First Nations University of Canada off probation: AUCC

One year after the university was suspected of being interfered with by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, AUCC lifts probation

The First Nations University of Canada in Regina had their probation status lifted Wednesday, after a year of working to establish the university’s independence from the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) restored FNUC’s status and announced that it is satisfied that the university resolved governance issues.

FNUC was placed on probation April 2007 for alleged political interference by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN). AUCC cited concerns about the university’s independence, institutional autonomy, and academic freedom in relation to the decision.

AUCC is an advocacy group that represents 91 universities in Canada. Because Canada does not have a formal accreditation process, membership in the organization serves as de facto accreditation, giving institutions that right to grant degrees. One requirement of membership is that the school is governed by an independent board of governors.

A central issue that concerned AUCC was Lyle Whitefish serving as chair of the FNUC board of governors. Whitefish also held the position of vice-chief of FSIN and managed their education portfolio. Christine Tausig Ford, AUCC director of communications, said at the time, “Having the vice-chief who is responsible for education and training be the board chair would be like having the minister of education in a province be the chair of a university board.”

In August 2007 Whitefish resigned as chair of the board, saying that he hoped his resignation would help the university gain autonomy.

AUCC now believes that the university has moved towards a better governance structure. “The AUCC Board believes it is possible for First Nations University of Canada to protect its uniqueness while, at the same time, sharing the attributes and values fundamental to Canadian universities,” AUCC wrote in a statement. “We are confident that the changes to the governance structures and processes recently formalized by FSIN provide for institutional autonomy, which is fundamental to the functioning of a university in a democratic society, and is a value all AUCC members believe to be fundamental.”

FNUC’s autonomy has long been a point of conflict and came to a head in 2005. In February of that year, former chair of the board Morley Watson, who was also vice-chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, confiscated computers and suspended three administrators over allegations of financial improprieties.

At that time, staff and professors also accused the university of violations of academic freedom and nepotism in the appointment of university officers. Over the following two years, former president Eber Hampton resigned and was accompanied by leading academics that he recruited. Many top professors cited a loss of academic freedom as their reason for leaving.

Last April’s report stated that 14 individuals, including some key faculty members, left amid allegations. The faculty association has received 35 grievances and there have been a number of wrongful dismissal lawsuits.

FNUC president Charles Pratt denied at the time that so many faculty members had resigned over academic freedom issues, insisting that only one, maybe two, staff members left.

But Pratt was all smiles this week when the AUCC board voted to reinstate the FNUC. “We sought from the very beginning the middle ground with the AUCC and I have to say we feel such a sense of achievement and accomplishment. We addressed all their concerns specifically over the issues of governance and institutional autonomy,” Pratt told the Regina Leader Post.

Not everyone is happy with teh AUCC’s decision. The Canadian Association of University Teachers called the decision a “disservice to Aboriginal post-secondary education.” After the 2005 incident, a task force was assigned to look into improving governance at the university. But CAUT says that few of those recommendations have been implemented.

“It is a great disappointment that the FSIN failed to implement the recommendations of its own task force to restore proper university governance,” said CAUT executive director James L. Turk. “We are saddened that AUCC did not feel the First Nations University was worthy to be held to the same standard as Canada’s other universities.”

CAUT says that it tried to meet with FNUC’s president and board chair to discuss academic freedom and the implementation of a collective agreement but never received a response to meeting requests. At their May meeting, the CAUT council will consider censuring FNUC.