Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Vince Fedoroff

ANOTHER LIFE PHASE BECKONS – Karen Barnes, who will leave the Yukon University presidency next week, believes her leadership style has grown and developed in the last decade.

Retiring educator looks back on achievements

Karen Barnes, the president of the newly minted Yukon University, will retire next Tuesday after 12 years at the former college.

By Gabrielle Plonka on June 26, 2020

Karen Barnes, the president of the newly minted Yukon University, will retire next Tuesday after 12 years at the former college.

“It was one of the best challenges I’ve ever had as a leader: building a university but also the transition of the university from a college, because it forced me to pull on every single leadership skill I had,” Barnes said.

She reflected on her 35-year career in education during an interview with the Star. She spent nine of those years as president of Yukon College.

Much of the last decade was focused on transitioning the college into a university, and Barnes said the school has transformed in that time.

The Whitehorse campus has developed a more productive relationship with community campuses, grown as a research institution and improved its overall reputation in the post-secondary landscape.

“When I first started, there was a lot of not-so-optimistic communication to me about the idea of the university,” Barnes said. 

“In the early days, there was a lot of pushback from the community, saying, ‘We’re too small, we don’t have the right programs, we don’t have the right staff, no one will come to the Yukon.’”

Extensive communication with faculty and a marketing revamp were required to subvert those opinions.

“We started with conversations with staff, we called them ‘Fears, Hopes, Dreams and Concerns,’” Barnes said.

“People were sharing their thoughts around the university, and telling us both what they dreamed would happen but also what they were afraid of and what they were stressed about.”

Concerns included the future for staff without PhDs, the loss of vocational training and the direction of community campuses.

Barnes said her team worked to address each concern individually.

“I also think we have grown up tremendously as a post-secondary institution,” Barnes said.

“When I arrived, we were offering vocational programs, upgrading, we had a research centre but very few people knew what we were doing.”

The university launched a rebrand that would better communicate the strides made in research.

“We spent a lot of time trying to make sure staff felt acknowledged for what they were doing,” Barnes said.

“Now, I think there is much more sense of pride and much more confidence, and we can stand up and say we are a university.”

In 2017, the university went through a post-secondary quality assessment through the University of Alberta. It assessed student satisfaction, governance, program quality, academic quality and program oversight.

“We rated very highly,” Barnes said.

“All those things met the national standards.”

Barnes has also worked to improve the university’s relationship with Yukon First Nations.

“It’s really been a personal journey for me – from the very first institution I worked with in Alberta, I have been connected to programming that was targeted at Indigenous communities,” Barnes said.

She had spent several years working on Alberta’s Indigenous reserves to improve culturally specific delivery of post-secondary education.

“When I got to the Yukon, I was so interested in the whole area of self-governance … because it’s a very unique and a special place in that relationship.”

Barnes worked closely with the Council of Yukon First Nations and nation chiefs to build a First Nations Advisory Group, which has met three to four times a year since 2008.

The council provides input on curriculi, campus housing and student finance.

“That has been really important for me … helping me really understand what reconciliation looks like,” Barnes said.

The university also invited elders to be involved in fundraising and foundation work, and has grown the First Nation department to a staff of seven people.

The university offers a Yukon First Nations 101 course which is mandated for all staff and students. It’s also seen teachers, social workers, judges and deputy ministers enroll.

The course dives into Yukon First Nations agreements, the history of relationships with First Nations and the current state of racism in Canada.

“I think that course has really changed how people talk about reconciliation at the university,” Barnes said.

“It’s really changing the conversation in the Yukon as well.”

Barnes said she’s been pleased to see a shift in conversation related to First Nations at the university since she came to the North.

“In the first or second year I was president, we decided to do staff day on First Nation culture.

“We invited a number of elders in, we had presentations, workshops and demonstrations, and there were quite a lot of negative comments from various people around the institution,” Barnes said.

“That was a wake-up call for me–– you can never underestimate there might be some negativity, and you have to work really hard inside the institution as well as the outside, and we’ve come a long way from then.”

Previous to her position at the university, Barnes was the Dean of Arts and Science at Lethbridge College in Alberta from 2002 to 2008. Before that, she spent 17 years at NorQuest College in Edmonton.

She was hired as Yukon University’s Vice-President Academic in 2008 and was selected as the president in 2011.

Barnes said her leadership style has grown and developed in the last decade. It challenged her to hone communication skills, take responsibility for a large taxpayer-funded budget and build partnerships outside the school.

“It was really important to me that the university have a solid reputation when they opened the doors to the university,” Barnes said.

“People around the world know of us and be our champions, supporters and fans, and that has happened.”

Overcoming people’s misconceptions of the school was one of her greatest challenges.

“It was about rising about the pessimism and rising above the naysayers,” Barnes said.”

“I learned not to read the comments on news media channels; you can really get dragged down.

“You have to take that leap of faith and believe we could get there eventually.”

Barnes said she will remain in the Yukon after retiring and looks forward to watching the university grow into its new designation.

“I hope that we can continue to build new degrees that are really focused on the realities of the North,” Barnes said.

She said the university can learn from schools in Russia, Greenland, Norway and Sweden, all of which are conducting extensive research about the North.

“We have amazing opportunities to work with them,” she said.

Barnes said the university has a lot of work to do on science and technology, as well as on engaging people in those fields.

She is also optimistic that more young people will choose to stay in the Yukon or return to the territory because of the university.

“The Yukon really needs young people now to think about the future and all the opportunities that exist here,” Barnes said.

“It’s going to take northerners to really make those things happen.”

Comments (6)

Up 1 Down 0

Wendy Chau on Dec 26, 2020 at 8:15 am

Happy retirement, Karen. I am so happy for you. It’s been more than 30 years. I always remember your positive attitude, ideas you share while giving me a ride to work downtown. Congratulations! You are the mirror to our children.

Up 5 Down 16

TMYK on Jun 29, 2020 at 2:20 pm

Just a reminder that she brought in councillors when the Gerald Stanley verdict was announced and shared their “outrage and disbelief” at the decision.

Up 10 Down 20

Ali on Jun 28, 2020 at 9:28 am

Mahsi choo' for your dedication and hard work Karen. Enjoy this next chapter!

Up 9 Down 23

Dianne Eustace on Jun 27, 2020 at 11:18 pm

Congratulations on your retirement, Ms. Barnes, Truly you have made the Yukon Territory a better place because of the opportunities the new university will provide to its residents.

Up 9 Down 20

Beryl Mason on Jun 27, 2020 at 1:46 pm

Well done Karen, congratulations!

Up 11 Down 22

Wilf Carter on Jun 27, 2020 at 3:14 am

Did a lot of great work in Yukon.

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