a “very positive thing.”
“There’s a number of times when, if you have really serious issues in an institution, nobody feels either, you know, confident enough or hopeful enough of change that they’ll even raise these things, so… it’s great that people can bring these issues up,” he said.
“I think we know that in the current environment … systemic racism, structural racism, unconscious bias in institutions, everyone is examining these things and I think we can move ahead very quickly and do a good job of making things better.”
DeGagné said he hasn’t committed to enacting Charlie’s suggested changes, saying that he thought the first step was to get a clear picture of what’s happening at the university.
“We don’t want to fire before we’ve aimed — I think we need to know what it is that the problems are,” he said.
One thing that might be helpful, he suggested, was a survey of staff to see how they self-identify.
“I think then you take those numbers and you say, is this close to what the percentage of these populations are in the Yukon? So if we’re way behind, then that’s a concern,” he said.
“What types of positions are these? Are most of a particular group, are they represented by staff, faculty, administration? Do we need more people in administration? Do we need more people on the board? These kinds of things, right? So generating data from a survey is a good place to start. Where we take that, that’s where the real discussion’s going to be.”
DeGagné added that the issue wasn’t overt racism, and that otherwise well-intentioned policies could have negative consequences if not planned out properly.
“For example,” he said, “if you have an institution that says, ‘Our goal is to include First Nations in all of our discussions and all of our decisions,’ that’s great, but what happens is, you may only have a few Indigenous people inside the institution and all of a sudden they get put on every committee, they get involved in every discussion, and it’s overwhelming.
“Pretty soon they can’t get their jobs done and they just don’t feel like they can apply themselves to their research and it’s not fair to them … Those are the things that we want to correct, so it’s not this sort of overt racism, it’s more how we subtly put too much of a burden on some people and not others.”
Charlie, in a separate interview, said she thought the conversation with DeGagné went “really well.”
“I heard an openness and a willingness, especially given his position as the leader of this institution, to sort of start taking this on,” she said, adding that it was a relief because many people react to conversations about addressing systemic racism in a defensive way, or with fear.
While she said she was still looking for an “actionable plan,” she said she would give DeGagné time to take his next steps with the communities both within and outside the university.
Ultimately, though, Charlie said meaningful change would require the efforts of more people than just DeGagné.
“It’s a systemic issue, it needs to be addressed at a systemic level, hence the resourced action plan, and that can only come from the folks who hold those powers and the oversight over those kinds of budgets,” she said.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org