The Friends of NSCAD group is among those unhappy with the sudden dismissal of the university’s president, Aoife Mac Namara, by its board of governors. The former president, widely described as an ally to many of the institution’s marginalized students, was fired on June 26.
“The Board offered no proper justification for such extreme action, citing only ‘personnel’ matters,” says the petition Friends of NSCAD launched, calling for the board to be fired and Mac Namara rehired. “Dr. Mac Namara was in the process of implementing significant and much needed positive change at NSCAD, including initiating a project to recognize and redress systemic and structural racism at all levels of the university.”
Brody Weaver and Wren Tian-Morris, who are students at NSCAD and members of Friends of NSCAD, hosted a Zoom meeting on Wednesday to talk about the state of things at the art school. They said Mac Namara was passionate, committed to disability justice and vocal about making NSCAD accessible in every facet. They said she wanted a better NSCAD.
Weaver said they don’t know why the president was fired. “And I don’t know if we are ever going to.”
On June 5, three weeks before she was removed by the board, Mac Namara put out a statement about changes that need to be made at NSCAD concerning racism. “Universities are good at speaking out against racism, but we are not so good at taking actions against racism,” said the statement. “Now is the time for action.”
Mac Namara called for three things: A commitment to the process of institutional healing, reconciliation and decolonization; a review of institutional racism; and the establishment of a multi-stakeholder task force with for advising on the development of an anti-racist action plan for NSCAD.
Days later, on June 16, the university announced the hiring of McGill art history professor Charmaine Nelson as Canada Research Chair in Transatlantic Black Diasporic Art and Community Engagement. Nelson is going to develop the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD’s Fountain Campus. “I am very pleased that creating this infrastructure with NSCAD will provide a one-of-a-kind destination with the space, resources, and community for scholars, artists and cultural producers to create work related to Canadian Slavery and its legacies,” Nelson said in the announcement.
The board soon issued a statement of its own about “improving the current experience for BIPOC members of the NSCAD community.” The June 25 letter, signed by board chair Louise Anne Comeau, actually touched on transparency: “As the Board, we are committed to providing transparency as to how board members are appointed.”
The next day, Mac Namara was fired. So far the board has not issued a statement acknowledging or explaining what happened. Mac Namara had been on the job less than a year—she took over as president last August, and as Comeau said about the hiring, she helped the school get “poised and ready to write the next chapter in NSCAD’s storied history.”
On June 30, the Ontario College of Art & Design Faculty Association wrote to Comeau about its concern for Mac Namara’s dismissal. “It is fundamental to university governance that drastic measures, like the firing of a president, should be undertaken only when a broad range of community stakeholders share concern regarding improper conduct or poor performance, and clear evidence supports such concerns,” reads the letter. “In this instance, the situation is the reverse.”
Citing unspecified “credible allegations” of a conflict of interest about Sean Kelly’s role as the board’s vice-president—the theory involves a developer that Kelly represents as a lawyer wanting to buy some of NSCAD's property—OCADFA asks for the reinstatement of Mac Namara as president and the immediate resignation of the NSCAD board executive. That’s Comeau, Kelly, treasurer Alan MacPherson and secretary Cameron Janzen.
Comeau received another letter in support of Mac Namara, from the recently hired Charmaine Nelson, on July 2. “As you can imagine, after spending seventeen years of my career at McGill University, it took some convincing for me to make the decision to move to NSCAD,” Nelson writes.
“As a black female professor and the only black art historian in a tenured or tenure-track position at a Canadian University, McGill has not been an easy ride for me; indeed no Canadian university is an easy ride for black faculty. However, as many people believe, it’s better to stick with the devil you know. President MacNamara’s leadership was one of the key reasons that I decided to accept NSCAD’s offer and join the NSCAD community.”
Nelson makes the scathing point that the board seems to be acting in support of racism. “In pulling the rug out from under President MacNamara, you have also done so to me and, falsely or not, sent a message that she is being removed for the strides that she is taking to create an anti-racist university. The reputational damage of the fallout of the board’s hasty decision—for the board and the university—must not be underestimated.”
But the board didn’t say anything until, on July 8, it announced Sarah McKinnon as interim president of NSCAD University, effective this Wednesday, July 15. “She comes to NSCAD from The Glenn Gould School of The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where she is serving as Director of Academics,” reads the statement signed by Comeau. “She will support the university until such time as a new president is recruited.”
The same day, the NSCAD’s faculty union put out a statement saying that it gives a vote of no confidence to NSCAD’s board of governors, with the majority of members voting and 96 percent of those present voting no confidence.
“The Board’s unexplained actions are damaging to NSCAD. At this time, the Board is the only entity that can repair this problem, either by providing a compelling and satisfactory explanation to the community it serves, and proving that it can act collegially and transparently; or by reinstating the President, and stepping down so that others who have the trust of the community may take up this important responsibility,” says Mathew Reichertz, president of FUNSCAD, in the statement.
In an interview with The Coast, Reichertz says that the board has only told the NSCAD community that Mac Namara’s removal is a personnel matter: “Part of the problem is that there’s no transparency about why they have done what they’ve done.”
Comeau says she cannot share details on Mac Namara’s dismissal. “The NSCAD Board of Governors care deeply about NSCAD, its place in our community, and the role it plays in improving and inspiring the lives of our students,” she says in an email to The Coast. “As an independent board, it’s our duty to ensure good governance, to uphold the mission and vision of the university, and to always act in the best interests of the university as a whole.”
Reichertz says the university was in the middle of figuring out how to safely reopen the school during the COVID-19 period. “So, it’s a terrible time to get rid of a president who was basically working tirelessly to try to address these issues,” he says.
“And then there was also a very strong position taken by the president to address racism—structural and institutional racism at NSCAD.” Reichertz says it was at the beginning of that work that she was ousted.
The days after news of the new interim president was announced, the Nova Scotia Art Educators Society made a statement that Mac Namara’s removal “is painting a very negative picture for young people around the world thinking about studying here in Nova Scotia.” The society is looking for the reinstatement of the former president; financial and administrative steps to be taken to support diversity and inclusion; action plans for effective change in the institution; and more transparency by the NSCAD board in its decision making.
Most post-secondary institutions in Nova Scotia have moved their classes online for September, but that becomes challenging when teaching fine arts. And students have expressed concerns about taking certain courses remotely. Weaver says transitioning to remote teaching was “terrible.” Tian-Morris, who planned on coming back in the fall to take some credits, now says they’re not pleased with the university and won’t be coming back.